Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Theatre Theater Problem and the Intermission

If it’s not entirely obvious, I’m a THEATRE person. I am not a THEATER person, not really. This is partly a silly distinction of spelling and partly a really serious long-standing American problem.

And before I go any further with this, let me acknowledge that I now think I’m on the wrong side of this divide. It’s a side I’ve fought for, one that I reinforce every time I spell my company’s name or website or email address, and one I somehow cannot seem to let go, no matter how on the wrong side of it I am.

I started to think about this when a European friend asked what we call the break, or pause, in a performance. I’d been thinking about all the ways that theatres are set up to make people feel like outsiders when they arrive and the simple fact that we call this break an intermission suddenly struck me as yet another way our theatres create this rarified atmosphere. We don’t take a break, no, no. We take – an intermission. So many things about going to the theatre are built to suggest that it is for the elites. We’ll have no groundlings here, please and thank you. This is why we have velvet ropes. And this is not an accident.

That’s the thing that hit me full force when thinking about our intermissions – just what a purposeful positioning all this is. American theatre was designed this way and we’ve been fighting about it for some time. The distinction between theatre and theater is not, as I’ve heard some people posit, that one is the art and the other the building. The distinction is mostly just a matter of preference. Technically, THEATER is the American spelling and THEATRE is the European spelling. Every spell check agrees.

But a lot of us in the THEATRE/THEATER – just prefer this RE version. We couldn’t tell you why necessarily. I’ve heard folks say they feel THEATER must be pronounced thee-ATE-r and so THEATRE wins the day. In my case, I guess it just looks better to me. I like it. It connects me to Europe. Given how embarrassing we Americans can be, that’s a nice benefit. And in my personal case, my aesthetic alignment tends to side with Europe so it just sort of stacked up in those early days when I was picking a side. THEATRE just sounded artier, somehow. THEATER is where they do that trashy stuff. Or something. And I know now that this is some elitist mularkey. This stacks up with the velvet ropes and the intermissions and the donors’ circles and the patron’s boxes and all the things that suggest this art is not for poor people.

Now, we imagine this was an accident but history suggests it was very much on purpose. If someone had taught me this history in my youth, I’d probably be a THEATER person instead of the THEATRE person I am.

I learned from James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, that in the first bit of the 19th century, there had been multiple riots at theatres. Theatres were one of the few places that the rich and poor encountered each other and as income inequality was getting worse and worse, they clashed about it often. The poor had power in numbers and they used those numbers in theatre audiences. Theatres were one of our most truly democratic spaces in those days. Imagine.

Then in 1849, the aristocrats of NYC got tired of being shouted at and so bought themselves an opera house and designed it in such a way so as to welcome the elites and keep the poor away. They invented a dress code that featured things like dress coats, white cravats and kid gloves. They transformed “the pit” (which once held the cheaper seats/standing area for the poor right up front) into the orchestra. They numbered the seats so they could assign them how they liked. They covered the seats in red damask and put the cheap seats upstairs, through their own separate entrance. They raised the prices. In 1849, this was all new. And the people did not like it.

It came to a head in 1849, when a feud between a British and an American Shakespearean culminated with the British actor performing Macbeth at this contentious elitist opera house and the American actor performing the same role across the street. Neither side came off well in this conflict. The Brit aligned with the elite, even though his own politics were more progressive and the American’s supporters aligned with anti-immigrant racist ideology – and both actors were part of a working creative class so the spark of this thing was not as simple as a class riot. BUT – there was an infiltration of the opera house and it got shouty in there. The next night, law enforcement was standing by for violence and violence arrived. At first it was just the building that suffered with broken windows and such. Then the militia started shooting protestors and bystanders and killed twenty of them before the night was through.

What strikes me about this now is how this battle is still simmering in the soul of American Theatre. So many of the adaptations that were designed to keep out the riff raff have remained. The elites may have ultimately lost that opera house but their innovations to shift the audience away from democracy stayed. There aren’t riots in theatre any more, not because we’ve worked out our class issues, but because the elites adjusted the theatres so that they were only talking to themselves.

What blows my mind about it all is how intentional it was at the time. And how something that was an intentional tool to keep the poor out of theatres just happens unconsciously. Or at least I HOPE it’s unconscious. I have to hope that all the education programs and diversity initiatives are an attempt to remedy the bias and are not just a cynical grab for grant money and foundation funds. I suppose it could be both – a desire to “give” to poor children while simultaneously creating conditions to keep their parents from ever coming in to see a show.

Those riots from 1849 are deep in our theatre history’s bones and so are the conditions that helped create them. We are still in this clash.

And by aligning myself with the European spelling for theatre, I am, unintentionally of course, aligning myself with the elite. In much the same way that William Macready didn’t necessarily mean to align himself with the elite when he chose to perform at the new opera house, I have connected myself to the privileged. The theatre is for red velvet ropes and lush curtains. It is for orderly seat assignments and respectful silence. I’m not gonna lie. I do like some of those things. But I respect and admire the theater which we lost – the one where an American Shakespearean like Edwin Forrest would hiss a performance he did not care for. He was an actor who hoped to “bring the American stage within the influence of a progressive movement.” I wish he’d managed it.

Anyway – according to Etymology on-line, “intermission” began to be used for the pause at performances around 1854. Notice anything about that timing? The rich set about trying to push the poor out of theatres in 1849. Their innovations in that arena began taking hold elsewhere and just five years later, this long French word is what we call a break and I insist on calling it all theatre.

If those chairs could talk, they might say “Rich people only, please!”

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