Do you think that your viewer understands the allusions and the references in your work? Is it important that they do? These were the questions Stephen Lapthisophon asked of Michelle Rawlings at the Dallas Biennial 14 panel Saturday afternoon. Often, the obscurity or the abstraction of an object opens it up to further interpretation, much the same way that Rawlings might incorporate allusions into her paintings or video art to attach new meaning. But does a viewer need to understand everything that's going on to appreciate or to "like" a piece of her art?
She answered in a few different ways, but summed up her opinion on the question by pointing out the generality of the specifics. "The wider an audience you're trying to reach, the more watered down the message."
This leads me to Dallas Theater Center's Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. I'll leave any criticism of the show itself to Elaine Liner, instead I'll pose a question: Do we really need another Sherlock?
In the visual art world, the Dallas Biennial has been a quiet revolution, programming important local and international artists in DIY spaces across the city. The focus of the exhibitions has been the art. No muddied down explanations, no self-important biographic information, but a pure investigation of creation.
Most performing arts groups have a moneymaker. It's The Nutcracker for dance companies and A Christmas Carol for theater companies (including DTC). Secondarily, there's Swan Lake or one of the more famous Shakespeare plays. If these productions sell out, then the rest of the year can be dedicated to shows they actually care about. Herein lies the issue of artistic integrity. Certainly, Hamlet is a worthy production for any season, but what happens when the majority of a company's season is about making money, not art? I'll tell you what happens: The audience gets bored.
Let me pick on Dallas Theater Center for a second, although it's just one among many offenders. This season included, A Raisin in the Sun (a beloved, important classic), Clybourne Park (a play based on Raisin and produced in rep with Raisin), A Christmas Carol (new adaptation! Same story!), Oedipus el Rey (a sexy adaptation of an ancient, but famous play), The Fortress of Solitude (thank God, something really new!), Sherlock Holmes, and up next, Les Miserables (yawn).
Fortress stands alone as the only truly new play this season, which makes me wonder if perhaps theater companies like DTC don't trust the audiences. It's certainly possible that in a conservative city like Dallas, it's necessary to program a safe season like this one (barring the nudity in Oedipus, which was the best-selling show thus far). But let's revisit the artist panel for a minute, when Lucia Simek chimed in on the question of artistic accessibility.
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She says she has faith in her viewer and that "maybe the general public doesn't trust themselves, but I think the artists tend to trust them." So why can't theater companies do the same?
What I'm reacting to is the fight between creation and commerce. As long as there are ticket sales, theater remains a product, so why not sell people what they want? But when it comes to art, at least to the art that's more than just an entertainment product, it challenges, elucidates and enlivens life. How does an audience even know what they want? More importantly, how do they know what they need?
Produce Sherlock Holmes, Les Miserables, and The Nutcracker every year, but don't be surprised if your company fades into insignificance. In a world with millions of entertainment options, the only logical thing for a theater (or any arts presenter) to do is to capitalize on the visceral experience of watching an artist at work. So if it's not a character study, or an immersive Baker Street, leave the tired stories of Sherlock to the magic tricks of television. This story's villain is the company who feels the need to pander.
Form your own opinions of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure through May 25. Tickets available at dallastheatercenter.org. DB14 continues through May 31. More information on upcoming shows available at dallasbiennial.org.