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“Risk” in Theatre

I’m thinking a lot this week about “risk” and what theatres (and playwrights) mean by it. I feel that many theatres advertise their seasons as pushing some sort of boundary, tapping into some sort of ideas-of-our-time, creating something original that hasn’t been seen in this particular way before. Of course, many theatres also go out of their ways to reassure subscribers of the familiarity and safety of the shows on the docket. Sometimes these seemingly oppositional strategies operate in tandem. Just recently, I read an announcement for a new play by a twenty-something that was having its world premiere in the area. The announcement trumpeted the originality and groundbreaking nature of the script, swearing that audience members would be floored by the play’s depth and poignance. In the same breath, the announcement mentioned that this new play was very similar to a play the theatre had done last season–and that anyone who enjoyed that one would be sure to like this one.

Now, I’m sympathetic to theatres who are trying to strike the balance between pleasing traditional subscribers and pushing the envelope forward. The need for incredibly fine-tuned advertising is very real, and–in this case–I completely understand where the comparison to last season’s triumph was a necessary mention to get dubious subscribers in the door. But it makes me think about what gets announced in theatre as “risky” or “groundbreaking.” If something is “guaranteed” to please a certain audience, can that really be “risky”?

I’m also thinking about “risk” and what it entails through the lens of Theatre on Fire’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of fourteen theatre pieces, going up at Charlestown Working Theatre this May. One of the pieces is an experimental one-act play of mine called Eggs. It focuses on a woman trying to decide whether or not to sell her eggs, and over the course of the play (which is not a one-woman show), she turns into a Greek goddess, her mother, and a chicken. Ventriloquism is involved, genre gets indescribable, and meta-theatrical conceits abound. It’s definitely a risk for me in terms of dipping my toes into new playwriting waters. The Cabinet itself is billed as a collection of risky theatre, and the call for submissions asked folks to contemplate something they’d assumed they couldn’t do, something that maybe felt too daring or outside the box. As marketing for the festival ramps up–and as I start to market the event myself–I’m thinking about what draws audiences to this sort of theatre. Why is risk cool? necessary? awesome? I feel instinctively that it is. I also feel that it’s important for me to interrogate that and figure out what draws me to it.

Part of me feels that if regional theatres are still including language of risk and reach in their season announcements, then there’s hope for moving away from the all-white-men-or-pretty much, kitchen-sink-drama-or-maybe-light-romantic-comedy ideology that still seems to pervade many well-known houses. But part of me wonders if “risk” means anything anymore if it’s used to describe scripts that genuinely are not risky. It’s something to think about as I continue to exercise my buying power as an audience member–and continue to market my own work.

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