By Jim McCarthy Sep 15, 2010 2 comments

Is ‘Holy Sh*t’ the Best Theatre Can Do?

Last week, Lauren Gunderson wrote a piece in the HuffPo that got a lot of theatre-types talking and for good reason: She declared “an urgent age of badassery” for the theatre that would be known hereafter as “Holy Sh*t” Theatre.

I’m extremely sympathetic to the impulse here, and I thought it was a fun read with a great hook.  I kick around similar thoughts frequently, like when I said, “ There was a time that you could advertise a B+ show to success if you were a decent promoter.  Now, if you’re going to put a B+ show on the stage, you might as well put a few barrels of toxic waste on the stage. “

Yet, somehow the idea just feels hollow to me.  “Holy Sh*t” at its core is a pretty stupid reaction to something.  Surprise, disgust, fear,  and disbelief make up the “Holy Sh*t” rainbow of emotions as far as I can tell.  Anyone who’d listen to the soliloquy in Henry V (you know, the ‘we few, we happy few…’ one) and say “Holy Sh*t” is an inarticulate boob.  Yet, if anyone who has read this piece ever goes on to create a single moment of theatre as great as that, well, I’m just saying the odds are against it.

And contrary to what some might think, people don’t love Iron Man or Kobe Bryant or Facebook or the Dave Matthews Band because those things make them want to say “Holy Sh*t.”  They like and invest mental energy in those things because they unlock something inside those fans that make them feel that somehow they could be better, stronger, smarter, cooler, wiser.  The psychic reward is not a funhouse thrill like when the plastic ghoul jumps out at you as you round the corner, but the idea that by watching Iron Man do his thing, my own world gets bigger.

If I happen to say “Holy Sh*t” once in a while when Kobe throws down an amazing dunk, that’s just a side dish, but it’s not really why I’m there.  I want to Be Like Mike, not just marvel like a moron at his jumpin’ powers.

Which is why I say that if Holy Sh*t is the highest thing Theatre as a form can aspire to, well, it’s not going anywhere.  Not to say there isn’t a place for those HS moments in theatre, but if that’s the goal or the template, it’s just not ambitious enough.

(And while I like badassery as much as the next person, I think we all have to admit that if we can describe August: Osage County as ‘badass,’ the term has basically been stretched to the point where it means “good.”  A badass drives a ’78 Corvette, once won 2nd prize in a Tough Man Competition, and works as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s bodyguard.)

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