Tom Stoppard can add a new accolade to his distinguished career: the KadmusArts “How a Genuine Artist Behaves” award for combining Curiosity with Courtesy.
Stoppard has been in New York for the American opening of Voyage, the first play in his trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The trilogy is a nine hour theatricalization and analysis of the roots of the Russian revolution. One of the defining characteristics of Stoppard’s plays is that they are never easy — for director, actor, or audience. Each of his works provides a new perspective on history, language, and the playfulness of ideas. It is also the kind of theatre that is determined to communicate, to re-adjust an audience’s understanding of why people/characters make specific choices.
As reported in the New York Post by Michael Riedel, Stoppard has been hanging out in front of the theatre during previews. Was it because he couldn’t watch what was happening on stage? No — he wanted to listen to why an audience would leave the play.
Stoppard: “Excuse me. Why are you leaving this play?”
Lincoln Center Theater subscriber (age, about 97): “Who are you?”
Stoppard: “I’m the playwright.”
Subscriber (fidgeting with infrared hearing device): “We can’t tell you!”
Stoppard: “Please. I really want to know. Are you leaving because it’s boring?”
Subscriber (crinkling a cough-drop wrapper): “Well, yes.”
Stoppard: “Why is it boring?”
Subscriber: “Too much philosophy!”
Note the two reasons why Stoppard is such a good artist and a class act.
He doesn’t hide, or look down on an audience that “doesn’t get it”. Rather, he is right there wanting to know why it isn’t working. He cares about his work — and his audience! Bravo, number one.
His approach, which has also been noted by others, is with extreme courtesy. This is not the juvenile or holier-than-thou artiste who berates or makes fun of an audience that walks out during a performance. This is an artist who respects the right to do so, and use this response to improve, or at least better understand, his own work. While the subscriber might not be coming back, the person knows that the playwright cares — and that makes the subscriber care more about the theatre. Bravo, number two.
So, please give a round of applause to Tom Stoppard. Go see one of his plays. Buy his books. And, if you see him hanging outside the theatre during intermission, don’t hesitate to engage him in a conversation. After all, isn’t the best kind of theatre a genuine meeting?
- Bill Reichblum