"In the theatre the audience wants to be surprised, but by things that they expect."
Audiences are fickle. They would generally rather see the classics or a play that they know, than a new work. Yet, they don't want to see "their mother's production" of said classic. Finding a way to reinterpret something or add a new twist goes further than a completely new idea. This is not a new problem in the theatre; the joke is made that all of Shakespeare's comedies are the same. Heck, Shakespeare borrowed most of the plots for his plays from existing plays that were still being performed. A musical is more likely than not going to be an adaptation than an completely original work (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Oklahoma, Man of LaMancha, Kiss Me Kate, etc.)
It is an interesting conundrum: how to stay relevant to what is going on in the here and now while staying in business and selling tickets. And while there are hundreds of new works that do well and cause some stir, the majority of theatres across America will be reviving plays that have already been written.
What is the answer to this? I doubt that anyone will be able to solve that any time soon and even then the change won't be overnight. Certain things in the theatre have become institutionalized and are now part of the very fabric of theatre itself. However, I want to turn to Ben Cameron's ideas that were posted on this blog last week as some kindling for this fire.
We posted his quote about associative thinking: i.e. being able to join unrelated fragments together forming a new whole. Think of Hamletmachine or hip-hop music. They take from an existing source, add their own "riff" on the idea, and turn it into their own newly packaged product.
How many retellings of Hamlet exist? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is immensly successful and almost a classic in its own right. Not to mention I Hate Hamlet, Fortinbras, and even Walt Disney's The Lion King (another Broadway musical).
The more we can break down linear storytelling into abstract parts that reference other works, ideas, and events the more power we allow ourselfs. Just think of this blog entry - it's not just a single article, but it references many other sources, all of which you can click on and explore. Each following webpage provides links to other information and ideas. So rather than just being one author's point-of-view, this article becomes interactive. Theatre can do the same.
Theatre that functions like the internet; wouldn't that be full of surprises.