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Where are the good new TV shows about theatre?

US TV series Rise has been cancelled after only one season. Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
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For generations, US network television has done a successful job of telling the stories of doctors and lawyers, police officers and private detectives. Of witty families with dopey dads and even, notably, a long-running show that claimed to be about nothing.

With the advent of cable, followed more recently by Netflix and its streaming peers, almost any subject seems possible. This has been especially true since the advent of TV’s second golden age, or “peak TV” as it’s sometimes called, ushered in by the mafioso-in-therapy drama of The Sopranos.

But what can’t find favour on US small screens is an ongoing series – comedy or drama – about theatre. Last week, after a 10-episode season, high school theatre drama Rise came to a quiet close, its cancellation having already been announced and its audience dwindling.

Rise was inspired by the insightful non-fiction book Drama High by Michael Sokolove, which detailed the drama programme at Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Over several decades, Truman’s theatrical ventures were built into a progressive and acclaimed student activity under the leadership of a teacher named Lou Volpe, now retired but still venerated among secondary school theatre educators. The book chronicled the end of his extraordinary tenure, and focused on his productions of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True and a pilot production of a school version of the musical Spring Awakening.

The fictionalised Rise retained only the barest outline of the real Truman programme: the drama programme director was named Lou and his assistant director, as in real life, was named Tracy; the production that was followed over the course of the season was Spring Awakening. But almost everything else diverged.

On television, Lou was a teacher facing a midlife crisis who abruptly decided that the way out of his funk was to direct a high school play, and was immediately given the chance by the school’s principal. The series faced criticism even before it aired for changing Lou from a gay man who had come out over the course of his long tenure into a straight married man with a doting blonde wife and several children.

Rise provoked derision from many theatre people and drama teachers in particular

No doubt lawyers find legal dramas improbable and doctors feel the same about medical sagas. But based on social media commentary, Rise provoked the same feelings, and even derision, from many theatre people and drama teachers in particular.

The arbitrary manner in which the TV version of Lou took over the drama programme; his decision to stage Spring Awakening without making any effort to prepare the school community for its sexual content; his seizing the music director’s baton in rehearsal in order to speed up the tempo; that this was a white man who in the show’s early storyline supplanted a Latina woman; his complete lack of experience – all conspired to offend what should have been the core audience and place a selfish, clueless figure at the centre of the series.

The tone of the show was, if not truly dark, almost relentlessly serious. Only when the appealing young cast members playing the students were allowed to perform numbers from the musical did any sense of theatre’s potential for joy exert its pull. Rise stood in marked contrast to the previous effort to make TV drama out of the drama of making theatre: Smash. That alternated light and serious moments, and made a lot of room for its original musical numbers. Smash managed two seasons.

Appearing on one of the major TV networks requires a programme to appeal to the widest possible audience, and perhaps theatre is simply too niche to draw the kind of numbers that advertisers and programmers require to sustain a TV series in that marketplace. Maybe the kind of high drama that fuels Grey’s Anatomy and Hawaii Five-0 can’t be achieved with any authenticity while examining the process and intertwined lives that go into creating a theatrical production.

But it is not impossible to make an artistically successful television series out of theatre: over three six-episode seasons, the brilliant Canadian series Slings and Arrows managed to both send up and express deep love for theatre in its portrayal of a theatre company modelled on the country’s vaunted Stratford Festival.

That said, it aired on a fledgling cable network in the US and remains unknown to many more than a decade after it aired, despite slowly earning cult status in the theatre community, akin to that afforded to the film Waiting for Guffman. In the US, at least, it can now be watched free of charge on YouTube.

Late in Rise’s run, HBO rolled out a new series, already renewed for its second season, called Barry, in which a hitman growing disaffected with his profession is slowly drawn into a Los Angeles acting class. While it is more interested in the criminal machinations of the plot, Barry does do one thing quite shrewdly, which is show the dawning interest of its protagonist in the art of acting.

Perhaps fictional stories on theatre will succeed more broadly – and foster more awareness and appreciation of theatre – if they don’t start from the love that those of us in the field already have, but help audiences to find a way in to field that may well be entirely unknown, and give them a surrogate through whom they can discover for themselves what lured us in, and kept us from careers as doctors, lawyers, detectives or paid killers.

This week in US theatre

The first new show of the 2018-19 Broadway season, a revival of Mart Crowley’s seminal gay play The Boys in the Band, opens on Thursday under the direction of Joe Mantello. The cast includes Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

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