By Dominic Mah
I used to be a theater guy. Up to the early 00’s I ran a Bay Area theater company specializing in original rock musicals. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue films, and lately I’ve been working on a new YouTube-based web series, Paranormal Status (a parody of ghost hunter shows and the horror genre). Though I started the series with mainly tactical “career” motives in mind, I was surprised to find that in making the first episodes, I rediscovered the lost joys of theater.
When people say “theater is dead,” they mean (whether they know it or not), it’s dead economically. Theater itself is older than money and will live in our hearts forever. But like many things on this bitch of an earth, its “life” is viewed by its financial viability. And the market for theater has been supplanted by much-more efficient mass entertainments, that is, well, all of them: radio, film, TV, and these days, YouTube.
In light of the recent business over a San Diego theater’s lack of Asian actors in an ostensibly-Asian show, it’s a great argument over an academic point. Theater in America now is for a market of aging white people. They’re the ones who go and pay the high ticket prices. Everyone else, rightly, stays away because the shows are both not for them and way too expensive. The soul of the argument, I think, comes from a desire for theater to be socially reflective and as rich as life — which it currently is NOT. For better or worse, that function in our gigantic world was replaced, not by movies, but by kids making weird online videos about stuff.
YouTube is what the theater I remember was — fun, messy, mutable, and engaged in the goings-on of the world. Online videos are much more flexible that actual movies and TV shows; you can have bad lighting and continuity glitches, and it’s OK, it’s the nature of the beast. Your vid may have studio-level production value, but you will never be as popular as a phone video of someone’s cat, and I think that puts everything on a nicely flat, democratic playing field.
As anyone who’s been in a small theater company knows, theater-making is a lovely human exercise. It’s hard to find that humanity in the film-making process (the best films find it by the time they’re finished, usually because it’s added in post via music). I missed the energy and spontaneous wit of my theater days. In making Paranormal Status, I get to see that energy again. (Also, it’s an entertainment venue in which Asians, including males, do great. Are big fat hard-working stars with agency.)
So this is not to say that online video has replaced theater (that would be like saying Iphones have replaced hearts), but more to say that although it is currently scarce on the actual stage, true and relevant theater is not dead; it is all over the place, and it is doing what one wishes it would do, on YouTube.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Writer, director, rock musical aficionado, and ex-professional gambler. He is launching a new web series at paranormalstatus.com and also tweets nerdcore film critiques at @ThorHulkCritic. His personal heroes are Stan Lee, Bruce Lee, Annabel Lee and Barbara Lee.