Rise and Dull



It was with great pleasure yesterday that I learned NBC has cancelled its new (now former) series, Rise.
Theatre enthusiasts everywhere no doubt were thrilled when the series, based on Michael Sokolov’s non-fiction book, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater (2013), was announced. But, of course, the TV series bastardized the original source, adding progressive boilerplate and fooling nobody. I watched the pilot episode and parts of the final episode and had had more than enough.
In the television version, the brilliant teacher, Lou Mazzuchelli, decides that the umpteenth production of Grease just won’t cut it anymore at Stanton High School: the kids are bored, the community is nonplussed, and the faculty complacent. So, the teacher with no real experience in theatre (probably not an uncommon occurrence at high schools throughout the country, and even some colleges. “I love theatre,” he tells school administration, so there!) takes over the theatre program and immediately replaces Grease with Spring Awakening. This is akin to replacing salt with US Grade Pepper Spray. That’ll wake up those sleepy, working class non-progressives!
The reality is that the actual teacher, Lou Volpe, worked at it for 40 years, not 40 minutes, as the TV show would have you believe. Spring Awakening’s tryout became the culmination of decades of work toward the slow, methodical, cultural change that paved the way for such a musical to be produced in a high school. But to hear the NBC series tell it, Lou needs to shake everybody up and fast! So Grease—a bit of a raunchy show itself —gets the axe and everyone “awakens.” Well, those that need to be awakened that is.
What follows is the usual stereotypical claptrap that has little basis in reality. It all starts with the precious students, who, like the teens of Frank Wedekind's 1891 drama and Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater’s 2006 musical, are badly in need of awakening their repressed sexuality. Also like the source materials, the children of Rise have difficult and unresponsive parents, many of whom harbor (gasp!) traditional, conservative views. But these theatre students, like theatre students all over the world, are deeper, with fragile egos and great emotional understanding. They simply want to show the world how fabulous they are, how they have so much to give with their singing voices and dancing skills. Herein lies my biggest complaint about Rise.
I’d hate to be the one to break it to these theatre students, but theatre is not about them. It’s about the audience, first, foremost, and always. Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, maintains that theatre requires nothing more than an empty space (the stage), someone to cross that space (the actor), and someone to watch (the audience). Nowhere does Brook say that it’s about the inner struggles and eventual artistic victories of the actors. Its not about watching theatre students come to terms with their internal problems and somehow magically transform into the beautiful people. But when you watch Rise (and similarly dumb shows like Glee), you get the sense that what matters is the coming of age of the performers and how everyone else (except enlightened teachers named Lou) needs to get on board. These kids understand; they possess true beauty; they accept everyone (who’s not conservative). You can see it in the way they sing: eyes closed, incredible depth of feeling, all about themselves. And, oh, yeah, there’s the audience. It’s there, too. But it’s there only to recognize the greatness of the performers and to come to grips with the difficulties these kids face every day. And to be “awakened” by the revelations. Wow!
To add to the theme of “let’s get these smug traditionalists to start seeing another point of view,” we have the obligatory transgender sub-plot. In a desperate search for male talent (at least that is true-to-life: high school theatre programs generally have too few males—but no one sees prejudice in that), Lou comes across a transgender student: a woman who identifies as a male. Lou casts this person in a male role, and we watch as he crosses out his/her given female name on the cast list and writes in the male name he prefers to go by. This is a very quick scene, but it serves its purpose: to force us into thinking that a biological female is actually a male because that’s how he/she “feels.” And, of course, in one shot of the chorus singing, it is apparent that he/she can sing so beautifully that angels cry. How dare such a confused person be misunderstood!
Along the way we are treated to the usual stereotypes: the jock athletic director who doesn’t understand the arts; the stifling bureaucracy that is concerned only with donations to the school and winning football games (not a far stretch from reality, I must admit); the cheating head coach who is doing one of the misunderstood theatre teen’s mother (“the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA!”); the conservative parents who cannot allow such dangerous theatre to be presented; and the do-gooder teacher who wants to transform the world one misbegotten and misunderstood (but supremely talented) twit at a time. Sure makes for great television, huh?
Well, no, and that’s why Rise has sunk. Real life audiences didn’t buy it. That’s why I’m so happy it’s gone: it gives me faith that we haven’t completely lost our minds as a culture. Yet.