12 January, 2014

Genre Matters

A few weeks ago a student of mine asked a very legitimate question about naturalism on stage. He wondered why when he went to see "Newsies" on Broadway everyone wasn't the pinnacle of naturalistic acting-- why things may have appeared exaggerated or the term I would prefer which is enhanced.

My answer?

     "Genre matters."

A satire is not a tragedy is not a musical is not a comedy is not Commedia is not a farce is not a history is not naturalism

That would be like comparing altos to oranges

So what is a genre exactly?

Genre (from 19th century French, "kind" or "sort") is defined as: a category of artistic composition characterized by form, style, or subject matter; whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria.

Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented, and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions, a Venn-diagram of theatrical chemistry! Meaning: a history might also be tragic, or a farce might be simultaneously musical and satiric.

Wikepedia (as always!) helps us expand our understanding here:
Genre began as an absolute classification system for ancient Greek literature. Poetry, prose and performance had a specific and calculated style that related to the theme of the story. Speech patterns for comedy would not be appropriate for tragedy, and even actors were restricted to their genre under the assumption that a type of dobber could help.
In later periods genres proliferated and developed in response to changes in audiences and creators. Genre became a dynamic tool to help the public make sense out of unpredictable art. Because art is often a response to a social state, in that people write/paint/sing/dance about what they know about, the use of genre as a tool must be able to adapt to changing meanings. In fact as far back as ancient Greece, new art forms were emerging that called for the evolution of genre, for example the "tragicomedy".
Genre suffers from the same ills of any classification system. Genre is useful as long as it is remembered that it is a helpful tool, to be reassessed and scrutinized, and to weigh works on their unique merit as well as their place within the genre. 
Genres tend to shift with widely observes social norms, and to reflect the sociological "spirit" of an era. Genres also, regardless of the art form in which it is utilized serves as a kind of "shorthand." Most of us read, watch television and go to the cinema in some form or another, and the shorthanded difference between reading a "Romance" versus a "Sci-Fi Fantasy," or, shelling out £16 for a "Thriller" versus a "Rom-Com," is as crucial as salt on the popcorn.

So. "Genre matters." 

Then I said this:


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