Thespians debuts tonight on Showtime at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
The show may have stopped being relevant about a year ago by most folks' reckoning, but that hasn't dissuaded the entertainment industry from continuing to take advantage of “the Glee thing.” And though the products of this fixation are by and large pretty terrible, on a fundamental level I don't think that the intent is 100 percent a bad thing. I was one of those people whose ears perked up when I first heard the premise of Glee, then lost interest after a couple of episodes, but I still think that the trials and travails of high school drama brats is potentially rich, complex material to work with. As I understood it, the underlying cruel joke of Glee was supposed to be the overblown sense of proportion these attention-starved young people applied to their craft and the hierarchies they chose to submit themselves to, be they national competitions or the halls of their own high school. But at the end of the day their myopia should have still been something that everyone could identify with and see themselves in.
It's hard to see much of anything even remotely related to the real world in Glee these days, which was why I was interested to see a rawer take on the world of competitive drama. Thespians, a documentary feature premiering tonight on Showtime, follows four Florida high school Thespian troupes as they make their way to the 2008 state tournament. As a means of telling an unfamiliar audience how this world works and what kinds of people live there, the film succeeds. As an attempt to say anything more about those people than “Yep, they got the bug!” Thespians never finds its feet.
Perhaps its first mistake was featuring four teams instead of, say, two. Ninety minutes is not a lot of time to grow close to 20-plus teenagers, most of whom don't diverge too wildly from the gangly drama club stereotypes we all know and love. (You know you're dealing with a pack of nerds when they all live in Florida and their skin tones range from fishbelly to transparent. Oh yeah, also: Most of these kids are white and middle to upper middle class.) But besides its inability to economize its run time, the film is too vague and terrified of conflict to produce any memorable moments. It's not that the subjects aren't providing material. In one talking-head interview, a student reveals that she was raped during her sophomore year, an experience that made her want to express herself through theater even more. But rather than tie that into her dramatic process as she prepares for her role in the competition, the film seems to shy away from the matter completely. Yes, there are a lot of icky ways to exploit that kind of issue, but there are just as many insightful and empowering things to say about it that would further the (albeit simplistic) message about the redemptive power of theater that director Warren Skeels seems to be going for here. He never casts a light that is anything less than adoring and reverent; his storytelling is prim and polite to a fault.
It may seem cynical to wish that a documentary like this would explore its dark side, but isn't that a fundamental building block of any good story about show people? Why is that story off limits just because these show people can't buy cigarettes yet? The aforementioned “acting bug” can be shorthand for a host of deeper needs and complexes, all worthy of exploration. New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, in one of a series of thoroughly unhelpful commentaries, says he's glad that theater is still big in high schools, what with the sexting and the MySpaces and the Internet chat rooms, and that's all well and good, but why are some teens so drawn to the stage, so eager to bare their emotions in front of a room full of strangers before they even have time to build up an arsenal of life experience from which to draw? Tiffany, one of the more self-possessed students in the film, readily admits that she isn't familiar with the kind of loss her character is going through in the play, so she sits down with her mom and proceeds to interview her for her script analysis. It's impressive, and maybe a bit mystifying for anyone who's never wanted to perform. These students aren't just interested in something as limited as self-expression. They'll express just about anything.
In many ways, Thespians seems made for the enjoyment of its titular demographic alone, but even within those narrow confines it still fails to move me. Full disclosure: For a good few years I lived and breathed competitive drama as an Iowa State Thespian (and won best monologue at State in 2001, thankyouverymuch). The world depicted in Thespians is so achingly familiar to me, from the nametag badges on elastic strings (it was customary to trade stickers with everyone you met at the tournament and plaster your laminate with them) to that pit in your stomach you feel when you get DQ'd for going over time. Perhaps my intimate knowledge of what these kids are going through has made me more demanding about what a documentary like this should say. But on the other hand, if all Thespians has set out to do is show us a bunch of bright eyed, talented young people making their dreams come true in a competitive arena, then American Idol has it beat by about a decade.