Thoughtful Revolution

The theater is dying: Part 2

For anyone who missed Part 1, it’s required reading for this post ^_^

So theater as an art form has been cinematically diluted in nearly all successful venues, perhaps beyond repair.  Okay, that’s a problem.  But aren’t there companies trying to rectify this?  Companies mounting new plays?  Companies carrying on the tradition of interactive, interpersonal theater?  Of course there are (and check out the links, featuring a pair of really excellent companies), especially outside of the Broadway hub.  But if you click around on the sites for long enough, these companies have the same fundamental problem as any other: accessibility.  And by accessibility I mean money.

If you click on the “Buy Tickets” feature of any given professional theater company, chances are the figures you’ll see will be somewhere between $40-$70.  On Broadway, it’s more like $70-$150.  In order to support rising production values amid smaller and smaller audiences, these ticket prices are necessary, and they very well may only be going up.  This, of course, is a tremendous amount of money for two hours’ entertainment; ticket prices like this bar all but the wealthiest from going to the theater frequently.  Which means that theater is inaccessible as an interest for the vast majority of people.  Which means that audiences will get smaller and smaller.  And the cycle perpetuates itself.

Audiences are not only getting smaller, however; they are getting much, much older, and in twenty years, prominent theaters may be faced with empty houses.  Elderly, wealthier patrons (many of whom developed an interest in theater in their younger days, when it was far more affordable and popular) make up the vast majority of audiences at most venues.   As that generation slowly dies off, the question becomes: how to replace them?  It will be impossible for any theater to stay afloat while remaining an art form for the elites — because most of the younger elites simply, statistically speaking, have far less interest in theater.  No, ticket prices cannot stay up, or this formerly populist art will grow narrower and narrower until it vanishes altogether.

Likewise, not every aspiring theater artist can, or should, gravitate to Broadway.  If the most talented performers and designers of our generation all languish in repertory in Manhattan, everyone who does not a) live in Manhattan or b) possess the funds to visit Manhattan will lack quality theater in which to develop an interest.  The NYC area will gain a dangerous monopoly on the art form; theater artists must be as accessible as prices, or we will end up with one minuscule Theater Zone, engineered for wealthy tourists and retirees, with ticket prices in the hundreds and innocuous, milquetoast shows calculated less for art than broad financial appeal.  What I have just predicted is the absolute deathbed of theater.  Let’s not ever (EVER!) let that happen.

So the question becomes: what can companies do to keep the art alive?  Well, first of all, there need to be more theaters, and they need to be cheaper.  Unachievable?  Maybe, with the sort of movie-magic production values that modern theater has embraced.  So cut back on the production values.  Shakespeare’s groundlings didn’t need them, and neither do we.  What we need (especially in a society with as much of an isolation problem as this one) is a return to the real emotional power of theater.  Embrace new actors into the fold, train them, encourage them to develop new skills, force them to work like they’ve never had to work before.  Make them make eye contact with the audience.  Make the world of the play important.  Oh, and any company worth its salt must visit at least one elementary school a year, for a concentrated period of time.  Give students of every socioeconomic class the opportunity to develop an interest, then cut down or eliminate ticket prices so that that interest can be nurtured.  Milk interested donors for all they’re worth, then use the money to keep things accessible.  Have free performances, or pay-what-you-will performances, or Shakespeare in the Park.  Adopt a new playwright for your company, or two, or three.  Network like crazy.  Work your asses off: if nothing else, for the love of the craft.  If nothing else, because without people working their asses off, the craft is in serious danger of dying.  Don’t be afraid to gamble.  And above all: when you want to start a theater, start it in Miami, or St. Paul, or Salem — be a pioneer — don’t you dare move to Manhattan.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The theater is dying: Part 1 « Thoughtful Revolution pingbacked on 8 years, 10 months ago


  1. * Hannah says:

    Check this out: Mark Krikstan, who taught theatre at Marshall for upwards of 11 years (including and ending my freshman year) left teaching in public school to start the 1st Stage. I have unfortunately not yet gone to see a production, but it is in theory part of the solution to the realy problems you write of

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
  2. * Dirty Commie says:

    I think you are exaggerating the problem a bit. You don’t have to be in New York to see good theatre. It doesn’t even have to be professional to be well done. I saw an amazing college production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” and “The Seagull” at William and Mary. And what about shows like, Rent Avenue Q and Spring Awakening ( which I have only heard the music of)? Those are great shows, if pricey to get into.

    I have an easy solution to the problem : government funding. By turning theaters public, ticket prices could be lower, more actors could be hired etc. There was a government program in the ’30’s that put young artists and playwrights to work.

    Thats the only way theatre can possibly compete with film and TV. Brecht was able to write because of the support of the Wiemar Republic and later East Germany. Shakespeare had Elizabeth as a patron. The arts need to be supported by the state.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago
  3. * thoughtfulrevolution says:

    I agree completely that there is considerable good theatre to be found in student venues — the problem with that, though, is that schools have a vested interest in avoiding new or controversial works. School drama is wonderful in most every way, and certainly could use more attention than it gets, but we can’t think of it as “the new future of theatre” because it’s as revival-plagued as any other venue, maybe more so.

    Government funding (grants, subsidies, etc.) would be absolutely fantastic for today’s theatre scene, and I don’t deny that. But in the current system, a theatre still needs to make a profit, and is motivated to make as much of a profit as possible with or without federal funding… I guess what I’m saying is that no amount of government funding would necessarily be enough, particularly if production values remain so high. I also have some qualms about heavily state-sponsored theatre, simply because a capitalist system is rife with the threat of quid pro quos. I’m honestly not sure if the U.S. government would expect a certain viewpoint in return for funding, but the idea of artists relying too heavily on the state does worry me a little. I suppose a certain balance would need to be struck, wherein the government gave any given company enough money to keep afloat but not so much that the company would be completely dependent.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 10 months ago

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