Saturday, February 2, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

So, okay, you say, that’s the standard model and it’s working. Theatre is being produced, all over the country, new plays are happening and finding audiences. Sure, it’s waning in influence, but what can you do? The world has changed. This model works, so why upset the apple cart?

Because it doesn’t work. And, in each passing year, it’s working less and less.

Let me say this upfront: theatre is not dying, will not die. Period. I’ve never been one of these people who believed that theatre would someday vanish from the world like the dodo. If anything, theatre’s like the coelacanth. Everyone will think it’s dead, but it’s out there, hiding. What I want is for theatre to stop hiding. Theatre can be truly vital again. The tools are there. The talent is there. The urge and need is there.

Over the last few years, whenever I’ve talked to anyone who’s working in theatre, the overwhelming feeling I’ve gotten is one of powerlessness. Artistic directors feel beholden to their boards. Artists feel beholden to artistic directors. Audiences feel let down by the theatre. And board members feel beholden to the audiences. Young artists feel that they can’t break through. Older artists feel like they have to keep doing the same thing over and over to stay in. There is a palpable feeling of disconnect between the primal artistic urge and the product that hits the stage and the audiences feel it.

But still they come. Yes, dozens, thousands of small theatres in New York have been snuffed out, but not really by lack of audience. In New York, theatre, including Broadway (which only about 45% of the time earns the name “theatre”), is the single largest generator of tourist income. Without theatre, this city would dry up and die. And not just because of all of the starving artists, but because people would have less reason to come here. Significantly less. People want to go to theatre, they crave theatre, they seek it out. They will make do with movies, with television, with whatever they can get their hands on. Theatre, in some form or another, will exist. Always.

But what kind of theatre will we have? Theatre that excites, informs, provokes, connects, entertains? Or the theatre we have now: theatre that is merely adequate, that fits the bill if you want live entertainment, but not much more, theatre that appeals to only a small subset of the population.

The standard model of theatre creates this. Innovation is frowned upon, pushing buttons is discouraged. Challenging the audience…no, no, no. Our subscribers will walk out. They will write angry letters. They will not come back. So we don’t.

New York Theater Workshop pulled its planned production of I Am Rachel Corrie, not due to death threats, but threats from funders. Let that sink in. One of the underlying assumptions in the standard model is that the “money” people handle the money and the “art” people make the art. This is never how it works. You can’t separate producing theatre from money. Money is part of the equation, and it should be. How it is, though, is the ultimate question.

What I want to talk about are different models, ones that encourage, support and reward innovation. One that put the artists at the center of the organization. Ones that don’t create this oppositional thing of money vs. art, as though only one can be served at any one time.

The grand sum of this model is that theatre is being produced for those who can afford it. We see plays about wealthy white people living in urban centers because those are the people sitting in the seats. And they’re sitting in the seats because they can afford to. This season, tickets for a straight play running in an mid-sized Off-Broadway house are $60 each. That’s $120, just for the tickets, for one night out, for a play, not by a “name” writer or featuring a “name” cast (though, it’s a play I like quite a lot. So see if you can get comps.). Through on that a good dinner, and you’re looking at a $300 evening. What if you don’t like it? How many people can put down that much money for one evening?

This is what the standard model is producing. This is the problem.

Theatre isn’t dying. But theatre artists are. And the audiences that most need theatre aren’t being reached

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