The Theatre is Dead. Long Live the Theatre.

People enjoy sensationalizing the “death” of any art form. You’ll see countless articles pretentiously lamenting the demise of the theatre which generates inevitable backlash articles contending the theatre is booming unlike any point in history. In this case, common sense says the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, Broadway broke records last year with roughly two-billion dollars in grosses, but that’s hardly the marker for the success of a medium.

“The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”

John Steinbeck

Anyone who’s stepped foot in a Broadway theater in the last decade or more has been greeted by a sea of white and grey. Proponents of the “theatre is dying” theory say that the lack of diversity in audiences is fatal. They argue that alienation of specific demographics—young people in particular—is the sign of an art form in decline.

When you add streaming platforms and the advent of a “give-it-to-me-now” culture to the mix, you might find that the death-proponents have a point.

The truth is that theatre isn’t dying—it’s changing, which can feel a lot like death.

Formalized theatre as we know it has existed since the days of Thespis, where entire Greek communities would gather at amphitheaters to watch stories of Gods and man. But humans were watching each other perform well before the Greeks, and we will continue playing pretend long after we’re gone… assuming humans make it out of this century alive.

So how did we come to this crossroad? Well, it comes down to two main factors:

Money

The theatre is expensive. Recognizable talent doesn’t come cheap and neither do massive Broadway setpieces or midtown-Manhattan rents. There are systems in place to reduce the costs of seeing a show—namely, rush and lottery tickets. But even most of these options typically cap off around $40. I’ve heard it said that a revolution that is not made accessible to the impoverished is not a revolution.

But what I’m talking about here actually expands past low-income people and relates to marginalized groups in general. Theatre is often touted as an “intellectual” art. Those working in the theatre will often be caught reciting how theatre is an agent of change or exploring taboos. But how can that be true when I’m greeted by the same homogeneous sea of white and grey when stepping into a Broadway house?

The theatre is driving is on course to becoming a sport of patting ourselves on the back. Too many Broadway plays cater to an audience with progressive politics without boosting the oppressed groups that progressives seek to platform. If you have the time, I recommend watching Lindsay Ellis’s video essay on Rent. I’m referencing the particular part where she explains how Broadway panders to the populace while catering to the establishment.

One could argue that theatre doesn’t need to change in this respect. It can subsist as an art form for those with dispensible income. But this would be a deliberate choice, and one that I believe squanders the power the theatre holds.

Choosing to expand the theatre’s reach is a complicated problem, and I don’t claim to have the answers. But I do have some suggestions:

  • Spend more money in programs related to marginalized and low-income communities. Groups all around the country travel to locales that would not experience the theatre otherwise and give them said experiences for free. One excellent example of this is The Public’s Mobile Unit. If more theatre companies diverted more money to these efforts, I think the gain will be invaluable in terms of long-term profit for the arts and cultural change.
  • A rebranding of Broadway. A fair criticism of this article would be to say that I’ve focused too much on the Broadway community. After all, there are theaters performing work of equal caliber all over the world. But Broadway is seen as the standard-bearer. So when people search for impactful work, they look to the communities that they see as the greatest agents of change. I believe the economics of Broadway is not changing anytime soon. I think there should be a shift in the cultural viewpoint of where revolutionary theatre is being performed. We should be building new theaters all over the country in places you would not expect. And we should dispel the marketing myth that Broadway is the best theatre on Earth. Broadway may be the height of capitalistic entertainment, but that doesn’t make it the highest quality. See Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as a reference.

Convenience

I don’t think I need to spell this one out for you. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Video, the upcoming Disney+ platform, the upcoming Apple TV+ platform, Facebook, Twitter, Vine (RIP), Instagram, Snapchat, the Nintendo Switch, the Xbox One, the Playstation 4, HBO Go, HBO Now, CBS All Access, etc., etc., etc. There is no end to the options at your disposal when scratching your ass while sitting half-naked on your couch.

Meanwhile, at the theater, someone thought it was a bright idea to bring their crying four-year-old because they were “mature for their age.” Now you’re touching arms with the coughing stranger next to you, a lady in the third row’s cell phone went off, you forgot to use the bathroom before you arrived, you don’t even know if there’s an intermission, and you wish you could turn up the volume on the actors’ voices because you can’t hear a goddamn thing.

“I should have just stayed home.”

Some of these problems will never go away. They’re the product of sitting in a dark, large room consisting, almost entirely, of strangers. But the point is to provide an experience that will want people to come to the theatre anyway. To showcase something that they can’t experience anywhere else. To provide value.

I would argue that Broadway, for all its flaws, is mostly successful in providing this value. The Great White Way had its highest attendance on record last year, despite being in the heart of the most inconvenient hellhole in New York. But Broadway is just one place. There’s an urgent need for theaters closer to people in rural and suburban parts of the country.

Of course, “make more theaters” is a simple solution to a complex problem. But it’s a problem the theatre community seldom talks about.

Sidenote: as another solution, I think there’s a market for streaming theater. If high-quality theatre productions were filmed and distributed on streaming platforms after closing, I believe it would bring a whole new life to the production. It would raise interest in seeing shows live. My first experiences with theatre were through video recordings of Sondheim musicals from the library. Why hasn’t this practice been brought into the twenty-first century?

Theatre is the hot new thing. There’s Hamilton… and no other examples.

John Mulaney as George St. Geegland in Oh, Hello on Broadway

What I interpret the “death of the theatre” to mean is a theatre that is solely interested in catering to the older, white demographic. While challenging, I think choosing to ignore the issues outlined above will kill the potential the theatre contains to move individuals and shape cultures.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear from you below.

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