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Where Is Our Theatre Going?

For our first Contemporary Drama class, we were assigned to read the Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkan – an epic, seven-hour play with many parts. I felt drawn into the piece and would love to go and see it performed one day, but couldn’t help but think while I was reading it, “Man, I’m glad I’m just reading this in my bed and can take a break if I need to.” I felt guilty acknowledging this for myself; if I weren’t familiar with the work, would I ever commit to seeing a seven-hour long play of my own volition? After a discussion in class today about how younger generations are more used to having their attention constantly fragmented by technology, I wonder if my feelings are simply an indicator of the mode of my peers.

This reminded me of a Wall Street Journal article I read over the summer entitled “How Theaters Can Combat the Stay-at-Home Mindset,” which argues that live theatre can compete with the price and easiness of something like Netflix by marketing exactly the up-close-and-personal experience that other mediums simply can’t offer. In the discussion about where the next generation can take live theatre, there is definitely something to be said for incorporating different mediums into a theatrical event and experimenting with form in order to stay relevant. However, I think the article makes a good point about not forgetting what it is that makes live theatre different from any other art form out there: the experience of watching live people in real time feed off the energy of an audience to tell a story.  I actually think the cost of seeing theatre is less of an issue in terms of ensuring that the form won’t die out on us. Have you seen how much it costs to go to a movie, concert, or baseball game? Even Broadway musical theatre, arguably the keystone of American theatre, is experiencing a decline in ticket sales. So if that’s true, then making bigger, more expensive, more commercially viable theatre isn’t the next step. The article compares the production of new plays in intimate spaces to the farm-to-table movement in food culture that’s been occurring recently. After the rise of fast food and GMOs and mass marketing, we started to see a desire to return to simple, local, and organic. Possibly, after so much on-demand entertainment, people want to sit in a black box five feet away from an actor and feel connected in a way that they can’t through their computer screens.

I’m just gonna put it out there right now: theatre, like organized religion, has never died out completely in the history of mankind. It has just gone through rises and falls in popularity and frequency. I’m really not that worried about theatre dying; someone somewhere will always be doing it, in the basement of a vegetarian restaurant if they have to. BUT I do want theatre to grow. I’m not decrying Netflix or any of the other art mediums out there that theatre is competing with. I need an outlet for my Downton Abbey as much as the next person. But I think theatre will always be able to offer that personal, present-time connection that other forms can’t offer. I think there are many pathways to ensure theatre’s survival and relevancy. I think the real challenge is cultivating an audience within the younger generation that appreciates many different forms of theatre; I can’t tell you how many of my college peers have only seen 3-4 pieces of live theatre, and nearly all have been Broadway shows. Figuring out how to expose younger people to many different kinds of theatre is our real challenge, which I think begins with an appreciation for the form (which I think is why we need to keep arts education in schools…but that’s a whole other blog post).

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