I’m Just Sayin’
Why is Theatre in the United States Losing its Audience?
Talk to anyone who works in theatre in the US—Equity or community or academic; regional or in New York City—and they can tell you about their aging audiences and their unsuccessful efforts to attract younger ones. They’ll groan about the constant fundraising. They’ll tell you of struggles to pay for the new light board, the new sprinkler system. And about the cost of royalties for those “must have” plays, the ones on Broadway or off Broadway in New York. Devices to help the hard of hearing must be funded, and oxygen tanks encouraged, though they do make noise. Along with the elderly man snoring in the front row.
Of course there is the influence of social media, and the different habits of young people. There is the supposedly necessary high cost of theatre tickets. But in Oakland, thousands of young people flock to First Friday night gallery openings where they ignore their iphones to look at paintings and sculptures, spend money on food and art, and socialize with all the other twenty-something art groupies.
Also improve theatre in places like bars and cafes is very popular with young audiences. So this age group is not entirely dependent on screens for entertainment.
Meanwhile, the “legitimate” theatre community is responding to the lack of new audiences by searching for plays with small casts, or giving each actor multiple parts, to cut costs. (In the Equity houses, they are not cutting the AD’s salary.) So you have the Berkeley Rep, with its three fully-equipped stages (and a separate set construction workshop worth millions) with evenings that have a total of four actors on those stages. Or you have Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Cal Shakes done by eight actors, and a “ballroom scene” with 3 people attending and a lot of crowd noise.
Is classic American theatre dying, along with its audience? Well, no. In NYC, people routinely pay hundreds, sometimes thousands to get into the “right” shows. So someone is making a pile. But as with many American businesses, right now the pile is going mostly to the top tier, while the other 90% of theatres struggle to find enough for minimum scenery and costumes.
Look at this problem from a different perspective with me for a couple of minutes and I will try to point a way out of it.
What is theatre? Why do people like it, when they do?
Well, “theatre” at its most elementary is someone getting up in front of a group and “acting out” something. Theatre has stories, but it isn’t story TELLING. It’s story SHOWING. (“Show, don’t tell”, is the mantra of every playwriting teacher in the world.) If you have three fourth graders ad-libbing “There’s a fly in my soup” for their class, you have the most crucial elements of theatre, someone pretending to be someone else, for the edification or enjoyment of a group. I have done a lot of volunteer work with kids, and I can tell you that simple classroom skits can easily totally absorb the attention of a class of wiggley fourth graders.
So what does that say about the larger issue of bodies in seats in American theatres?
People of all ages, races, and levels of education like theatre for two basic reasons. The first is that it really is fun to see someone become someone else, right in front of you. It can be hilarious to see your classmate become a teacher, or a baboon, or a tree, even if you know exactly who she really is, because you walk to school with her every day. And watching a good actor become Hamlet, or Amanda Wingfield, or Franklin Roosevelt, can be breathtaking.
But there is another crucial element to theatre, and that is the “message”, the point of the play. If all you have is aping, or imitation, it can be entertaining, but it isn’t a play. A play is when the actors are showing you “what happened”, and for a particular reason that the playwright has decided is important. In OUR TOWN, Wilder wanted to say, “Look at your everyday life, and see how luminous, amazing, and worthy of your attention it is.” To convince you of this, he creates a number of scenes of people in a small, ordinary town, doing ordinary things; then he kills off a central character you have learned to care about. Of course you are left with an “It all goes so fast” feeling. And we all know that feeling.
So, again, what does this have to do with “failing” American theatre? Okay, think of the last play you went to. Did that play show you something from your life experience, perhaps something you have struggled with, or learned at some point, or maybe something you know many people worry about? I recently saw a show at Ashby Stage about two women working at a free meals program for the homeless, one a young woman trying to figure out her life plan, and one an older nun. Although set in Brooklyn, the play’s themes of homelessness, feelings of wanting to help but feeling overwhelmed; trying to find a life’s work; someone turning out to be completely different than she seemed; were all familiar to me, and judging by their reactions, to the rest of audience as well. It was the first play in many years where I forgot I was watching a play.
But American theatre has recently emphasized amazement, violence, sexuality, and slapstick comedy. You can sit through play after play feeling like you have absolutely nothing in common with the characters on the stage, and never forgetting for a moment you are sitting through the play and wondering how long before it’s over. I’m guessing many theatre goers are tired of plays about privileged White people going home for Thanksgiving or a birthday and finding out their brother or sister is gay/pregnant/hates their father or another couple in the room hates each other. It’s not because it’s unpleasant; it’s because there is absolutely nothing in it for you.
American theatre has forgotten that its purpose is to comment on life in some way, seriously or humorously, to help its audiences understand the world around and think through their lives and cope. This doesn’t always mean “realistic” or “set locally”. But some of these might help. Yes, we can identify with the revolution East Whereeverstan, and with the Russian Tsar seducing the priest’s wife, but what about Donald Trump attacking teenage beauty contestants? Drunkenness and violence in Ireland might speak to some of us, but what about the opiod problem in rural America? Apartheid in South Africa in 1950 has some resonance to American racism, but how about a play about the resurgence of the KKK in Mississippi? The alt-right?
I personally believe that many of the decisions about what the audience should find fascinating are made by men having no skin in the game—they aren’t part of the life of the average American theatre-goer: a married person with kids, working on a schedule, worried about the quality of the schools in his/her city, and about the cost of insurance. The decision makers feel they are “better” than their audiences, and that their job is to “broaden” them. (In many theatres, you can go to the free lecture before the show, and they’ll tell you what it’s about and why that makes it fab, as if you couldn’t know without them, because your PhD is in Physics, not Drama.)
Sometimes we ordinary, dull people would like to see the shop owner in SF who is dealing with kids stealing his candy, or the pregnant woman in Florida finding out she has zika. We want to laugh at the American congressman who is sucked in by Big Oil explaining his campaign contributions, or cry with the mother whose daughter was raped by her corporal in the army and who committed suicide. We have a life here in America, and it’s pretty meaningful and if we’re going to go to the theatre we want to see something that relates to it, in some way or the other. Or we’ll look for a good movie—after all, that is a type of theatre, too, and they have discovered our lives.
One of the board members of a South Bay theatre was lamenting to me recently that although the techies in their area were earning potloads of money, “They don’t give it to theatre, and they don’t come, either”. I asked her if they had done any plays with techies in them, or about ride sharing, AirBNB, the cost of housing in the Bay Area, the water they want to send south, or new energy technologies—or?
Do you think no one is writing those plays?
Do you think no one will come to a new play?
But do you know a theatre that has put out the call for them, and tried telling its audience what it was trying to do?
I’m just saying.