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  • Ruthie Buescher

American Theater is Dying. So What's Next?

For those inside the theater world, the state of contemporary theater is hotly debated. For those outside of the theater world...it is not. In fact, outside of popular shows such as Hamilton and Wicked, it’s safe to assume that the average American, especially age 35 and under, has very little idea about what’s going on in the world of theater. ​ Since the rise of films, this has been a losing battle for American theater. After all, why pay $50 to see a play, when one can pay $10 to see a movie? (And, for that matter, why pay $10 to see a movie when one can watch Netflix on a large screen TV?) In a culture that largely values realism above other forms of representation, movies and television present a much more complete and immersive experience of reality. Live theater, for all its ingenuity, will always be less realistic than a film.

Over the past 70 or so years, theater’s--and in particular Broadway’s--response has been to attempt either greater realism (look at how detailed and realistic our set is!) or greater feats of spectacle (as in Julie Taymor’s infamous project, Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark.) In some cases, such as a much more successful Taymor project, The Lion King, this has resulted in beautiful and moving pieces of theater. However, the ultimate result of this quest to compete with cinema and television is not the success of live theater, but rather the death of it. In order for theater to be relevant to the culture of America and to engage the average American, there needs to be a dynamic shift in the way theater is understood.

Before contemplating the solution, it’s important to understand the depth of the problem. On the surface, it may look like simply a lack of ticket sales and a marketing problem, but the sickness of the American theater runs much deeper. Let’s start by considering content. A survey of shows currently running or soon to open on Broadway reveals a number of musicals based on movies (such as Frozen, Aladdin, and Mean Girls), a handful of shows that are star-vehicles (such as Jimmy Buffet’s Escape to Margaritavilleand Springsteen on Broadway) and a large number of revivals (such as My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, and The Iceman Cometh.) There is a sprinkling of new shows, but the majority of the shows are revivals or plays that producers know will sell tickets based on fan popularity.

In addition, the prices of tickets are enormous. With shows like Hamilton setting a precedent of prices in the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per ticket, people attending shows on Broadway expect to pay at least $100 for seats in the back of the theater, with the average ticket price in 2016 at $303. While prices in regional theaters are nowhere near Broadway ticket prices, across the nation the starting cost of a ticket is somewhere between $30-40. With an average American income between $27,000 to $50,000 even that is a pretty prohibitive number to make seeing a live theater show a regular occurrence.

However, the recycled material and high ticket prices are not the only symptom of an ailing American theater. As the 2010s have worn on, there has been more and more talk about the changing theater practitioner, and who it is that is actually making the art. The Guardian released an article in 2016 in which it cited a study done by the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths College that found that only 27% of actors come from a working class background and that the “profession is heavily skewed toward the privileged.” Dames Helen Mirren and Julie Walters have warned that “acting is becoming the preserve of those with wealthy parents.” This point hits especially close to home for me, as a theater director who has often felt the frustration of not being able to pay the thousands of dollars for a workshop or training that also requires one to take weeks off of work. Combined with the expense many theater artists are paying for undergraduate and masters degrees, working a 9-5 job to pay off school loans is often essential. The connections and important training to be attained by learning with the theater elite seems to have become the provenance of the rich.

It is at this point that an understanding of theater history becomes essential, and contrary to other forms of art, I would argue that theater has historically been the provenance of the poor. There have certainly been celebrity actors as far back as Greek theater, but the true purpose of live theater has always been as either a mouthpiece for new ideas, or a way to interact in community.* There is no space for theater to become exclusive to the wealthy. Even Shakespeare, for all his masterful wordplay and heightened language, considered the peasants who thronged to his shows and made sure to access their experience, writing with an eye as much to the common person as he did the king. Sophocles, exposing some of the most complex emotions known to man, included a chorus to help the audience along. And in both cases, the theater was widely accessible to whoever wanted to attend.

Taking it a step beyond Shakespeare and Sophocles, I believe theater at its best--in its most important form--has always been done on a small scale. To me, the most compelling examples of live theater include Commedia dell’Arte--troupes that began in Italy and traveled around Europe performing in marketplaces, encouraging audience engagement; the sacred theater of the Middle Ages, in which whole towns would take turns reenacting the events of scripture together with the priests; or Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in which the audience became “spect-actors” and were required to create alongside the performers in order to incite lasting social change.

At the root of all these forms of theater is the human impulse to create and to make sense of the world, and this is what has been taken away by the spoon-fed spectacle of contemporary American theater. At its core, theater should encourage its audience to speak, to share the same room with living bodies who are presenting something in a way that can be engaged with. Theater is shouting back at the clown, it is challenging oneself to dialogue instead of simply imbibe. It is all the things that were lost when Richard Wagner turned the seats in his theater to face the stage, shutting the audience out of both the process and the product.

Coming back to this idea of small, tangible, process-oriented theater is the only thing that can make it relevant again to a culture that has lost interest. Theater as an industry has not only denied the concept of communal theater, it has even denied the idea that the theater maker is in charge, and placed control in the hands of the producer. While that may be well and good for other forms of entertainment, it does not work for theater (the short term gains of Hamilton, of course, excluded) and in the long run this kind of businesslike view is stifling and killing the art.

What does saying goodbye to this way of doing theater look like? It means much lower ticket prices, which in turn means no more massive theaters, no more elaborate costumes and excessive sets. It means no more trying to compete with the scale of films, which is a losing battle anyway. It means no more trying to attract audiences with a cheap appeal to star-power or expensive lights. It means the end of actors going into the business in order to become rich and famous.

But it also means the advent of audiences who find themselves engaged and called upon, and in an era when the only audiences that are attending live theater are beginning to die off, this is desperately needed. We have realism in its most complete form on our TVs. We need something else in our theaters; we need a communal experience to break people away from their screens. Moving American theater in this direction means changing the perception of what an actor is (read: we are all actors) and focusing less on a polished product and more on facilitation. It also mean helping people understand their physical bodies and their role as members of a community in a much more profound way.

The movement has already begun; Broadway is dying, and small, engagement-focused theaters are on the rise. And yet, imagine what kind of outpouring of life-giving theater could occur if the money that’s being dumped into the dying remnants of the 19th and 20th century beast that is American theater was instead poured into creative initiatives in our schools and communities. It’s time to stop living under the illusion that the theater we’ve been ingesting and supporting is salvageable, and start engaging in theater as it should be.


*Though I believe this is largely true for theater in other cultures as well, it should be noted that I am speaking primarily about the Western theater tradition, which includes European and North American theater.

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