How Fucked Is American Theater?

Comments

1
Part of the decline in theater attendance is the recession; another part is the fact that there hasn't been a lot of good theater in recent years. Some, yes, but *rarely* something worth spending tickets, parking, and a baby-sitter on.
2
at least we have Glee
3
After seeing the worst performance ever of Glengarry Glen Ross last Saturday at Seattle Rep and then re-reading the reviews that encouraged hapless theatergoers to attend that dreck, it's harder than ever to give a damn about American theater.

An American theater that cannot pull off at least a halfway decent performance of one of the greatest American plays of our generation should be put out of its misery.
4
@3 The Stranger Recommended the Tooth Fairy, the Tooth Fairy sucked, vis-a-vis, film sucks, and the theatres that showed it should be shuttered.

Theatre's not dead. Which is to say that there will continue to be art made that operates in the space between live performers and audience. It just probably won't continue to be produced in such a way as to support a large administrative corp around it.
5
I would go to more plays if they were in the $12-$15 range. As it is, I really can't afford to go. I know that actors, directors, and everyone else involved are already making shitty wages, so this could potentially be a bad idea, but if more people could come, particularly people in their 20s and 30s, they could do a longer run and hopefully start the habit of attending plays in the not-about-to-die set.
6
Every theatre (and nearly all arts organizations of all sizes) in Seattle has affordable tickets available in some way. "Pay What You Will," half-price rush, Goldstar, special prices for students and "25 and under." So go for it @5!
7
@5

I think that about 95% of theatre people would agree with you - these are problems that need solutions. I'm afraid, though, that every single one of those theatre people has a slightly different opinion on what the solutions are...
8
Every theatre in the area has affordable tickets available. "Pay what you will" performances, half price rush, student tickets, "25 and under" prices, Teen Tix, Goldstar. So head for the theatre, @5.
9
Umm, Brendan, I think that's Charles Isherwood of the NYT.
10
So, people aren't buying your product. Either put in more titties or find a new job.
11
@ 9. Thanks. I do that all the time.
12
@10: You are ever so amusing. Are you a professional comedian?
13
@6 or @8 - It's true that there are affordable avenues, but a lot of going out among the married and gainfully employed occurs after a discussion Saturday afternoon that begins with, "So . . . I'd like to get out of the house. What do you wanna do?" Thursday night Pay-What-You-Can doesn't help anyone at this point; nor do reduced-price tickets for people younger than the would-be attendees. Rush tickets are an option (though, at the big houses, that entitles you to a ticket that's still TWICE the cost that the poster @5 was talking about).

My wife and I, being in theater ourselves, have the option of calling friends and trying to squeeze comps out of 'em; if we can get one comp and one half-price ticket to a big house, or one comp and one full-price ticket to fringe, we can make the theatrical evening comparable to going to a movie or catching a band at Chop Suey, which makes the possibility of watching something fail more palatable, the opportunity to watch something succeed less risky.

That said, I'm still not sure that ticket prices are what keeps theater in a sort of cultural ghetto populated solely by affluent, elderly liberals; after all, rock stars can still fill stadiums with youth at unsightly ticket prices. I think the problem is that few organizations find the right balance of spectacle and content. Much theater could be called "middlebrow," but not in the actual FUN sense of the word that might connote a balanced appeal to high and low impulses. For the most part, theater is too polite--even at its most controversial, reactionary forces in the mainstream ensure that little more happens than people talking to one another, which one can observe in any of a number of bars within blocks of the theater (and the average ticket price can buy a LOT of drinks). On the flipside, you have the fringe challenging some of these more aesthetically (if not politically) reactionary notions, but often without the sort of seating capacities that would allow them to either raise the production values or encourage the sort of volume that could make their lower prices lucrative for the artists.

I wonder if space is the great challenge for theater artists; the whole of the theater administration juggernaut seems to have sprung up around the need to maintain buildings and keep them up to code (speaking to the spot-on comment @4).
14
Brendan,

The article belies something that lurks under the surface of most of theater in the US: The only important, and worthy of opinion-holding, members of Theatre are the most visible: 1) Actors. 2) Directors 3) Writers.

As someone who had my MFA training at the finest Scenic Design school in the country (SMU), I can tell you this is a part of the reason I left theater.

It's a collaborative art, and for just a few people to be recognized for it is humiliating for the rest of us.

Thank god I left it, from your article, it sounds like it's only getting worse.
15
I dunno, guys. I really wanted to see a Tom Stoppard play awhile ago and when I checked to see how much tickets were, the cheapest I could find were in the $30 range. I seriously couldn't find info on going for less. Maybe I'm just special and didn't see some glowing button on the sign advertising these specials you speak of, but maybe that's the problem. From now on I'll try to find out more info on the pay what you can nights, but at the time I didn't see any info on it. What are theaters doing to let people new to the theater know about this?
16
Hey, JoeG (@14): I hear you, and I sympathize. Actors, directors, and writers are placed at the center for some obvious and some not-so-obvious reasons, none of those reasons being particularly just. The tradeoff, as I see it (realizing my own prejudice, being an actor and writer for a generative group), is that there seems to be more work around for designers and technicians (or so it would appear). If that's little comfort, you can rest assured that you'll always have an audience if you want to bitch about peformers', writers', and directors' bloated sense(s) of self-worth. :)

Just as the work of the art director, cinematographer, and editor of a film are often misattributed to the director, so the work of designers is often ignored in theater, to the great detriment of the form. In generative work, my most rewarding experiences have been those where designers were part of the generative team--attending frequent rehearsals, asking questions about content, feeding us design ideas that would then be integrated into the movement and text. I'd love to see light, sound, costume, and scenic designers treated the way a good audiophile treats record producers. Theater needs its Brian Enos, Scott Litts, Dave Siteks, and Mitch Easters; indeed, given the way film, television, CDs, and internet have trained the eye to see and the ear to hear, it's not hyperbolic to suggest that designers might be the ones best able to re-connect us with the popular audience.

Another thought (because I keep having them): Are designers often forgotten because a) the disconnect between the modern theater and the modern audience is often framed in terms of content and b) audiovisual components, rightly or wrongly, are often considered more part and parcel of form, rather than of content?
17
I don't know how to feel about this...

I mean, I feel like theater (especially in Seattle) has just gotten better and better in recent years. I know I've seen more plays in the last 4 years than in the rest of my life combined (granted when I was really young I was in more plays than I saw, but even if you count those the count is at best tied). The point is, I'm a huge fan of live theater. I was a season ticket holder at the Rep in 2007 and 2008 (06/07 season and 07/08 seasons), I only stopped buying season tickets because I couldn't afford them in 08/09 and then this year I've been so torn because there's so much good theater in this town I felt like I couldn't blow my whole year's theater budget on season tickets at one theater and miss out on great shows at other theaters (ACT has been great this year).

However, I'm also a huge fan of television and I think the cost explaination (that TV, or even film, is cheaper) doesn't really explain the phenomenon entirely. I can see why the talent goes there (to TV). It's not just that you can reach a wider audience on TV than in the theater; serial television gives writers an opportunity to develop characters way more, and to explore themes in greater depth...it's just a way more detailed, and sensative, medium for story telling.

Cost is certainaly a factor. I had to cut theater out of my budget for a year but during that same time I still watched television. Now, my cable bill is at least as much as the cost of one theater ticket per month, but for that price I get hundreds of options daily and that's why television has more mass appeal than theater. Television is to today's audience what theater was at its inception (i.e. entertainment for the masses). While I would never hope for theater to fall out of popularity (like epic poetry), I can't say that I'm sorry that television has become what it has. If I have to choose I choose TV.

However, you can bet that one of the first things I support is the theater (if and when I have disposable income for donations). If I were Elton John I'd invest millions in theater too. So, if the future of the American theater rides philanthropic urges and the ability of theaters to capitalize on them, I'm okay with that. While the audience numbers may be down, the quality is definitely not and that, in the end, is what will attract people who want to invest in/donate to the arts.
18
@16:

Your thoughts are appreciated. By me, and, as you mention, the many, many other artistic collaborators who do not have a face to the audiences. These people have suffered years of training only to be ignored in a forum like this.

That said, and I do appreciate the sentiment, I wish modern theater was less of a personality cult and more of an actual artistic collaborative.

I could give you literally dozens of examples starting in the 80s of why I left the craft. All of them would boil down to egos. (Here's one: at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the "director", after weeks of planning etc. for Harold Pinter's "the Dumb Waiter", decided to paint my set solid black the night before opening. I hope you'll appreciate the "absurdity" of this.)

Theater is one thing I wish would work, as it has much to do with our collective soul. Unfortunately, I've been jaded enough to not be able to see how it could work.

Add to that the generally poor quality, the TV-sensibilities of the consumers, the extreme costs... all the usual arguments. It just makes me sad.

And, well, Theatre as a profession has a habit of driving away its best talent. I count myself as one. Sadly, I'm not looking back.