I live in the United States of Me, a nation populated almost entirely by people I’ve friended, people I follow, and people who follow me.
I live in the United States of Me, and you (most of you) live in the United States of You. We belong to and participate in social networks running on algorithms designed to ensure that we only encounter the ideas and images we’ve (often subconsciously) asked to encounter. And with every single “like” and “favorite” we tweak those algorithms, too, making them even more effective at giving us just what we want. Like rats pawing madly at levers to release food, we click and re-tweet to create endorphins in our own brains.
In our own virtual countries, we listen to self-curated radio stations on headphones designed to make sure nobody else listens in. We recline on our own couches programming Netflix queues and DVRs so that precisely the stories we know we’re going to love will be ready for us, right on demand, at all times… stories we selected from the recommendations issued to us by those same social networks and algorithms.
We customize websites to make them present us with exactly the right content at exactly the right time. We aggregate news into politically-approved feeds that arrive neatly-wrapped in our in-boxes. We live in a time and place of such abundance that many of us are able to choose precisely what we’d like to eat for every single meal and have it delivered directly to our houses… in single-serving sizes, even, if that’s what we prefer.
Everything is exactly like we want it to be. (In some ways.)
I live in my own country, and so do you, and so do you, and you, and you, and you. Our customized territories do overlap, mind you, in spaces both virtual and real, but we work hard—desperately hard—to make sure any encounters we have with each other don’t displease either of us. We prefer to maintain the illusion that we’re both kings and queens of our own realms.
And we don’t like strange terrain, either. Whenever anything doesn’t seem familiar, we tell ourselves we’re just conquering new territory. That it’s destined to become ours. We never really leave our borders, no matter where we go. The sun never sets on our iLives, just as it once never set on the Roman Empire.
Which leads me to the central question I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time now: how in the heck is the new play sector supposed to compete with that?
What do we have to offer—really—that’ll pry anybody out of a box that tight, that customized, at a pre-appointed hour, to come sit in a possibly-uncomfortable chair, and be on good behavior, at great cost, while complete strangers tell an unfamiliar story… possibly about some other part of the world with unfamiliar customs or ideas or worldviews that might seem somewhat threatening?
It’s amazing to me, sometimes, that anybody ever goes to the theater at all.
I should probably make clear that I am not, in fact, opposed to any of the technological advances and social changes I’ve just described; one might as well oppose the tide.
In point of fact, I’ve embraced technology with both arms for most of my life. At 16 years old, I spent virtually every penny I had to acquire a brand new Apple IIc computer when other kids my age were buying, well, almost anything else… and I haven’t slowed down since. I’ve had a smart phone for just about as long as phones have been smart: I rely on its GPS for getting places; I turn it into a mobile hotspot to get a better internet connection on the Amtrak; I use it to access three different email accounts. I have an iPad that I read on, check email on, surf the web on, conduct bank transactions on, check the weather on, play games on… and keep beside my bed so that it’s near me the minute I first wake up.
As an artist, furthermore, I’ve embraced every possibility technology offers us. I’ve advocated for integrating Twitter into live performances. I’ve written podcast plays. I’ve had two different plays live-streamed. I’ve created two different transmedia performances that incorporated video, photography, Tumblr posts, and on-the-spot photos taken by audience members. And I’m just getting started.
But it’s not wise, I believe, to advocate blindly for the future. Change always comes with costs, and we who push for it really ought to be sensitive to the things that get lost when we get what we want.
I listen to a Bose Wave radio; I stream Pandora on both my phone and my tablet, and for several years I had a satellite radio subscription, too. But if you walked into my living room, you’d also see a 1940 Philco radio occupying a central position. In my dining room sits a 1938 tabletop radio—one I restored myself, by hand—and similar antiques occupy primary spots in my library, study, and media room, too. I love them; they’re among my most-prized possessions. They remind me of the critical importance of stories: how they’ve always made us gather. When I gather in my living room with family and friends, I sometimes drift out of the conversation to imagine us all sitting in silence, hunched forward toward that Philco, listening to an episode of a favorite radio drama or a news bulletin from some part of the world none of us would ever visit. What charged moments those must have been for people! But no more.
And yet: there was a time before radios. Radios were once a new technology. They inspired cultural changes, and those changes must have seemed difficult at the time. What was lost when radio arrived? The private time one might have spent with a newspaper? Was there a drop-off in attendance at movie houses? Did people have fewer conversations? Read fewer books?
Whatever the cost for embracing radio, we paid it. And I happen to believe—though I don’t know how I’d prove this—that we got a good deal. But still: we paid.
Do you know the historic Lincoln Theatre in DC? National Register of Historic Places; more than a thousand seats; Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Cab Calloway all appeared there, among many others. It was restored 20 years ago, but it’s badly in need of money to keep it up to snuff now. Of late, the DC government’s basically been asking the city’s arts leaders for permission to turn it into the only thing that could possibly fill that many seats on a regular basis: a movie theater.
More than a thousand seats. To fill a room like that, you need to DO something or SAY something—or both—that one in every 5,000 people in the broad metropolitan region (or one in every 600 just in the city proper) are really not going to want to miss. You have to create an experience that absolutely must be had: that will convince all those people to show up at an appointed hour, credit cards in hand, fears cast aside, their own personal bubbles temporarily abandoned. And to make sure the theater keeps thriving, moreover, you have to do the same thing, night after night after night. 150 or 200 times a year. Year after year after year.
The whole thing feels really, really daunting. Heck, it even feels daunting if I imagine a 250-seat theater. So I’ve been asking myself… what does get people out of their personalized houses? For what reasons do they come congregate in the ever-unpredictable public square? What makes us sit around the radio, metaphorically-speaking, and tune in together?
We gather for sporting events. And movies, though less often than we used to now that we can watch them at home. We gather at houses of worship, though in increasingly smaller numbers. Parades get us out on the streets. Circuses. Fireworks displays. Inaugurations. Music can still draw big crowds. Even some really popular restaurants. Oh, and bars. Night clubs. Parties. Festivals. That sort of thing.
What do those things have that theater doesn’t have? Because they’re all more successful at gathering crowds than we are. Let me ask this another way: what can we have that they don’t have? How can we beat them? (Can we beat them?)
I hear a lot of people say that the one thing we have in our corner is that theater is live. Usually this claim is made when theater’s being compared to film. But ALL of those things I just listed are live. Films are even live, in the sense that a live audience is watching the story unfold on the screen at the same time. The fact that theater is live, I believe, can’t be what distinguishes it. It just can’t. We need something else than that.
Let’s ask a different question: why do people gather for, say, sports? Sporting events have real, extreme, often-brutal physical competition; we watch sports, and our mirror neurons get excited enough that we feel like we’re out on the field or the court ourselves, so our hearts really get racing. Sporting events are also unpredictable, a fact that often forces us to live in the moment while we watch them: we don’t know whether we’ll be victorious-by-proxy or not. They also contain echoes of both war and mythology, so we can let one team stand for good and the other for evil—not consciously, perhaps, but somewhere deep inside us—and transform the experience into a comedy or tragedy, depending on the outcome. You can see the appeal, I should hope, even if you don’t share it.
(Aside: I find the condescension that some theater artists display toward sports very disappointing. They have a great deal to teach us, I think, if we let them.)
So… what do we in the theater have that compares? Well, we don’t have the same feats of physical strength (though acting is athletics), but we do have conflict: characters vie against each other for competing desires, at least in traditional drama. But while sports are clearly real (I’m setting aside the possibility that games might be fixed), theater’s artificial in some sense. Our mirror neurons do fire… but maybe not quite as hard as they do when you’re watching a sporting event. I think maybe the uniforms make the players “generic” enough that we can more easily project ourselves onto them… and the lack of diversity in the characters we’re putting on stage might also make it tricky for some people to empathize completely.
Finally, there’s the matter of unpredictability. Yes, audiences don’t really know how a story will turn out when they walk into the theater, unless it’s a historical drama… but the performers do, and I have to think that saps at least some of the whoa-look-out! out of the experience. Furthermore, the fact that we tend to rehearse plays until they’re polished, until so much of the sense of the risk of being out there in front of people has vanished, must make our work less interesting to people. As evidence, I offer the fact that the hardest-to-come-by theater ticket in DC every year is for a “bootleg” production of Shakespeare in which the entire cast has blocked, rehearsed, costumed, and lit an entire play in fewer than eight hours. THAT is some derring-do right there, and people sense it.
In 2010, approximately 45,000,000 Americans attended live theater events (at all levels, from Broadway to high school productions). In the same year, more than 70,000,000 Americans attended just Major League Baseball games. The total figure for all sporting events, as far as I’m able to determine, is between 500,000,000 and 1,000,000,000 per year. I’ll have what they’re having. Won’t you?
It wouldn’t be hard to do similar comparisons between theater and the other human pursuits I’ve listed—concerts, churches, and so on—but it would be rather tedious, wouldn’t it? Because we all know: whatever we’ve got, they’ve got a more appealing version of it. Usually much more appealing. They’re so much better at convincing people to get up out of their chairs and sit in a shared, real space together at the same time than we are that we ought to be begging them to tell us their secrets. But instead we act haughty and superior—not always, but often. As if everyone else is just stupid and wrong for not realizing why they ought to be spending their time inside theaters instead. Which is, you must realize, part of the problem in the first place.
Would you want to belong to a club that believes you’re beneath being a member?
But I think that’s exactly it: we treat the theater all too often as if this is still the 1980s, and (to paraphrase the most popular commercial slogan of that era) membership in the drama club has its privileges. But we don’t live in a country club world any more. We live in—no, we occupy—an Arab Spring world. The top-down, hierarchical corporate structures of most of our theaters (which are by-products of the industrial era) aren’t as relevant any more as they once were. The future belongs to open, collaborative peer networks, modeled after the distributed nodes of the internet, not the spoke-and-hub frameworks that defined everything from the early American railways to the original AT&T network. The future looks very different than the org charts of most American theaters. The future looks more like a revolution.
Oh, right! Revolution! That tends to get people up out of their seats and leave their isolated bubbles, too, doesn’t it?
Here are some questions to which I do not have answers but which I believe nonetheless to be revolutionary:
What if we did embrace a peer-networked worldview in the theater? What if we threw caution to the wind and started transforming the American theater so that we embraced the evolution of culture instead of trying so damnably hard to preserve what we’ve already built?
What if we stopped turning up our noses at all the experimentation going on with tweet-seats and live-streaming and transmedia storytelling? What if we stopped saying “That isn’t real theater?” (To be clear, what I normally hear from traditional theater practitioners is ”That’s a nice little experiment and all, but it’s not real theater”—a response that resounds with equal parts condescension and dismissiveness.) What if we invited people to bring those personalized universes they live in with them when they come to the theater?
What if we started combining what we usually think of as theater with, say, biology experiments? Or yoga classes? Or podcasts? Or role-playing games? Would we find new collaborators to work with us? And thus other audiences to engage with?
What if we started inviting our audience members to make theater with us? (Instead of us making it for them?) How many people do you think might come join in if we started saying Theater is a chance for you to make something instead of Theater is a chance for us to do something to you—maybe even something you might not like?
What if we stopped defining the value or success of a piece of theater by how it measures up against some “objective” standard of excellence or quality? What if, instead, we defined success as the measure of how personally relevant and resonant our work is for the largest number of our community members?
At this point, I think we need to be asking all of these questions. We need to re-energize the research and development division of the American theater. (Though we might need to find it first.) We need to put experimentation and investigation and exploration at the core of what we do. We need to become explorers and scientists, first and foremost, in our theater practice. (And no, doing another straight play by an MFA-adorned writer, after it’s done in New York, does NOT make you either an explorer OR a scientist. It makes you a capitalist.) We need to at least re-consider and re-test every single premise and first principle we hold dear… and, if they prove to be inaccurate, be fearless in letting them go.
We’re living in the Age of Pandora. The Sirius/XM Era. But we’re still telling stories that are best suited to the antique AM radios with which I’ve decorated my house. We’re fiddling with the same few dials, trying harder and harder to find a clear signal while the static continues to swell. There’s abundant creative possibility all around us, but we keep limiting ourselves, time and time again, to the same few channels.
Look at where people are. Where they really spend their time. If we want to connect with them, let’s go where they are, not force them come to us. If we want to create art, let’s make it and take it to them. If not literally, then at least psychologically. And technologically. Let’s use theater—whatever it looks like—to create one united state out of the various and independent algorithm countries we’re all living in. Let’s re-animate and re-invigorate our fellow dopamine-driven citizens. Let’s end loneliness. Let’s create belonging. Whatever it costs us. And let’s do it soon.