We’ve all done it: fantasized about how we’d run things if we were in charge. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if I were responsible for reinvigorating theater in the United States. Here’s a list of just a few things, in no particular order. It’s only a start — I’m sure we could go much farther — but I think it’s pretty nifty.
#1: Differentiate Theater from TV and Film
In any crowded marketplace, a smart business owner asks: how can I differentiate my organization? Of late, it seems to me, we have been trying to make theater more and more like television and film: bigger special effects, more realistic sets, film actors given high-profile roles, and an increasing focus on spectacle. All those things are nice, sure… but I think they’re doing us harm. We can never do those things as well as the folks in Hollywood can, so why do we even try? I believe a renewed focus on the imaginative simplicity of bare-bones sets and costumes and props—along with the visceral nature of live performance, as well as theater’s ability to break the so-called fourth wall in ways television and film simply can’t—would help audiences understand what to expect when they go see a play… and, more importantly, value it as a vital experience they can’t get anywhere else.
#2: Connect with Audiences
As I have written about before, I think a significant reason that audiences for theater have shrunk is that we’ve effectively abandoned them. We theater practitioners all too often make work to impress each other or to please our own palates or to simply do something new and innovative, because we’re weary of more conservative or traditional forms of storytelling. One artistic director after another goes on record as saying “I just couldn’t put this play down” or “I felt drawn to the work for some reason.” Far too rarely do we hear anything like this: “I programmed this play in response to the concerns of my community” or “This is the sort of story that people have been asking us to do.” We need to find out what kinds of plays people want to see—not only the people who currently come to our theaters, but (more importantly) the people who don’t yet come—then stage those plays. We won’t hurt (as badly) for audiences if we do.
#3: Escape from New York (and Los Angeles)
Whoever decided it made sense to keep all our writers and actors and directors in a few major cities and then ship them around the country to make art? If you think about it, it’s ridiculously inefficient. We end up having to find housing for people when they come into town and build new collaborative relationships on the fly, rather than relying on rapport developed over years of working together. More importantly (see my previous point), the work they make is inspired by their lives in the big cities, rather than what they might experience in, say, Baltimore or (here’s an idea) Crookston, MN. We need to decentralize our business. We need to start theaters in smaller cities and in rural areas and in neglected neighborhoods in big cities… and yes, perhaps let some of our big city theaters die. And we need to produce plays written by playwrights who live near our audiences and know them well.
#4: Never Be Dark
I’ve appropriated the title of this point from a great post on 2amtheatre.com. Here’s the gist: we need to make theaters more fully integrated into the communities in which they operate. We need to think more broadly about the ways in which theaters serve people: as spaces in which new ideas and new narratives are shared and discussed. If that’s the real mission of a theater, then why aren’t we using our lovely spaces to host guest lectures from thoughtful people every Monday night of the year? Why aren’t we treating them like secular churches, inviting inspirational leaders to “preach,” as it were, on Sunday mornings? Why aren’t we inviting other theater companies to perform in our spaces when we don’t have shows running? We should be booked 350 nights a year, for several events a day on some days. We should also be opening day care services so that parents can come see shows while their children are cared for. We should be teaching classes (not just theater classes, but all sorts of classes) in unused rehearsal spaces. We should be serving drinks seven nights a week in honest-to-goodness theater bars. Get people familiar with the space, and they’ll start coming to see shows, too. You can bank on that.
#5: Embrace Technology
As I wrote about on 2amtheatre quite a while ago, there are significant ways in which technology could be—and perhaps should be—radically disrupting the ways in which we work. We focus a great deal of attention on innovation in our art form, which is only natural (though please see point #2 above), but not on the ways in which we administer our theaters. Our websites and blogs are largely lackluster, for the most part. Our engagements in social media are getting better—at least for some of us—but we still have quite a ways to go to catch up to the strongest practitioners. More importantly, we have yet to allow technology to mediate and streamline some of the difficult data problems we face, from ticket pricing to script submission management. Technology can and will liberate us from some of our heaviest burdens… if we let it.
#6: Artists Before Institutions
Why do most major grants go to institutions and not to artists? Why aren’t we stamping our feet and advocating wildly for the United States government to create an Art Corps like the Peace Corps: a body of government-funded artists to make work all around the country and the world? Why are there three arts administrators for every artist? (I must admit to doubting the veracity of that data point, though I’ve heard it a great deal.) Trisha Mead has written about the “legitimizing role” of arts institutions, and she has a point… but an institution is really just a brand, and brands come and go. (That’s why we visit Starbucks today, rather than, oh, the Maxwell House Coffee Shop.) In the end, people matter; artists matter. Institutions should not be sacred cows.
Those will do for now, I suppose. Give me time, however, and I’ll think of a few more things I might try, if I were in charge.
What would you do?