For whom do you make theater?
It has begun to seem to me as if there are four primary ways in which theaters orient themselves.
There are theaters that are mission-centric… or perhaps the correct term would be issue-centric. These theaters have a set of core beliefs or ideals or a mission statement that inspires all of the decisions they make: season planning, community events, and so on. In this category are, for example, theaters concerned with social justice.
There are theaters that are unabashedly profit-centric. They like having fun and telling stories and making art, of course, but their primary goal in doing all that is to make money. They consider the effects of their decisions in all areas against the bottom line. I’m thinking here of the big commercial theaters.
Then there are theaters that are artist-centric in much of what they do. They think “Hey, I’ve always wanted to do that play or play that role,” or “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did such-and-such a thing? We’d have a blast! Everybody would love us.” This, I fear, is the largest group. Many of our colleagues are so ego-driven that they fail to see the all-too-common pitfalls of such an orientation. On the other hand, it’s somewhat understandable; starting and running a theater company is hard work, so if one isn’t going to benefit at least somewhat from that work, why do it?
Then, finally, there are what I call audience-centric theaters, though community-centric might also be an appropriate term. They are focused on how the work they do can serve the people who come to sit in their spaces and watch stories. They choose plays they believe will be of service to others. They set aside their egos in everything they do. This, I believe, is the noblest calling.
Naturally, it would be foolish to claim that all theaters can be assigned to only one of these categories. Most, I would say, at least pay lip service to all of them in what they do, or could at least make a credible claim to be trying to respond to all four orientations. Many, furthermore, probably pay active attention to at least two of them.
In the end, though, one category predominates in most instances, I find… and it’s almost never the latter. This, to me, is a tremendous shame.
We ask ourselves why we’ve lost audiences… why we fight so hard to get people to come in the door. Have we ever considered that we just aren’t offering them what they’re looking for? We throw these fabulous parties, night after night, in the nation’s theaters, but we’re serving food only a few (educated, affluent, liberal) people like to eat. We’re like hostesses who make our guests sit through slide shows from our last trip to Pittsburgh and play formal games we aren’t really good at. And we greet our guests in German, or even Navajo, just to be clever.
I’m exaggerating, but you see my point. It might seem obvious, but nothing about what we do is oriented toward serving the people who don’t come to see our shows. We occasionally make half-hearted efforts—we schedule one “token” play of some kind, or integrate a “diverse” character into a story—and then we get frustrated when different audience groups don’t show up right away, filled with gratitude for what we’ve done.
Becoming genuinely audience-centric takes time and commitment; it can’t possibly happen overnight. When it does, though, we’ll start winning people back. There are theaters that have proven this already, in all parts of the country. They can be our inspiration.