How to Reinvigorate Theater in America

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 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?

18 thoughts on “How to Reinvigorate Theater in America”

  1. lessingismyhero

    I would embrace the fact that there are younger generations out there with innovative ideas that deserve the chance to make those ideas happen. True, there are internships and apprenticeships, but as someone who is going through that process now, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I need those credits on my resume but I am fully capable of doing my job with minimal guidance. I would really prefer if more established theatre professionals acted as mentors to young companies/artists rather than babysitters. Maybe that’s just my personal frustrations coming out…

    1. Perhaps what you’re experiencing is simply “personal frustrations,” though they’re frustrations I’m sure we’ve all experienced at one time or another. I will only say in response that if there was ever a time to simply break out and make theater on your own, your own way, this is it. Innovate and people will follow. Good luck!

  2. These are all great ideas. In these days of high ticket prices and bad traffic, I would add “play where you are” and making the audience (local) part of the act. Even if it means taking it to the streets. Or especially if it means taking it to the streets.

    1. You know, taking theater outside the theater is one I considered adding. I’m not convinced it isn’t a fad, though. I just don’t think I understand the long-term vision for it… which is not to say that such a vision doesn’t exist.

  3. Elizabeth McFadden

    Some good thoughts — though some aren’t practical and some aren’t new. Some feedback, for whatever it’s worth:

    I’d submit that a lot of us have been working hard at #1 for years; as an example, I’ve done exactly two genuinely realistic, literal set designs in the last three years, out of somewhere between 55 and 60 shows. And I’m just one designer — there’s a lot of great, striking, fabulously abstract work going on just in DC (where I work) alone, by some excellent theatre artists.

    The movement towards #3 has been going on since Zelda Fitchandler was launching Arena Stage using little more than spit and baling wire. No question that we could do better. But there are folks fighting to do just that all the time … finding the funding to make it happen is the hard part. And the smaller and more under-served the community, the harder to make it work fiscally.

    #2 is … complicated. Yes, we need to listen to our audiences. But that doesn’t always work. When filling out response cards, audiences often choose shows they know as something they’d like to see, but when the time comes, they don’t attend. Why should they? They’ve seen it before. I know — every production of Fiddler on the Roof is different, but let’s be honest … nobody’s surprised by the ending. So it’s a tricky thing choosing a season, balancing familiar or highly accessible pieces with things that might reach new audiences, or make existing audiences appreciate theatre in a new way.

    #5: Definitely! Spot on. We’re getting better at this, as an industry, but we still have lots of room to better leverage tech to help us.

    Number 4 is logistically more-or-less impossible. Theatres are dark, when they’re dark, for a REASON. We’re teching, or building, or painting, or writing light cues. Every booking added into a space makes the production team cry just a little more! The money folks always want more bookings, the production folks want none, most places find a balance where everyone is mildly miserable.

    And number six. Art Corps? Interesting! Pie-in-the-sky, of course, but every good thing was at some point. Don’t know how it would ever get funded, but that’s a battle for another day … it’s a wonderful notion to blue-sky.

    In any case — keep brainstorming! We really do need new ideas and vigorous discussion to keep our industry from becoming moribund.

    1. Hello, Elizabeth. Given that we’re both in DC — did you know that when you posted? — I’m surprised we haven’t met. Welcome.

      I have to say while I’m sure you intended your “keep brainstorming” comment to be supportive, I also find it (I’m sorry) a touch dismissive as well. What I’ve written here is far more than a brainstorm. This is a considered list of ideas, some of which I’ve written about before at length, others of which have been discussed in great depth elsewhere.

      In any event, I want to respond to your responses, for which I’m thankful.

      With regard to #1: I think you are confusing realism vs. abstraction with the issue I’ve raised. What I’m talking about is keeping sets minimal, period. I call your attention to the phrase “bare bones.” I believe that a “fully-fleshed” set — either realistic or literal — is too close to television and film. Leaving the details out of any kind of set, on the other hand, invites audiences to do a great deal more to “flesh out” the set in their minds. It’s the equivalent of listening to radio drama rather than watching a film or television show: sitting in the audience, you become a co-creator in the experience, and you also personalize it, to some extent, with your imagination. That’s what I’m suggesting.

      With regard to #2: I am not talking about comment cards. Comment cards are the entirely uninspired, unimaginative way of going about doing what I’m talking about; I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere on this blog, so I’d rather not repeat myself, but I’ll say that I’m talking about playwrights paying attention to the issues and concerns of their communities and letting those things guide the stories they tell; I’m talking about theaters choosing plays to produce — new plays, not chestnuts — that are “called for” by audiences’ concerns, rather than their own artistic preferences; I’m talking about the work that Luis Alfaro has done to connect his work with audiences who haven’t traditionally visited theaters. Comment cards, by contrast, are ineffectual.

      #3, I agree, is (in some ways) old news. But I don’t think funding is the issue. I think it’s about a major cultural shift we need to make across America. We need to overcome our NYLACHI-centric biases; we need to create our own culture rather than importing it. That’s starting to happen here in DC; when it’s happening in San Antonio and Ames, IA, we’ll have arrived.

      The fact that you find #4 impossible irks me. It’s not. It’s only impossible if we fail to think imaginatively. I understand perfectly well that there are times when there’s construction happening on a stage; I’m not talking about interfering with anyone’s work; I’m talking about expanding the possibilities for a building; re-thinking what its purpose is, how it serves its community. I’m talking about designing buildings in a different way from the get-go so that they can incorporate the sorts of things I’ve suggested. I suggest you read the Never Be Dark post I linked to for an indication of how many theaters are already moving in this direction.

      Finally, #6. Is it pie-in-the-sky? Well, so was the Peace Corps, 50 years ago. And so was Teach for America in the far more recent past. It’s only blue sky until it’s not. We just have to will it to happen.

      1. Elizabeth McFadden

        Hello, Gwydion. No, I didn’t realize you were DC based when I posted. Nice to “meet” you.

        First, and most importantly — My apologies if my closing seemed dismissive in any way. It wasn’t remotely intended that way. I think this kind of Big Thinking is important — essential! — to the survival of our industry. And I think our industry needs to survive; I think it brings something of great value to society.

        Responding further:

        #1: I wasn’t confused; I was responding specifically to your phrase “more realistic sets” but I perhaps could have been clearer about that! In any case, I agree with your central premise, that simple, bare-bones scenery can often be the most effective.

        #2: Oh, I agree … comment cards are dreadful! But they’ve long been the only method some organizations had for getting feedback. The answer in part might have something to do with #5 on your list. Using social media to connect with current — and potential –audiences could open a whole new form of dialogue between theatres and theatregoers. At least, I hope so. Certainly your ideas about playwrights brings relevant, community based stories to the stage seem terrific!

        #3: I actually encounter almost no NY-LA-CHI influence in my professional life at all! (But that may just be that I work for some pretty small, poor theatres.) I’d argue that funding is PART of the issue. Theatre is expensive to get going — and it takes time to build an audience, especially in areas that don’t have going to the theatre as part of their existing culture. Finding enough funding to get started and survive the audience-building can be tough. But I’d agree that a cultural shift is needed. And I’d add this: there’s a disturbingly large part of American society that has what I’d have to call a certain disdain for the performing arts — a sense that the performing arts have absolutely nothing to offer them, and no relevance to their lives. How do we demonstrate that our work does have meaning for them? I think that’s a significant part of the cultural change you call for. I just wish I had answers.

        #4: Fair enough — and I’ll read your other posts. Just discovered your page yesterday, so I’m not caught up yet. I didn’t realize that you were thinking of new, different sorts of buildings. And I don’t disagree with the dream! (I’ve personally always wished for a theatre with a 24 hour coffee shop, 24 hour bar, and 24 hour hardware store in the lobby — but that’s a little self-serving, I suppose.) I suspect my response was a little knee-jerk. I can’t tell you how often a tech schedule, or load-in schedule, or paint schedule gets mucked up by administrators forcing bookings in where there isn’t time or space for them. And I know far too many carpenters and TD’s who already have to come in at 5 or 6am, in order to have time to work, when the space is free, and too many painters who have to start their paint calls at midnight. So it’s a hot-button topic for those of us on the production side of the team.

        #6: Sure it’s pie-in-the-sky. But all good ideas start out that way. I think it’s a wonderful vision. A friend reminded me that donkey’s years ago, the WPA was, in part, a sort of Art Corp, for a short while. What can be done once, can perhaps be done again.

        In any case, thanks for the discussion!

        1. Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I think you’ve made some interesting points.

          I’m particularly interested in your further response to #3: there is a great deal of disdain for segments of our culture that supposedly aren’t interested in the arts, but that’s not my experience: I think they disdain the kind of art we make, but I think that’s at least partially our fault…

          1. I don’t disagree! That’s what I’m getting at … how do we reach them? How do we demonstrate the relevance of our work to their lives? Or how do we find work that will be meaningful to them?

          2. I think your last question is the answer; we need to take it upon ourselves to make work that’s relevant to people different than the people we currently make work for.

      2. Elizabeth McFadden

        Oh, and by the way … I’m a secular humanist insomniac set designer. Really, how have we not met?

  4. Well, I’d comment, but I really can’t add anything to what Elizabeth said…and I certainly can’t say it any better! I agree (#1) that aiming for spectacle, etc., shouldn’t be the goal, but neither should ALL sets, etc., be “bare bones”.

    1. Elizabeth McFadden

      Thx, Donna! Appreciate the kind words. And I certainly agree that there’s a time and a place for all things. Sometimes realistic sets, etc are spot on, but sometimes wild abstraction, or sometimes even bare bones serves the play, and company, best. Even pure spectacle has it’s place. I love a lot of Cirque, which is blatant spectacle!

      I will say, more-or-less in support of idea #1, that there are times when extravagant spectacle on Broadway does make it harder for the rest of us, out in the trenches. Example: Did a production of Beauty and the Beast a few years ago. It was a miserable experience. Half the audience community knew the Disney Broadway version, and expected that. Worse … the other half only knew the movie, and expected that! I can do wild abstract versions of anything, but that’s not what the audience wanted to see. Both halves wanted something I had no way … for about 0.5% of the Broadway budget, and with no fly system … to give them. The powers-that-be in the organization weren’t interested in re-inventing the show in a stark, modern form. So I had to put onstage a lame, utterly half-assed version of a show that we had no business doing, and no means at all of doing well.

      In sum … I love grand spectacle, at times. But if I could never have to do another Disney musical with a set budget of about fifty cents, I’d be a happy camper!

      1. Cirque is lovely entertainment; I enjoy it, too. What it’s lacking, for my money, is a clear narrative. If they were better storytellers, they’d astonish me. In any event, yes, spectacle is nice… but we have television and film for spectacle. I’m not saying we should cede the spectacular to those art forms entirely; I wouldn’t presume to set limits on our imagination. But I am saying that the extra emphasis we’ve been placing on spectacle in our work (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I’m looking at you) has undermined the core promise of theater: storytelling.

        Again, though, I’m not saying ALL sets should be bare-bones: merely that a stripped-down aesthetic is more often appropriate for the times in which we’re making art and within our competitive set.

        1. Elizabeth McFadden

          I haven’t seen the specific shows you cite, so I can’t speak to that. But I absolutely agree that a stripped-down approach can often be the best choice!

          Much of the work I see around DC is already quite spare. To name just two designers, Jim Kronzer and Tony Cisik both frequently do stunningly lovely sets that are clean, simple, stark, and wonderful.

          I agree, also, about Cirque — if the storytelling lived up to the spectacle, they’d astonish us all, I think.

  5. In this darn thesis I keep talking about I’m hitting on a number of the same points you have here. I just have one little comment about #1. I agree we need to differentiate between the work we do on stage and the work that happens in film and television. However, I do not think it’s about saying goodbye to spectacle and hello to simplicity. Theater since the Greeks with their deus ex machina have embraced spectacle & technology there within. The problem is one of resources and collaboration. What theater has to give an audience is a collaboration and (this relates to your #2) if while making theater we forget about that collaboration we are lost. The audiences loses whatever story we are trying to tell and our attention goes into making some thing we think is cool or breathtaking or special without looking at the whole.
    I fully embrace spectacle because to me, spectacle is theatrical. I would much rather be thrilled visually then see a decent story told on a realistic set. TV and movies can do realism better than we can, what we can do is create impossible worlds. We just need to do it responsibly, while paying attention to the whole.

    1. I really can’t wait to read this thesis. It sounds better all the time.

      I guess we fundamentally disagree about spectacle.

      The argument that “we’ve always done it, so we should continue” doesn’t hold water for me. Technologies evolve. Culture evolves. We need to evolve, too. Or at least be unafraid to do so.

      I also have to note that television and film do at LEAST as good a job as we can, if not far better, at creating impossible worlds. There’s nothing we can do that compares to, say, Inception or The Matrix. That’s because we have to adhere to the laws of physics, and they do not. Even the so-called “flying” that’s part of Spider-Man is feckless at best compared to what Tobey and company did on screen.

      In the end, though, I do take your fundamental point: it’s about collaboration, though I’d refer to it as connection with the audience. If we focus on the breathtaking stuff to the detriment of that element, we lose every time.

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