Serve Yourself? No.

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.

4 thoughts on “Serve Yourself? No.”

  1. An interesting thing I’ve been learning over the last couple of years is that these varying impulses to make theater, which you’ve clumped well here, conflict with each other less than one might initially think. If you strongly align your mission with your artistic impulses and only produce work that speaks to you powerfully, you can do the additional hard work to communicate to prospective audience members what they will find equally exciting about the material. Once you have an audience paying attention to you and committing to your work with the same depth that you do, a little money will follow – usually enough. I believe the reason most companies fall short is that they fail to admit to themselves that if they want to thrive, they need to put about a third of their effort each into creating the work, promoting the work, and sustaining the organization. Many of the companies you describe as overly concerned with their own artistic satisfaction just aren’t making the resources to do the other two thirds of running a company. I think “Build it and they will come,” has been one of the most damaging concepts to enter American art in recent decades. Artists need to make art that excites them or they will, in the end, bore everyone; but they need to put the effort in to find people who will share the excitement and entice them into the house, or fall into exactly the trap Gwydion describes here.

  2. We had a long discussion about t his on the #2amt Twitter stream today, and much of what was said echoed your sentiments, Pete. Rather than respond here, though — and because I’m inspired by that conversation — I’m going to write a subsequent post…

  3. I have another way of looking at what you consider the “artist-centric” dominant quadrant (and I’m writing fast during a quick break!) Theatre is by definition collaborative. When artists get together to support each other in the creation of a project (“artist-centric”) that is critically important to their lives, it sometimes results in an exceptional play, and often provides a step forward in the growth of the collaborators.

    Many of today’s non-profit theaters err in the direction of one of the quadrants you outline. I believe that all four categories MUST be active for non-profit theatres to effectively re-invent themselves and become a vital force in American culture.

    More on this later!

  4. I can’t wait to hear more! And yes, I agree, we could all stand some balance. It feels like needing to balance the elements Or like giving all four Beatles equal stage time. But it really is important…

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