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About American Theatre Wing

Defending the Invalid

A few times in the past week, I have encountered several people who, unprompted, expressed to me their concern for the future of theatre. I am not sure what prompted this confluence of empathy, but I chose primarily to listen to their dissertations on why theatre was in trouble and why they were worried.

It immediately bears mentioning that these were well educated, culturally aware people, who no matter where they were from (and I’ve been on both coasts in the past seven days), seemed well informed on the newest theatrical works, although they were perhaps disproportionately basing their information on The New York Times, rather than a range of media outlets, regardless of their location.

Because it has been a hectic week, I simply wasn’t up for a sustained debate about the undying nature of the fabulous invalid; cross-country travel has a funny way of putting me into an altered state: anticipatory anxiety over the rigors of travel, the charming experiences that characterize our modern airports, the unfamiliarity of my accommodations, and so my rhetorical engagement was superseded by the specifics of the tasks I had to accomplish.

As I return to New York (I am currently 35,000 feet over the Mississippi, I imagine, but a blanket of clouds prevents better geo-location), I realize that I missed opportunities to evangelize for theatre and so, to avoid this problem in the future, even when torpor besets me, I have decided to enumerate the talking points I should have at the ready any time the vitality or validity of theatre in our present day, or future days, presents itself. Perhaps this may prove useful to others as well.

1. Theatre hasn’t always been for everyone, and it’s not reasonable to expect that it should be. There is this unspoken theory that in the days before electronic media, everyone flocked to the theatre constantly. But for every audience member at Shakespeare’s Globe, there were probably five others else where enjoying a good bear-baiting somewhere. That is to say, even when today’s high culture was somewhat less high flown, there was always an even lower common denominator form of entertainment outselling it, but the latter has never seemed to eradicate the former. In fact, we’ve outlasted bear-baiting, so there.
2. The desire to make theatre seems innate. While it has taken different forms and styles across cultures, languages and eras, theatre has always been there, from the Greeks up to today. We hear about the dismal opportunities for playwrights to make a living from their craft (and it is worthy of concern), but the poor economic model doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. I have no figures, but in America at least, I suspect we have an ever growing number of playwrights, fighting to get their work produced in a wide range of venues. Logic may dictate that they apply their efforts to other forms of writing – even other dramatic forms – but something about the stage calls to them.
3. You don’t need a theatre to make theatre. This applies to adventurous, site specific ventures by trailblazing companies just as easily as it applies to living rooms and basements of imaginative youths. You can actually make theatre with nothing but people, meaning that theatre is stunningly accessible to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and there are no rules, no requirements beyond imagination. Yes, money can enhance the experience, but as we know all too well, money can also overwhelm the art. “A poor theatre” is not necessarily “poor theatre.” And when children invent their own dramatic scenarios for their parents, I’ve never heard of one saying that they’re making their own movie or TV program – they somehow know they’re putting on a play.
4. Yes, it’s expensive to attend in most cases, but when was the last time you bought a ticket to a sporting event or rock concert. Inexplicably, people endlessly discuss how expensive theatre is, but they’re not as quick to say the same of some other forms of live entertainment. I think this is rooted in the idea that theatre is elitist and so this argument is trooped out to reinforce the stereotype, when other entertainments are at least as expensive or even more so. Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences. Theatre is expensive in order to support a distinctly human interaction that is incredibly labor intensive at every level, but if you want to have a moment with your heroes, just take a quick survey of any venue where it’s performed and find the stage door. You’ll see your heroes, maybe even speak with them and get an autograph or a photo, instead of discovering that, say, they’re already on the way to their airport so they can fly home and sleep in their own bed, while you’re still trying to get out of the parking lot.
5. Theatre is outnumbered by the electronic media, but so what. Yes, the advent of the printing press reduced the job prospects for those skilled in producing illuminated manuscripts, but presumably monks found other pursuits for the solitary devotions (I believe one order in Europe produces a great beer – no kidding and no disrespect). Every advancement in technology from Gutenberg to Steve Jobs has offered new ways of distributing forms of entertainment to more people in ever more creative ways, but isn’t it funny how theatre has remained in practice throughout? Movies may be more popular than radio, television may reach more people than go to the movies, and the computer may be more prevalent in our homes (and pockets) than TVs. But each of those forms have found their place and their level, while theatre has perhaps grown as well, since it is less and less the province of singular patrons and increasingly embraced by its own communities not only as a form of entertainment, but as an economic engine as well.
6. The very thing that challenges theatre is also what keeps it alive. Oxymoronic as that may be, it’s absolutely true. Individual productions will rarely ever reach the number of people who see a single episode of a mediocre TV series, but it is the fact that theatre is live and unable to be electronically duplicated and distributed ad nauseum that makes it entirely unique each and every time there is a performance. That may not be meaningful to everyone, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the recording, film and television industries are scrambling to cope with the havoc wrought by digital piracy while theatre only has to concern itself with cell phones going off during shows and taking poor video recordings of snippets of shows. And only a few years after the music industry discovered that live concerts are the only hedge against piracy, fewer rock tours are able to hit their economic marks, while theatre, while challenged in this wavering economy, goes on.
7. Even after civilization as we know it has been destroyed by the madness of war and politics, theatre will still be made. I realize I’m taking a leap here, but I refer you to the final scenes of the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, after the gladiatorial arena has been upended, in which a small group of young people who hold the hope of restoring society in their hands gather nightly to “tell the tale” of the man called Max, and while one youngster holds a frame of sticks suggesting the confines of a movie screen, they are performing a nightly play, as we’ve seen earlier, for a captive audience, in which they come together by firelight to enact their own, new history – acting the tale, not simply telling it.

We’ve been asked to stow our electronics and fold up our tray tables in preparation for landing, so I’ll leave my list – albeit incomplete and perhaps a bit irreverent – incomplete. That’s actually not so terrible; after all, our “elevator speeches” are often cut short when we reach our destination.

I should acknowledge once again that we face economic struggles in our efforts to make theatre, and the realities of a complicated and ever more technologically wondrous society are not necessarily enhancements that will improve the lot of live theatre in the world. I do not believe simply that “if we build it they will come,” nor do I believe that if we applaud at theatre it will, like Tinker Bell, be perpetually brought back to life.

But I do believe that in its simplicity, its foundation in the human connection of people telling, of people enacting stories for other groups of people, live and alive, theatre will go on precisely because we cannot be reduced to a series of zeroes and ones, packed for sale at the local warehouse superstore, or streamed into homes. The very things that make theatre hard to sustain are what insure its survival.

What gives you hope – or makes you worry – about the long-term future of theatre? What are your “elevator arguments” about the future of theatre? Please share your comments with us below.



Posted on Monday, April 4th, 2011 at 11:12 am
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6 Responses to “Defending the Invalid”

  1. Mari G. Says:
    April 4th, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Lovely post and lovely writing style. Thanks for a Monday morning reminder of why it is OK to trust in the unending pursuit of great theatre. :-)

    I personally think that while Theatre is not and never has been for everyone– it is particularly needed right now. Perhaps instead of this being a bad time for theatre, the super busy, over technical, economically challenging world we live in makes it a great time for theatre.

    As you say ” we cannot be reduced to a series of zeroes and ones, packed for sale at the local warehouse superstore, or streamed into homes.”

    SO maybe if we gently remind folks, they will see the Theatre as a way to reconnect with other humans in a way that builds empathy, connection and passion for life. I think on the average Monday morning we could all use a bit more of THAT!

    Thanks again. And happy recovery from your busy travels.

  2. Kate Foy Says:
    April 4th, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Super, Howard, just super. Thank you.

  3. Defending the Invalid | The Content Beast Says:
    April 4th, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    [...] By: American Theatre Wing [...]

  4. John Geoffrion Says:
    April 5th, 2011 at 9:39 am

    An otherwise great essay but I must comment on one item.

    The overriding sentiment of item #4 can be summed up thus: “Why won’t people pay $100 to see live theatre? Don’t they know how good it is for them?” And that seems shockingly disconnected from reality.

    When live (non-musical) theatre is as much a part of the cultural landscape as sports and pop music, then it’s justifiable to price it accordingly. Wake me, however, when Denis O’Hare and Norbert Leo Butz reach the same level of hero worship as Derek Jeter and Justin Timberlake.

    The ideal paradigm for theatre in which the previous commenter’s vision of “Theatre … building empathy, connection and passion for life” can be an actual reality (instead of a quaint trope or marketing phrase), is in smaller venues. A reduction of scale, but not of vision. A performance at a 99-seat black box theatre — where one is separated from the performer by inches instead of yards — offers a uniquely intense, personal, intimate experience, and is economically comparable to a movie ticket or restaurant meal as opposed to a Yankees game, a rock concert, or a night at the symphony or opera. And you can wear jeans and not feel judged.

    Plus many of the groups I work with bring beer, wine and cookies to share with the audience after. You can’t get more up close and personal with the artists than that.

    John Geoffrion
    General Manager
    Small Theatre Alliance of Boston

  5. Noises off: The worst of times, or the best of times? | Chris Wilkinson | ABC Art Gallery Says:
    April 7th, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    [...] American theatre in trouble? Howard Sherman on the American Theatre Wing blog says he’s been hearing the question a lot recently. But he reckons not. In a seven-point [...]

  6. Ben Lemon Says:
    May 24th, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    “Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences.”
    – Sorry, but I think this is a little wrong. It’s certainly true that the public rarely gets to interact with rockstars or sports gods. But it seems clear that those “distant figures” are making an extremely personal connection with their audiences. Look at the faces in the concerts, at the sports arenas – those people are involved. Their willingness to pay those high prices tells you that by itself. I don’t think we make that same connection most of the time in the theater. The sports and commercial music worlds are utterly driven by commerce. If they don’t connect, they die. I think we deny that at our peril…

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