Play Time

Sobering news for the playwrights, actors, directors, and techies of the world:

cov_theaterreport The National Endowment for the Arts recently released a study on the state of non-profit theatre in the United States. To real theatre mavens, the report is probably already old news. But for you non-drama types, it might clue you in on the challenges we in the theatre world face, and maybe even prod one or two of you to see a play.

The report, “All America’s a Stage,” has both some good and some bad news. The good: The number of non-profit theatres doubled between 1990 and 2005. The country has just under 2,000 of these theatres, which may seem like a lot, except there aren’t too many for-profits. This is pretty much the whole theatrical enchilada, not counting school productions and Broadway. Given the population of the country, that’s roughly one theatre per 150,000 people, and the high percentage of theatres in certain states means some areas are really underrepresented. (I tried to find an international comparison, using Canada or England, but came up empty.) To compare to the film world, the United States had almost 39,000 movie screens in 2007. And those houses never go dark, like theatres do many nights of the year.

For the not-so-good news: The number of people actually going to see plays has fallen. So the actors in those almost-2,000 houses are playing to dwindling crowds. In 1992, 25 million people said they saw at least one non-musical play that year. In 2005, it was just 21 million – less than 10 percent of the adult population. The number goes a little higher if you count musicals.

But it’s straight (non-musical) theatre I write and mostly see, and straight theatre I worry about. As I queried in an earlier post, how many non-profits will be able to survive the current economic skewering that seems ready to stretch on for at least another year? And as the numbers seem to indicate, even in good times, as consumers have more options in what they could see on stage, they are giving drama a big raspberry.

OK, I admit, I am totally biased. But even if I stopped writing plays tomorrow, I could never imagine not seeing actors on stage telling a story. The immediacy of it trumps any big-screen special effects-driven blockbuster or the even the best of the small-screen fare. Theatre has its roots in religion, in people coming together to see their shared myths and cultural lives acted out before them. And to experience a shared emotional release. I know, films are a communal experience, in a way, but the emotional energy of being just a few feet away from an a real person crying with grief or threatening to explode into violent anger over some wrong, while your and hundreds of other pairs of eyes follow every motion and your and hundreds of other pairs of ears hang on every word – holy shit. You don’t get that in any other medium.


...nor this

Ah, not the production I saw...

Ah, not the production I saw...

I don’t remember my first play ever; probably some local student production. And during school days, you don’t see too many powerful straight plays, since musicals typically have larger casts and so can get more people involved, and are typically an easier sell to audiences and administrators. But I do remember going to college and seeing a performance of Albee’s The Zoo Story in a crowded library and thinking, “This is not like anything I’ve ever seen before.” And later seeing Shepard’s Tooth of Crime and realizing theatre could be more than just a few people talking in a naturalistic setting. The kicker was seeing Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway. A play about a writer using words as art, weapon, defense; that did it. I knew I had to try to write plays too.

My Chicago experience, if nothing else, has opened me even more to what a play can be. I’ve seen amazing productions in the tiniest of storefronts, where it seemed like you could reach out and touch the actor’s swinging dick in a nude scene. Actually, you could. I certainly could, since I have longer-than-average arms. And if you don’t think that proximity and reality don’t add to the tension and energy bouncing off the walls, you do not know what theatre can be. Or do.

I know some people can’t stand that proximity. Maybe too much reality is not what the people want, as Woody Allen says in Stardust Memories. But it is, as theatre lovers know, a heightened reality. A powerful reality. A manipulated reality, and I guess ultimately an unreal reality. But there is something human in the best theatre that gives it a richness and depth and importance that, to me, outshines its filmic cousins.

I think I enjoy theatre because I know my presence at the performance helps complete it. Theatre does not exist without an audience to absorb the actor’s words and movements and energy, and feed back energy in return. (Everyone who has ever done theatre at any level knows that the size and attention of the audience has a direct effect on any given show, which is why the same work can play so differently from one night to the next.) Knowing the audience’s role makes me feel very incomplete as a playwright, since I can write scripts till they come out my ass, but if they don’t get staged, they are not really plays. Not theatre. (And most of mine do not get staged.)

So I see the dwindling numbers in the NEA report and I wonder, how many new plays will never be complete, especially when so many of the people who bother to attend the theatre want to see the classics and chestnuts? And how can we develop a love of theatre among the young, when funding for arts in schools gets cut, and the No Child-testing emphasis means there is no time for the arts, even if you have the funding? (I am convinced this emphasis on basic English, math, and, to some degree science, is a deliberate conservative attempt to undermine the power of the “liberal” arts  that encourage free thinking/questioning, such as the social sciences and dramatic/visual arts. My own personal conspiracy theory.)

Money’s going to be tight this year, for us and a lot of folks. But when you can, if you’re lucky enough to be near one of those non-profits, go see a play. Really dare yourself and see something new. Embrace the notion that  this is not TV, this is not film. This is community. This is a spiritual experience. And by your presence, you help create it.


~ by mburgan on January 7, 2009.

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