Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Empty Seats

The NEA released a report on the state of straight plays in the United States. The vitals are not encouraging:

Audience trends are flat or in decline. The percentage of the U.S. adult population attending non-musical theater has declined from 13.5 percent (25 million people) in 1992 to 9.4 percent (21 million people) in 2008. The absolute size of the audience has declined by 16 percent since 1992.

And guess what? Ticket prices don't seem to be a major factor.

Overall, the report can be summed up this way: Theaters have undeniably become full of robust administrators, marketers and fundraisers, but audiences don't seem to care. I think the executive summary could be attached as a coda to Mike Daisey's monologue How Theatre Failed America.

There is already talk around the web about the report:

Alexis Soloski, writing in the Guardian:

The NEA already sponsors some theatre outreach, but why not launch a Big See? The endowment could partner with hundreds of communities to encourage attendance at theatre productions and ensure that all schoolchildren have access and exposure to plays, developing a new generation of audience members.

In Response, George Hunka sighs:

Telling people that theatre is "necessary" to their lives is transparently false. Besides, is "empathy" or "interpersonal exchange" all that theatre is about? Can people not get that elsewhere? Or could it look more deeply at our condition, as an art that uniquely places the speaking body at the center of our


Scott Walters said...

I think we're reading the report backwards, as if it is about the theatre audience. I think we ought to read the report as if it were about the artists. Suddenly, the conclusion is that the writers of straight plays, which is the category that has suffered a decline in attendance, need to write better, more dynamic, more enriching plays. This isn't about competing with other forms, it is about making this form so compelling that people refuse to stay away. I don't agree with George Hunka's conclusion that the theatre needs more tragedy -- that's a genre. I think the theatre needs more energy, variety, depth, and good humor, and at the same time it needs less vitriol, less blame, less scorn, less pessimism. If you want to see what the public wants, take a look at the presidential election.

Ian Thal said...

I think Scott raises an important question: Shouldn't the theatre artists be thinking about creating work that is essential to the culture? Even when I see well-crafted contemporary work, so much of it is small in scope: It's about a singular theme, a singular issue, and sometimes a single character eclipses every other role. These sorts of plays rarely lend themselves to being interpreted over and over again.

It's not just the engagement that an audience member has in the moment and in thoughts about the play afterwards, on some level it has to be either a.) I wonder what this creative team will stage next; or b.) I wonder what a different creative team would do with the same story?; or c.) How would I stage or rewrite that play, or interpret that character?

And how often do you think a member of the general audience that only occasionally goes to live theatre events is engaged on that level?

I think Hunka makes a good point when he references tragedy-- in the sense that, if we go by the standard history of theatre text, tragedy played a central role in ancient Athenian culture, just as commedia dell'arte did in renaissance Europe, and vaudeville did in American society a century ago.