Monthly Archives: January 2009

How to make America a nation of theatregoers

Adding to the debate, I’ll share this Guardian Theatre Blog post:

How to make America a nation of theatregoers

The play is not, apparently, the thing – at least, that’s the conclusion reached by America’s National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA has released a report claiming that attendance at non-musical plays in the United States has fallen by 16%, down from 25 million to 21 million, since 1992. “Supply has outstripped current demand,” commented chairman Dana Gioia.

If theatres and play development groups are perceived as surplus to requirements, the study could have disastrous results for arts funding in the US. Instead of slashing these budgets, the NEA would do well to increase them and finance projects that build an audience for straight plays.

It might sound patronising, if not positively undemocratic, to suggest that people who don’t want to see plays should be instructed otherwise. But that’s precisely what the NEA proposed after its 2004 survey Reading at Risk disclosed that fewer than half of American adults read fiction or poetry. When the study noted that 4 million fewer Americans read fiction in 2002 than in 1992 (the same number who have apparently ceased attending drama), Gioia declared a “national crisis” and established the Big Read, a programme that sponsors literature-related activities in 400 communities.

Gioia, a poet, didn’t suggest that people had stopped reading poetry because the supply of stanzas had outstripped demand. Rather, he argued that this was a problem not merely for authors and publishers, but for all Americans. He warned that the decline in “engaged literacy” would result in a nation “less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.”

Similar arguments could be made for drama. The idea that theatre enables catharsis is rather musty. But few would deny that the immediacy of live performance encourages empathy more immediately than television or film. Unlike reading or watching TV, theatre is a communal exercise, encouraging interpersonal exchange – if only at the theatre bar. A compassionate and socially adept populace should be as welcome as an active and independent-minded one.

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.

The NEA would also do well to sponsor initiatives for low-cost tickets. The report argued that ticket prices were not a “primary” factor, as “statistical models predict that a 20% price hike in low-end subscription or single tickets will reduce total attendance by only 2%”. But that’s simply the wrong statistical model to apply. As theatre tickets already cost much more than a movie ticket, a book, a DVD or a bottle of very fancy gin, a 20% rise wouldn’t matter so much for those who are already able to afford it. Instead of asking how much audiences would decline if ticket prices increased, the NEA should inquire how much they would increase should ticket prices be reduced. Only one major New York theatre, the Signature, has a programme on a par with the National’s £10 tickets initiative. All seats are $15 and the theatre is usually full.

If all else fails, the NEA might consider underwriting the salaries of movie stars who deign to appear on the stage. The Seagull, with Kristin Scott Thomas, and All My Sons, featuring Mrs Tom Cruise, have recently recouped their investments. Stargazing still ranks, it seems, as a popular pastime.

Open Thread: Why Theatre?

Thanks to everyone who came out to the OpenForum discussion last night and thanks to Woolly for hosting us.  Great turn-out and a really nice range of opinions and ideas.

So, in the OpenForum tradition, we’d like to continue the conversation back here, on the blog.  Many exciting topics emerged out of last night’s event, but here were a few that we came back to time and time again—-what do you think?

–Should the government provide more, less, or no funds to the arts/theatre?  What effect will more or less funding have on the theatre industry?  Will more funding (and potentially more oversight) limit/censor what theatres produce?

UPDATED:  Variety just posted an article called Do live arts need federal boost?

–Can theatre become a mass-media industry?  Have we reached our maximum audience or can theatre become an equal part of pop culture?

Articles of Interest

A few interesting articles today.

The first is a NY Times article on why there are so few sequels in theatre, compared to the success of film sequels.

The second, also from the Times,  questions if there will be more or less of a demand for war plays in the coming seasons.

Speaking of which, one of Forum’s favorite playwrights, Caryl Churchill, has written a quick response to the events in Gaza in the form of a 10 minute at Royal Court.

From Royal Courts production of THE WEIR.

From Royal Court's production of THE WEIR.

And lastly, a Guardian article on two things that go together well and how they can go even better:  Theatre and bars.

“Why Theatre?”

Inspired by the ongoing discussions both at Woolly Mammoth’s How Theatre Failed America and here, on the blog, we will be holding a special OpenForum event on Monday.  The “round table” will be focused on many of the topics raised by you, in the comments section of our recent postings.  Titled “Why Theatre?,”  we will discuss how the medium fits in today’s cultural environment, who it’s being done for, and how it can remain relevant for the future.

It all kicks off at 7pm on Monday, the 26th, at Woolly Mammoth.  Let’s continue the conversation.

The official word:

Hi friends,

Many of you attended a performance of How Theater Failed America at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company this month, and many of you participated in one or more of the provocative post-show panel discussions.  These lively and spirited dialogues covered a lot of ground, from the state of Washington theatre to the health of the arts as a whole.

For many of us, the discussions have continued well after the evening you spent with Mike Daisey. Many of you have voiced your thoughts Forum Theatre’s Blog [www.forumtheatreblog.com], or the bar after the show, or in the lobby of Woolly.

We’re hosting an informal, in-person gathering to continue the conversation about the place of theatre in American society, its relevance as an art form in the 21st century, and the ways in which theatre-makers and theatre-goers might innovate the broken(?) system.

Please join us on Monday January 26th at 7 p.m. in the Woolly Mammoth lobby. “Why Theatre?” will be an OpenForum event moderated by Forum Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Dove and OpenForum curator Patrick Bussink.

Forum Theatre presents an OpenForum:
“Why Theatre?”

A discussion about the relevance of the art form and its place in society

Hosted by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Monday, January 26th
7pm
@ Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Open Thread: How Theatre Failed America

Several of us at Forum attended last night’s performance of How Theatre Failed America, over at Woolly Mammoth.  The show’s creator and performer, Mike Daisey, is a renowned monologue performer and blogger. In this particular show, Daisey raises questions about the state of American Theatre, how it has failed to live up to its potential, how it is so difficult for artists, particularly performers, to make a living doing it, and many other topics.  Some of the topics raised in the show were also in this article Mr. Daisey wrote for Seattle’s Stranger.  Then, following the performance, there was a panel discussion, featuring some our community’s leaders and featured artists, where the ideas of the performance were hashed out by the audience.  I’ve been to two of these post-show events and last night’s was heavily made up of theatre-makers, which made for a very interesting, passionate, and informed debate.  The show starts up again tomorrow, plays until Sunday, and has another post-show on Friday.

Mike Daisey, photos by Kenneth Aaron

Mike Daisey, photos by Kenneth Aaron

Since then, I haven’t been able to stop going over the discussion in my head and all the issues and ideas that came up.   We probably could have talked all night as I’m sure many of us had plenty to say and propose.  So, I thought I’d continue the talk here.  Feel free to add on your thoughts about where we are as an “industry,”  where theatre stands in our nation, what are the problems we face, what are the solutions, and whatever else.  Like:  is it working just fine?

To start, my prevailing thought has been about how we, Forum, as a company, can progress and support our artists.  Our organization is structured so that each company member wears many hats–Fiona is an actor-slash-marketing director, Patrick heads up this OpenForum program while also performing onstage.  But, at our size, we are far from supporting our members financially.  So, it makes me wonder if this is a model that can be sustained as we evolve?  Is this a potential solution to supporting artists—an organization where we are all paid regular salaries while performing multiple duties, both onstage and off?  It has always been Forum’s theory that when artists are involved with all aspects of the organization, an exciting energy and unity would be created that would be evident in our performances.  When the panelists at Woolly have been asked “What advice would you give to future theatre artists?” many of the speakers responded by advising them to become multi-talented.  Maybe this is a way forward……?

What’s on your mind?

What We Missed While We Were Gone…

Hello everyone–we’re back from our collective holidays break, and working hard on the next show, Marisol, planning the next season, and just playing general catch-up.

Over the break, we got some nice end-of-the-year press, as the local news outlets put up their 2008 round-ups.  We were very proud that our production of Judas made The Washington City Paper’s review.  It was even called the “most dazzling play of the year.” Later in the article, it also mentions our announcement of doing Angels in America next season. Over at The Washington Post, Judas made it on their top 10 list.

On top of all this, some of the best news we’ve heard is that our H Steet neighborhood is getting a free shuttle service!  This is good news for all of you who know all-too-well about how hard it can be to park near the theatre before a show.  A big ‘thank you’ to the H Street Business Cooperative and to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells for making this happen!