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