It is a constant refrain that seems to be growing in volume with each season. Literary departments of theatres nationwide are overwhelmed and understaffed. There simply isn’t the manpower (nor expertise) available to adequately evaluate the deluge of new plays being submitted here, there and everywhere. So what’s a country to do?
This is fundamentally an American problem, borne in part at least of a nasty confluence of two circumstances unique to the United States.
1. The American public schools have in large part turned their back on the Arts, the result of which is a populace generally lacking in curiosity or hunger for new music, theatre or Fine Art. The vacuum left by our educational system has been filled by movies and television, and more recently by the internet. The result of all this is that audiences for new plays in particular are rapidly dwindling.
2. American ambition is still unmatched in the rest of the world. The can-do attitude that seems to be encoded into our DNA means more of us seem to be possessed of the notion that we have the talent necessary to write for the stage. Brits, by contrast, are far less self-assured. I can’t count the number of brilliant writers I know from Great Britain who don’t believe they’ve any business attempting a career in the theatre.
The unfortunate confluence of these two facts of life here make for a uniquely hostile environment for the playwright. We have fewer and fewer people going to the theatre and more and more people writing for it. Say, what?
We need to ask ourselves as a nation whether the death of our theatre is something we give a damn about. The question needs to be posed honestly, without judgment, so that once and for all, we can begin to end the slow misery that is choking American theatre. The only way we can begin to address this is by examining and taking inventory of what theatre has to offer society as a whole.
Some argue that whatever cathartic value theatre carries is delivered just as effectively by movies and television. Storytelling is, after all storytelling, regardless of the medium, goes the argument.
This, I believe, is a gross and dangerous over-simplification. There are many things that happen to an audience member watching high quality theatre that can never occur in any other context. I doubt if I or anyone can name them all. But here are just a few.
1. A group of people seated together in one room share an unspoken agreement to suspend their disbelief and accept the actors performing as real characters in real situations. Projected images on a screen do not require nearly the same investment of one’s imaginative powers.
2. We are propelled on the journey of storytelling through language which we hear. Movies are primarily visually propelled storytelling. Books are language-driven but we do not have to listen to them in order to enjoy them. In an increasingly cluttered world, dominated by loud and impenetrable advertising, the skill of listening is slowly disappearing.
3. One person’s ideas are communicated through the voices and movements of many. In other words, the playwright speaks through the cast of actors. I do not mean this in the way it is used by teachers of playwriting trying to free their students of the bad habit of speaking with one voice (their own) through all their characters. I’m talking about something deeper. When we engage with one person’s vision as translated through an ensemble on stage, something unique and powerful is taking place. A fundamental trust in the power of community and in the generosity of spirit required of those actors is communicated on a deep unconscious level. The actors and audience alike give themselves fully to one person’s vision for an hour or two or three. This is unique.
4. The community is paying money to build and sustain a piece of shared culture. Subscribers, large corporate and individual donors and single ticket buyers alike all assume a sense of ownership in the theatre in a way that does not hold true for film and television, which we now understand to be largely (if not entirely) paid for by advertisers who do not share our concerns or best interests. This exists with other endangered art institutions such as symphony orchestras, opera companies, ballet and museums but there is one critical difference between all of these and the theatre.
5. Theatre has the power to inspire social change. By directly depicting elements of our life experience as we see it, theatre is a powerful force for change, which may explain why it, more than any other art form, has again and again been suppressed or banned in this country and in others.
In a way, it seems to me that we are now engaged in a long and slow process of banning theatre in America. Unlike cruder 18th and 19th century forms, our censorship is systemic. By failing to raise each new generation to value storytelling in this way, we are ensuring that a volatile and unpredictable cultural force goes away once and for all.
If this is America’s final verdict on theatre, at least let’s have the decency to acknowledge it openly and stop pretending we believe in and support something that we truly don’t. Until we have this debate in our schools and community boards and living rooms and board rooms, we are just play acting, pretending to care about our culture while we slowly let it die.