Long-Form Research Essay: The Future of Live Theater

Ask yourself this: When was the last time you were told a story in a way that wasn’t through a glass or projected screen? Unfortunately, traditional mediums of storytelling have been struggling as of late. This has been especially true for live theater. Reports by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have observed a drop in America’s overall theater attendance since 2012 (NEA, 2015). It’s an accurate assumption that the audiences for mainstream entertainment far outnumber the audiences of live theater. But even with this existing disparity, I strongly believe that there are reasons to feel positive about the future of the platform.

According to the most recent demographic report by the Broadway League, a record-breaking 13.1 million people have gone to see a Broadway production within the last two years (2016). What could be the causes for this? Now more than ever, theaters are taking advantage of modern technology to market their shows to a wider audience and revolutionize stage production. Furthermore, Hamilton’s critical acclaim, as well as the wealth of ethnically diverse shows on Broadway are pinning the New York theater district as the nation’s leader in diversity. Trends such as these make me confident that live theater in America can look forward to a bright future. However, this is not without making some major changes within the industry and our government. In what ways do these trends suggest a positive outlook in the future of the stage? What challenges should be overcome in order to improve the climate for live theater?

Technology on the Stage: Accessibility and Evolution

At first glance the NEA’s most recent report on theater attendance mentioned earlier may be discouraging. But vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts Randy Cohen suggests something very interesting. In a New York Times article by Patricia Cohen, he says that “[people] are not walking away from the arts so much, but walking away from the traditional delivery mechanisms.”(2013) Specifically, Randy refers to the growing number of live performance simulcasts in the country. One of the largest issues contributing to the lack of theater attendance is the struggle to make live theater more accessible to potential audiences. The use of technology to broadcast theater shows is proving to be an effective way to combat this issue. Success stories include the National Theater Live (NTL) program in Great Britain. NTL livestreams theater productions to cinemas around the country and all over the world, bringing quality live theater to more places than ever before (About Us).

But what else can we define as “traditional delivery mechanisms”? The term could also refer to the way these stories are told. Advances in technology are drastically transforming the way we deliver narratives on the stage. The use of projection design is one of the main technologies being utilized for these very purposes. Stage designers such as Timothy Bird based in London and Charlie Miller with the Denver Center Theater Company are taking advantage of projection technologies to create unique and imaginative set designs. However, the use of this new medium isn’t met without the criticisms of purists who believe these technologies to be gimmicky. These two designers understand that what they do cannot substitute the live performances of the actors on stage, but can only try to enhance the experience. In developing unique ways to tell their stories using projection technology, people like Bird and Miller are breathing new life into productions we may have already experienced before, and are reinventing the stage for future stories to be told. (Shaw, 2012) (Moore, 2010).

Hamilton & an Audience Seeking Diversity

Lately, no one is able to surf the internet or watch TV without overhearing discussions on racial diversity in our media. The conversation has recently reached a fever pitch with the controversy over an overwhelming lack of Oscar nominees that are people-of-color, as well as the astounding amount of critical acclaim meeting the ethnically diverse-casted musical Hamilton. Unfortunately, one of the most widely used arguments for not casting people-of-color into movies and television is that “[insert non-white ethnicity here] doesn’t sell.” Luckily, Hamilton’s existence shows that this excuse isn’t going to hold up for much longer. Now a Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Hamilton is proving to producers something extremely important: that productions that are casted by a majority of non-white actors can be commercially and critically successful (Vigas, 2016).

More than ever, audiences are demanding that the people they watch in movies and television reflect the faces of Americans today. Gradually, many people are growing more aware to the fact that diversity has always been an integral aspect of live theater. This is especially apparent in mainstream theater on Broadway. Broadway, also known (ironically) as “Great White Way” has been experiencing a recent rise in ethnically diverse casting and productions both musical and non-musical alike dedicated to telling the stories of people-of-color. Musicals such as The Color Purple, Allegiance, or Shuffle Along are a few of the notable Broadway productions that proudly showcase central casts of non-white actors and actresses (Weinberger, 2016).

The Challenges Ahead

One of the largest hurdles facing theater today is the financial one. The recently published book Curtains? by Michael M. Kaiser notes how from the 50s to 60s, evolving family structure, changes in lifestyles, and especially economic trends have gradually limited the popularity and accessibility of live theater (2015). Most recently, the economic recession also marked one of the lowest points of performing arts attendance. Government funding to arts programs was decreased significantly between 2008 and 2013 (Kaiser, 2015). If we want to avoid a further drop in these numbers, the government needs to invest more money in the arts. Another thing to consider is the price of tickets. According to the LA Times, the average cost of a show ticket on Broadway has just surpassed $100 (Ng, 2014). If we want to bring theater to the areas of society who can’t afford it, these are issues that must be addressed first.

Another challenge to consider besides our financial situation is encouraging theater interest within our youth. When it comes to the lack of theater attendance, there is a misinformed notion amongst critics who fear for the survival of live theater that it’s the younger generation’s fault. According to Craig Lambert’s article in Harvard Magazine, “A youthful generation raised amid a digital culture may prove harder to lure to a live theatrical performance…” (2012). Because millennials tend to value technology and more mainstream forms of entertainment more, some critics pin the blame on disinterested youth. However, people like Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, believe that this issue needs to be looked at from another angle. The same Harvard Magazine article cites her opinions on theater audiences today. “We have to flip that analysis and say, ‘Maybe it’s us — maybe it’s the arts producers. Not just the writers and actors but the whole machine — perhaps we have to do a better job of inviting this audience back to the theater.” Paulus challenges the system, calling for it to be more critical of itself and understand how they can make live theater appeal to a modern audience (Lambert, 2012).

But if there is a generation of youth disinterested in theater, what exactly are the factors contributing to this? Unfortunately, this seems to be an issue that’s rooted at an institutional level, more specifically, within our system of education. Lambert’s article in Harvard Magazine interviews Robert Brustein, founding director of the American Repertory Theater. “If children aren’t exposed to music and art, you won’t develop either artists or audiences…” he says. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education published, theater programs for elementary schools are on a nationwide decline. Past results showed that only 20% of public schools offered a program dedicated to drama/theater instruction in the 1999–2000 school year. In its most recent study published in 2012, only 4% of public schools had a theater program in the 2009–2010 school year (U.S. Department of Education). If we hope to nurture a future generation that values live theater, it is imperative that we make significant changes to our educational system and how it treats arts education.

Towards the Future

Today, we live in an era of unique issues compared to decades past. When national financial issues cut theater financing, digital media dominates entertainment, and arts education isn’t prioritized, one can easily feel discouraged about the future of live theater. However, it is my firm belief that a new era of prosperity in live theater is just within grasp. While we are a generation that consumes digital media now more than ever, were are also a generation that strongly values art and diversity. I am optimistic that theater can thrive as long as: One, artists within the industry continue to take advantage of technology’s benefits while keeping casts diverse. And two, the government gives proper funding to theaters while encouraging the interest of youth by reprioritizing our educational system. With these changes, I believe that theater can become the new frontier for modern storytelling and mainstream entertainment.

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Works Cited

About us. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2016, from http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/about-us

Cohen, P. (2013, September 26). A New Survey Finds a Drop in Arts Attendance. The New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/26/arts/a-new- survey-finds-a-drop-in-arts-attendance.html

Kaiser, M. M. (2015). Curtains?. Waltham, US: Brandeis. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Lambert, C. (2012, January/February). The Future of Theater. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved March 5, 2016, from http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/01/the-future-of-theater

Moore, J. (2010, October 31). Will a high-tech revolution bring curtain down on theater as we know it? The Denver Post. Retrieved March 5, 2016, from http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16461270

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). (2015, January). A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002–2012 [Online PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/2012-sppa-jan2015-rev.pdf

Ng, B. (2014, June 10). Average cost of a Broadway ticket passes $100 for the first time. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-broadway-ticket-prices-20140610- story.html

Shaw, D. (2012, March 27). Digital Drama: The technology transforming theatre. BBC News. Retrieved March 5, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-17079364

The Broadway League. The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2014–2015. (2016, January). Retrieved February 20, 2016, from https://www.broadwayleague.com/index.php?url_identifier=the-demographics-of-the- broadway-audience

U.S. Department of Education. (2012, April). Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools 1999–2000 and 2009–2010 [Online PDF]. Retrieved on May 1, 2016 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012014rev.pdf

Vigas, Robert. (2016, April 18). Hamilton Wins 2016 Pulitzer Prize; Miranda Reacts. Playbill. Retrieved May 1, 2016 from http://www.playbill.com/article/hamilton-wins-2016- pulitzer-prize-com-347196

Weinberger, Aliza. (2016, May 1) #BroadwaySoDiverse; When it comes to representation, theater is kicking Hollywood’s ass. Mashable. Retrieved May 1, 2016 from http://mashable.com/2016/05/01/broadway-so-diverse/#HZWLgezVGkqw