Is theatre dead?

Depending on who you talk to theatre is dead, dying or absolutely immortal.  They say that in the Darwinian cultural industry there are far too many threats and most of those have flashier plumage.  They count each show that shuts as another nail in theatre’s coffin.  These words place theatre as a monument, a museum diorama that is no longer relevant.  From this emerge the weekend mechanicals, the enthusiastic hobbyists and recreationists that prophesise theatre is becoming homogenised. They warn that anything daring will be stopped.  Oh, they lament, they are surrounded by artistic ignorati.  Of course, they snort, theatre is too beautiful a creature for the masses to behold.  And the hammer falls on the biggest nail of all.  Theatre is not dead; it certainly isn’t immortal in any commercial sense but it is healthy enough and it is growing strong despite the best efforts of some practitioners.

Theatre’s place in the commercial entertainment sphere is sometimes seen as endangered.  Observers note that audiences aren’t interested in theatre as a storytelling medium.  This is something that is usually noted by someone who doesn’t believe that audiences go to theatre of their own free-will.  These commentators wonder why you would go to the theatre when you can see a movie or watch television.   Movies can achieve a spectacle of sound and effects that theatre can’t reproduce and television entertains in the comfort of one’s own home.  And I see the point, why go to an art gallery when you can get postcards or scroll through images online?  If you actually nodded your head at that then just stop reading.  I’ve got nothing more to say that you will be interested in.  Television, film and theatre each have their own merits and, if done properly, each expresses something that can only be said through that medium.  Television has been around for some time, film more so and theatre even more so and to privilege one over another is to display a terrible, narrow-minded cultural arrogance.

As shocking as this news might be, cultural arrogance can be seen in the performing arts as well.  There is a view that all theatre is worthy and it bodes horrors for a society that some shows close.  This thinking is as monomaniacal as those that glorify television as a destroyer of anything that isn’t sport. Let’s be honest, some things just don’t work out. It isn’t you, it’s them.  There are many reasons a show might close but the only one relevant to a conversation about theatre’s prosperity is that people don’t go.  And why would people decide to not go to a show?  Because they don’t like it.  Just because a show is in a theatre does not mean it is good, certainly doesn’t mean it is cultural and absolutely does not indicate that it should be seen.  This is why some people don’t understand theatre and don’t believe that it fits into their cultural world.  Some of it is incomprehensible or just plain misguided.  I know that there are people who put years of their life into a show.  They starve and struggle for the one point that they can tell the world their story.  Bless.  Perhaps their energy would have been better spent elsewhere.  It isn’t the potential audience member’s fault.  Spare them and let the form learn from mistakes instead of pretending it didn’t happen.  If we as audiences put rubber tips on the pointy bits or lead on a performance when we are not interested then producers will continue to make tottering, awkward creations that make us uncomfortable to be around.  People won’t go.  Theatre will die.

Another sure way to ensure that theatre has no commercial viability, and thereby prompting scythe dusting and robe cleaning, is to talk of theatre as Theatre, with a capital letter like Art and Religion.   Although I do appreciate the fervour of those people who see every show their local dramatic society produces, who snub populist theatre and have internalised undergraduate art student obscurantism, I also see that as a commercial entity theatre has to create and engage with audiences.  This means that while there is a place for the type of theatre that even the most obstinate audience finds testing, there is also a very real need for accessibility.  In my opinion this is never a bad thing but I know there are some readers out there who are devising an all naked version of ‘The Red Tent’ with nudity, smoke machines and the script read backwards and I am trying to be the cautionary voice that says “perhaps that energy should be spent elsewhere”.   This is also a wag of the finger to those who say that theatre is too main-stream or that each season from the big companies is getting ever more pedestrian.  This is an ill-informed notion that comes from the same need for cultural validation that makes people say ‘I like their old stuff better than their new stuff’.  It doesn’t make someone more cultured or theatre savvy, it just makes them look frankly disconnected.  There is a lot of theatre and if one company’s season doesn’t appeal to you then go to one that does.

To say that theatre is too main-stream is to say that too many people are going.  It is also to say that the commentator doesn’t like things that other people like.  This seems contrary and aggressive.  The fact that audiences are going provides theatre companies with the funds to do the more outré productions for an audience of six.  Three of which are relatives.  The subscribers are the lifeblood of a theatre (and funding but that is a tale for another time although very much reliant on attendance, which comes back to being accessible).  A theatre company produces more of the same because it works rather than saying ‘that was successful. Let’s make sure we never do that again’.  The theatre company’s brand integrity is based on their season.  But, look beyond what they are showing most openly.  The daring is there.

Theatre is very much alive.  It can stand on its own, without need for blunting the corners.  It isn’t an embarrassing associate to the other arts.  Perhaps, it is more critical than the softer artistic temperaments would like, but it needs to be.  There is competition out there but theatre can fan feathers with the best of them.  For those that say theatre is an anachronism and will end up in some kind of cultural time capsule, I say that theatre is happening whether you see it or not.  There are exciting productions and new companies starting.  Yes, some do stop and I know that some productions are closed but that isn’t indicative of the entire industry.  If it was, you wouldn’t be reading this.  For those that say theatre is dying, I acknowledge that there are struggles and attracting audiences, let alone keeping them loyal, is difficult but this is not industry exclusive. It is about providing the product they want or telling the stories they want to hear.  Theatre isn’t immortal but it isn’t even looking pale.

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