A Watershed Moment
COVID-19 will prove to be the watershed moment in defining the history of the 21st century. Apart from our communal human experience of the virus and its reverberations across the human spectrum, the arts and in particular theater must learn to surf the waves of change.
Remember body surfing the waves when you were a kid? The key lesson was to learn to relax and float on the surface of the water when the wave hit. Resistance and rigidity would result in dragging you down into the undertow – not a pleasant experience.
As theatremakers, how do we relax and float in the face of the tsunami of change hitting our industry? Let me tell you what won’t work: resistance and rigidity, holding tight to the model of what was instead of facing the challenge of what is.
Facing the Wave
The way I see it, the waves of change encompass the economics of theater, audience demographics, and the need for inclusive storytelling models.
First, economically, theater’s been devastated. I’ll leave it to others to provide charts and graphs on the precise numbers, but as a broad perspective we’re facing an industry where many of our brightest and talented workers have left theater (and left NYC) because they needed to survive. Those who stayed are now faced with rising costs on everything, fewer opportunities to work and even fewer opportunities to work on projects they like. Producers and artistic directors are also facing rising costs of everything, including the realization that we must pay our artists a dignified living wage. At the top of this theater food chain, where will this funding come from? Historically artists have been funded by the government, the Church or by wealthy patrons. How’s that working out in the current climate? We must look for a broader economic baseline, much like video and film has had to do earlier. In the meantime, major non-profit arts companies like the Roundabout are making major programming cuts.
Secondly, our audiences are literally dying off. We must change our offerings to suit younger audiences (like the Met’s decision to concentrate more on contemporary work). How do we plug into current culture? By being open to younger artists and taking their creative expression seriously, and being open to embrace the change that’s already here. If art reflects the culture that creates it, we marginalize any artist at our own risk. Remember when Off-Broadway used to be a place for experimentation and risk-taking? Where is that place now (other than TikTok)?
Finally, as times change the way we tell stories must also change. We know that the use of technology has changed the way we process events and tell them. The dramatic imagination is more cinematic and visual than ever before, and it intrinsically changes our storytelling structure. As an industry we must make way for more inclusive storytelling models, not just in terms of whose story we’re telling (although we definitely need more non-western, non-Anglo-centric perspectives) but how we’re presenting these stories. We must allow ourselves space to think outside the proscenium. People today crave experiences where they are immersed in an environment where they retain agency, much along the lines of the interactive video games they grew up with. I’m not saying that we should all follow the Sleep No More model, but marketers around the world have become aware that designing and staging experiences heightens economic value and customer satisfaction. If we want audiences to crave theatre, we have to provide those theatrical experiences in innovative and compelling ways.
Keep Your Eye on the Current
Just as you would never body surf without checking the weather beforehand (at least, not as an adult), so should you understand the cultural and economic currents of the moment. I’m concentrating on smaller cast sizes, deepening audience’ engagement and clarifying the emotional journey. No matter what the story, I’m remembering that essentially theatrical experiences are about the audience’s encounter with the story.
Above all, remember that this moment too will pass. Enjoy the ride and let your audiences do the same.