Written by Eric Eberwein
I was recently asked to write about how theatre is adapting to modern times. This is an interesting request when we consider the implication that theatre is struggling or somehow failing to adapt. Perhaps it is struggling – struggling for mindshare and struggling for an audience in the face of Netflix, Facebook, first-person shooters and all the other cheap and quickly accessible diversions ready to occupy our time. How do you make theatre as accessible, as contemporary, and as culturally relevant as all of the above? To put it plainly “How do you get more people into theatre in 2015?” How do you get them to fall in love with it and call it their own? Maybe you have to call for change.
A Call for the Contemporary
Why don’t more people go to the theatre? The usual answer is “money” – it costs too much. Well, a night at South Coast Repertory or Laguna Playhouse might cost too much for many OC residents, but a night at STAGES Theatre in Fullerton or Modjeska Playhouse in Lake Forest is quite affordable. But money is really only half the answer. The other half is the general public’s perception of theatre. That’s right, the general public. Your co-worker, your yoga instructor, your apartment complex manager, and so on – all those people who don’t plunk down $20 or $40 to see the new Amy Herzog play or a rendition of Into the Woods (like you would do) — how do they perceive theatre? I was once one of them, so I’ll tell you how many of them perceive it. Boring. They see “theatre” as boring. When most people think “ theatre”, they think of a stodgy, static art form telling old or innocuous stories – stories that have little or nothing to do with life in 2015.
“Going to the theatre” is rarely a cutting-edge, PG-13, hip-hop or rock ‘n’ roll experience. “Rarely” because most Non-Theatergoers will readily concede that a few plays and musicals like that exist. But mostly they see theatre as a dull panorama of old, white stories – a polite museum of past American behaviors.
Revivals enforce this perception. Endless programming of plays and musicals portraying a previous American era does little to interest teens, twenty somethings and thirty somethings because they’re convinced this is their grandparents’ art form. While these particular relatives may be plunking down $20 or $50 to see these revivals, they hardly represent the audience theaters must attract to survive. How do you make theatre more contemporary and immediate? One answer is to produce more plays that speak to our time. Another would be to let others (expand diversity) theatrically speak.
A Call for Inclusivity
Most theatre companies are far less diverse than the neighborhoods they call home. This holds true in Orange County, and it holds true across the rest of the country. What can we do about it? I think the philosophy of the Judson Memorial Church (a radically progressive Greenwich Village house of worship that became a major player in the Off-Off-Broadway scene during the 1960s through its theatre programming) should be an inspiration. Historian David Crespy shares in his great book Off-Off-Broadway Explosion, the Judson’s concept of witness, which meant“ finding faith in the world, bringing the world into the church, and by doing so, bringing the church into the world.” In other words, the Judson went into the Village and asked the beats, the artists and the actors who lived there what they were passionate about – what they believed in. It then hosted their art, their plays and their poetry. In doing so it became more relevant to the community than it had ever been before.
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