Indulge me in a little rhetorical drama, I have, on occasion, so indulged many of you.

The USA needs theatre.

We are a potentially free and democratic people, but when the citizens become disenchanted and politically disengaged, we disenfranchise ourselves and cede leadership to those who can tolerate swimming in a political cesspool.

Theatre makes me a better citizen, both by directly confronting me with political and philosophical content and by reminding me of the diverse and powerful ways to be human.

That’s why when I hear Rocco taking declining theatre audiences as an inevitable fact I worry, and when I see a room full of theatre professionals accepting it I get confused. A declining audience means you get to improve fewer people.

By mid day on Thursday, I was angry that we were talking about ANYTHING except how to recruit new audience members. So many of the problems people were raising were driven by tight resources, resources that are only going to get tighter if audiences continue to shrink. I was distracting myself from what should have been an engrossing discussion of new theatrical forms. I saw the need to console myself, and like any man of faith, I took comfort in scripture.

Michael Kaiser describes a four stroke heart beat of arts institutional thriving. 1) Make great art. 2) Market it well. 3) Attract a family of followers and supporters. 4) Accept money from them in order to make more and better art. Repeat.

As you were all talking about improving relationships between artists and institutions, about bringing greater diversity into our workplaces and onto our stages, about exploring new ways to invent theater, on into yesterday talking about partnerships between organizations and technologies to help people find each other to form such partnerships, especially when you were just getting ideas from each other or discovering things you might work on together – through all of that you moving towards making greater art, working on step one, which is crucial and which is your primary role in the whole scheme.

But all of us who love the theater need to devote some of our time, and I know this is much easier for me than for most of you but I can’t let you off the hook, to direct efforts to grow the family. I’ll give you a few ideas:

First, know your audience, I don’t mean broadly and demographically and I don’t mean all of them, I mean some of them face to face by name. Ask them why they came. Ask them why they value the experience. Beg them to recruit more people into the audience. By the way, you’re likely to hear very nice things about your work and yourself during this process, and most of you could use that.

Second, force your way into the marketing of your plays and productions. Make it more likely that what people learn about your play before arriving gets them ready to have the most powerful experience of the art they can have.

Third, some of you and your colleagues write for film and TV on the side. Write some scenes in which characters attend and enjoy a play. Be self serving – write some scenes in which characters attend and enjoy one of your plays. Characters in mass art are role models. Make them model behaviors we need.

Fourth, invent and act on a thousand additional ideas that an amateur like me can’t think of, but get more people into theaters. Pull playmaking and playgoing back to the center of political life, where it belongs in a democracy.

We are here talking about new plays, but those new plays rely on a traditional art form with roots that go back thousands of years. I refuse to believe that we’re going to let it die on our watch.

  • February 3, 2011
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