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Your opinion? Is theatre dying?

January 29, 2010

You’ve heard by now that the Pasadena Playhouse (California’s “State Theatre”) is closing as of Feb 7.  Three dozen people, including some friends, are out of work. Season subscribers are out of luck.

Where is theatre going? Is it dying? Without preaching to the choir here, do people just not care enough? Are tickets too expensive? Are producers putting on too many vanity projects? Are companies spending too lavishly on union musicians or sets?

What’s your take on this?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 3:39 pm

    Theatre was announced dead when audio recordings became popular, then with radio, film, television, internet… and yet it’s still here. Theatre isn’t dead or dying, but it’s changing as it always has.

    The trouble is that it’s not the patrons who do the changes, it’s the theatre companies. And if they don’t, they fail. Survival of the fittest, and all that. I’m not suggesting that the Pasadena Playhouse wasn’t fit or good, or anything like that. I’m not intimately familiar with the company, but I can speculate.

    One thing theatres have had to do is keep up with the marketing technologies that arrive in the information age. It’s no coincidence that the companies who redo their websites every couple years to be more dynamic, information filled, up to date, and easier to navigate are the ones that sell more tickets.

    Also now with the hundreds of companies around doing their own thing, it’s more important than ever for companies to build a strong brand of what it is that is unique about them. And then marketing that to the appropriate audience. On the topic of audience – larger theatres often have an older subscriber base. Their current patrons won’t be around forever, so cultivating both a new and the existing is important.

    It seems to me that some producers are spreading themselves thin with lavish sets and costumes without enough marketing power to attract new audiences. Just because Wicked had a multi million dollar budget and was a big hit doesn’t mean that’s the only way to go. Quality theatre is possible without a million dollars spent on a set, and quality is what I think audiences want to see.

  2. julianabroad permalink*
    January 30, 2010 10:42 pm

    I was struck by something David Lee, the writer/director of “Camelot” at the Pasadena Playhouse (currently) said to me. He and artistic director, Sheldon Epps, go back to the days of Frasier, which Lee co-created, -wrote and -produced. Epps directed some episodes. They meet a couple times a year and over a year ago Sheldon asked, “So what are you working on?”

    As an afterthought, Lee told him that he was devising a Camelot with only 8 actors. Sheldon’s eyes lit up, he said. “I’d be very interested.”

    So, was he interested for artistic reasons? Or financial? I know that one of the biggest hits the Playhouse took was union-scale musicians. (Much more so than equity actors.) Now, while Camelot had live musicians, the set was creatively austere.

    Would Epps have brought in Lee’s Camelot a year or two ago, when the Playhouse spent a lot more money on shows like “Ray”?

    Maybe the future of LA theatre is the 99 seat house that offers compelling works for under $25… or the roaming troupe that takes advantage of viral marketing.

    More on this later next week after I meet with someone who’s opening a new, small theatre space.

  3. February 2, 2010 10:05 am

    We’ve been debating whether theatre is dying for over two thousand years. However, I do believe that for the first time, we are at a crossroads where theatre artists must change what they’re doing and how they’re doing it or risk becoming even more irrelevant in our society. Theatre will never be completely dead in our lifetime, but it’s moved from Intensive Care to a ventilator, at least as far as the average Joe is concerned.

    McNulty said in the Times that if you give the people what they need, they will come. I agree. And if audiences are not coming, then one can assume they don’t need what is being offered. I run a theatre and often don’t feel the NEED to drive across town and pay $50 to see a play that someone else decided to do. And I run a theatre! I’ve made it my life’s work, and I feel that way!

    Of course there are theatres that do one specific thing for one specific audience and their houses are full. But creating new audiences is the real challenge in this digital age. Tweeting about your show is not going to convert many twenty-somethings to start going to live theatre. It’s much more than just marketing that needs to be done. People need to be turned on to art when they children. This “creating audiences of tomorrow” cliché that’s been on every grant application for the past two decades has finally caught up with us. Arts Ed is virtually gone and video is the only art kids consume with their Hot Cheetos. Most artists don’t care about Arts Ed, but it is at the heart of the “is theatre dying?” conversation. And until our best artists invest in Arts Ed, we will be pushing a boulder up a mountain in trying to get young adults to start coming to live theatre. LA Unified is virtually shutting down its Arts ED Branch and the letter-writing campaign to save Arts Ed in LAUSD has only generated half the number of letters as did the threat of closing LA’s Cultural Affairs Dept. That is telling. And it is part of the food chain that ate the Pasadena Playhouse.

    Theatre artists also need to really ask themselves what their community needs. Will that change the art? You bet it will. And it’s a scary notion. What happens if we just start giving the public what they really want. Isn’t that reality TV? Won’t it lead to the dumbing down of theatre?

    Well, we have to look even deeper and not just ask, “What kind of shows the public really needs?”. Theatres need to ask the much more profound question, “WHAT DO PEOPLE NEED IN THEIR LIVES TODAY?” Many artists will have no interest in this question, as it is has nothing to do with how they have always created their works. Yet by definition, non-profits are Public Benefit corporations. We are there to serve the public, not just to do the art that we like and think the public should like too. If they liked it as much as we do, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    This is a sea change. If theatres dare to ask how they can really serve the public in the 21st century, the art will change. The audience might change. The artists might change. The ticket prices might change. But what also might change, is that theatre will clearly matter to our society.

    • julianabroad permalink*
      February 2, 2010 2:29 pm

      KPCC’s Offramp program wants to hold a “roundtable discussion” of this topic to be taped in Pasadena, likely this thursday evening. I can take a few participants and invite everyone on this discussion (and my Facebook page) to volunteer. Taping at KPCC, details to follow. Interested? I want both sides represented. Let me know! Thanks.

  4. Susan Treadwell permalink
    February 17, 2010 1:35 pm

    The human impulse to tell a story will never die. Is theatre dying? That’s another story. How we articulate the necessity for theatre in our lives says so much about who we are today. For some, it is a reason to get dressed up and go out on a Saturday night. For others, it’s a place to encounter living, breathing people taking part in a ritualistic exercise devised to question, inform, probe and above all, entertain!

    The state of theatre today mirrors our lives, and that is its genius. We are adrift, and theatre? It is also re-finding its purpose.

    We need artists of all ages, backgrounds and cultures to lead us, the floundering audience, into the future. We need to encourage these voices with our presence. However, these artists will need to be bold to get our attention. Ask your friend, neighbor, kid: What would you rather do – turn on the … [insert favorite electronic distraction] … or go to the theatre?

    Perhaps as an audience, we are shutting down, isolating, giving in to “the way things are.” Theatre, at its, best, beckons us to join “the living,” – to reconnect with our neighbors, our community, our world.

  5. julianabroad permalink*
    February 9, 2010 6:32 pm

    Jay, could you please email me at stevejulian@live.com? Question for you.

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