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Another Cause of Empty Seats

August 2, 2012

Were Theater Audiences Better Off 60 Years Ago?


I can’t help but wonder if some theaters have a hard time filling seats because we happen to be living in a desensitized era. And I am not referring to the effects of Hollywood or social media on our tired eyes.


When Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons in 1947, Death of a Salesman two years laterand The Crucible in 1953, and when Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948, The Rose Tattoo in 1951 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, America either was stepping out of World War II, soaking up the Korean War or getting its feet wet in the Cold War. These were the wars of propeller-driven aircraft, not of unmanned drones firing missiles. Rifles had bayonets.


Lowell Thomas began blazing the television news trail in 1940 in a day when a news program – an entire news program – lasted ten to fifteen minutes. On March 9, 1954, journalist Edward R. Murrow set a record on television: a 30 minute news special on Senator Joseph McCarthy, the guy who, in search of the Commies among us, dragged actors and directors before Congress either to be blacklisted or to save their asses by naming names. Miller himself was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and said nothing. Immortal either way.


Channel 2, what we know today as KCBS, was the first television station to pop up in Los Angeles. Its experiment began in the 1930s and finally, in 1938, began live programming. The audience was small: just a few hundred homes. In ’39 it showed programs six days a week, but was reduced to just a few hours every other Monday during World War II, reducing the audience even further. And telling fewer stories.


Newspapers were printed once or twice a day and radio broadcasts, courtesy of CBS, NBC and the Mutual Radio Network, combined to give us our news. We could dirty our hands by reading all about it or sit around the radio at home and lean in as mother darned our socks. We didn’t see live images in any meaningful way until well into the 1950s.


I can’t prove it, but anecdotal evidence (and my gut) suggests that theater in the mid 20th Century broke ground as it reminded us how to behave or begged us to question the effects of war, depression, truthfulness, self-awareness, humility, mendacity, greed and much more, on us, our families and our communities.


And a good thing, too.


Those who saw any of the nascent works by the likes of Miller or Williams, these great, fresh efforts in the American dramatic canon, undoubtedly were touched. Or offended. Theater embraced the taboo. It is easy to think these plays made quite a mark on their early audiences, many of whom likely had never seen anything like it.


And therein lies the matter.


These masterful works were ground-breaking then. People didn’t talk about sexual abuse or genocide in polite circles. Today, we do it freely and often.


Some bask in it.


And because we do, I think the early 21st Century audience is at a disadvantage. Anymore, what’s new to us? Is there anything left to shock us? Teach us? We have read it all, heard it all, said it all. The hands of the three wise monkeys are cuffed behind their backs.


To land audiences in seats today, the conversation must extend past the responses du jour ad nauseum. You’ve heard them:”Aim for better social media marketing, discount our ticket prices, increase our educational and civic outreach and criticize the LA Times for not covering local theater well enough.”


Not that there isn’t merit to some or all of these points. But they are meaningless unless we first ask, how do we break ground today?


Having just written and directed a play for the 2012 Hollywood Fringe Festival, I put myself at risk asking this question and I have no expectation of being included in the answer: Of all the plays you have seen in the past few years, how many broke new ground for you? I’m not asking how many moved you, because we all can be moved by Feed the Birds now and again. And several productions have stirred me, but is that enough to secure the future of theater for us?


My question for you is: Which works taught you something new? What play left you in your seat after your row had emptied? Which is the first to come to mind months later?


And how difficult is it for you to find a Number One? (Or is it too easy because there is no runner-up?)


Granted, the theaters that present classic material always will attract an audience that appreciates the ever-increasing distance between Shakespeare or Chekhov and today. Yet, as the Los Angeles theater community forms a producers league and comes off its Fringe high and scouts out new works for 2013 and 2014, I encourage all of us to ask the question: Assuming it is possible, can we give our audiences something they have not yet seen or heard?


Even War Horse, in all its splendor, evokes conversations of amazing puppetry, deservedly so, but not necessarily of the violence of war and why we can’t stop ourselves from claiming what isn’t ours. Is it because, when it comes to war, we’re all talked out? Overexposed? Underwhelmed? Desensitized? Even our drones drone on and on.


I hope too that we spend a moment rethinking our clichés, or inventing new ones. All too often I read a press release that includes the phrase, “It’ll remind you of someone you know or love – or even yourself.”


No kidding.


And now I have to laugh and consider erasing everything I have written. Checking Facebook just now I see a post from someone to a friend who directs and choreographs. It reads, “… it is so hard for me to see a live play because I become overwhelmed with emotion at the beauty of it all. The blood and guts that it takes to bring it all together is God/Goddess in its glory. Hard to articulate but I think you understand what my heart is trying to say. Blessings to all that work so hard at their craft to entertain us.”


8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2012 3:37 pm

    I think it’s not as convenient as sitting at home. That’s a big reason.

  2. August 2, 2012 8:53 pm

    Wise words, Steve. to answer your question: AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY broke new ground for me. But, yes, what DO we have to talk about? Is it all around us and we have just yet to percieve? …as in, the growing chasm of class differences or…the end of the American era? Are we deaf, dumb and blind to what is going on in front of us, to follow your metaphor? And yet…I do believe when the topic is found, in some form or another every night –still–sells out. As when a good production of Shakespeare or Chekhov collapses time and proves there is no distance at all between now and then. …Thanks for provoking “what’s next” thoughts.

  3. meskimen permalink
    August 3, 2012 8:04 am

    Beautifully written, Steve. I think you have really hit on something important here. The show that first comes to mind is my mother’s one-woman show, A Lovely Light, about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

  4. Gary Lamb permalink
    August 3, 2012 8:55 am

    My question is… how many people answering your question are actors, directors, playwrights? My partner at my theater said, “we need to advertise to the russian audience, we have so many first gen americans from Russia coming to see our shows. I think it’s because in their culture, theater is a part of life, not something you force yourself to do.” Your article made me think about the first gens who made their way to the United States in the 1920’s and 30’s to escape the intolerance and more in the 40’s… leading to a country of first gens who grew up going to the theater… then slowly allowing their children to find the safety of movies, television, computers, video games… it’s like pulling teeth to get my daughter away from her texting or gaming to watch an Olympic event. “The Laramie Project” touched me in Sonora, “Dreams of Anne Frank” touched me at MainStreet in Rancho Cucamonga and “Best Wishes” at Crown City Theatre (an amazing play by Bill Barker that has played L.A. many times to very good reviews, but never jumped to being published). These were all serious drama, with some comedy (like most good dramas), yet bold, brash comedies and musicals still fill seats better then dramas… as a producer I’m afraid to even write “drama” when advertising a show. Maybe people get enough drama from television… Maybe with television they know what they are getting, but the theater is risky… I think our main younger, American audiences comes from people who enjoyed theater when they were young or took theater classes or did theater in school. As we cut programs from schools we lose the future of live theater. Look at the average age of ticket buyers to the big theaters and the opera… we need to cultivate our younger audiences…

  5. Stephen Sachs permalink
    August 4, 2012 4:16 pm

    I’m not sure what you’re saying, Steve, except longing nostalgically for the good old days of Miller and Williams and asking the eternal question, “Is theatre still meaningful”? But filling seats and finding new audiences is not the job of the artist. Its the job of the producer. I agree that we, as a culture, are over-saturated with images and information, much of it trivial and distorted and meaningless or harmful. The task of the artist is to be the filter of man’s consciousness and reveal what is true. I’m not sure what “break new ground” means. Miller was experimenting with style, structure and form with “Death of a Salesman” back in 1949. Any theatre experience can be valuable and life-changing, be it a classic from the repertoire or a new work that shatters previous conventions, if it cuts to the heart of what truly matters and illuminates the human condition and reveals a fundamental truth about what it means to be alive. For me, “breaking new ground” or “saying something new” is not the answer and should not be the goal of any artist. Revealing something deeply true and eternal about ourselves is a higher calling than saying something new. Those moments you describe, when a life-changing production of play has just ended and it has revealed such a deep, raw, vulnerable hole in your soul to such an extent that you can not move, can not get out of your seat, the truth of its storytelling so powerful that it nails you to your chair and you can not stand up … those rare experiences happen when the earth is opened up by an artist and an eternal truth is exposed to the atmosphere. Our deepest experiences are not new. They are timeless.

    • August 5, 2012 8:06 am

      I believe theater is meaningful and that we can and should stretch to make it even more so.

      No doubt the role of a producer is extraordinary in bringing us powerful theater. Frankly, you were on my mind as I wrote this commentary because one of the plays that gripped me and left me sitting in my seat, one of the very last to leave the theater, was Ifa Bayeza’s THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL. Your sold-out production left me speechless, unsettled and self-conscious, but not without Ifa’s creative use of language and the construction of the drowning scene. Was this conception Ifa’s or Shirley Jo’s or yours? I have no idea. But it was transcendent and broke new ground for me: I hadn’t seen that death captured that way. And, had it been any other character’s death in any other play, I don’t know that I would have had the same reaction.

      Coincidentally, one of the other plays that has left me feeling changed, a near out-of-body experience, is Culture Clash’s AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSE, which I saw at OSF and again at KDT, in which Emmett makes an appearance. Perhaps I have a special affinity for ballads. Or there’s something haunting me about Emmett Till.

      Thanks for your feedback, Stephen. It’s much appreciated.


  1. “The hands of the three wise monkeys are cuffed behind their backs.” – Steven Julian : LA Bitter Lemons

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