Theatre Is Becoming Culturally Obscure and I’m Not Ready To Accept That

Anthony J. Piccione

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article over at the Clyde Fitch Report written by Sean Douglass – a playwright and dramaturg who lives in the Chicago-area – that was entitled “Is It Time to Accept Theater’s Obscurity?” Many people in theatre might be like me when they first read the title, and shrug at what at first glance appears to be yet another “theatre is going extinct” type of piece. Yet Mr. Douglass – who has had a fairly accomplished career in theatre– goes on make some very valid points.

He brings up the sad fact that many people today cannot name a single living playwright. He recalls one person who brought up Neil Simon, and another who simply stated “the South Park guys”, a reference to Trey Parker and Matt Stone who co-wrote The Book of Mormon. Beyond that, most of the twenty people that the author asked to identify one playwright alive today were unable to do so. Mr. Douglass goes on to discuss a general low cultural interest in theatre, as opposed to film and television, and makes suggestions on how to fix this problem with ideas such as marketing plays the same way in which films are marketed. Things like this are not easy for anyone in the theatre community to hear, and whether they already knew it or not, it is not an easy reality for many of us to accept.

But is he right? Should we, as people who love theatre, acknowledge the “cultural obscurity” of this art form that we all love so much?

It pains me to write this, but I do believe that Mr. Douglass is – for the most part – correct when he speaks on this subject.There have been too few examples of theatrical shows that have premiered in my lifetime, which have also had a significant impact on pop culture. Perhaps a few comedic musicals like The Book of Mormon or Avenue Q, or occasionally a more serious one such as Rent. If you go beyond musicals and look at straight-plays, Angels in America would certainly fall into that category as well. Yet these are just a few exceptions. They are not the rule. Can anyone reading this article recall a point within the past half-century when theatre had the same overall cultural influence that one critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated film or any of the biggest acts in popular music have had? If they can name a lot more examples beyond the select few I just mentioned, I’d love to hear them. But in any case, I’m skeptical of anyone who says that theatre still has the same influence on pop culture – or culture in general – that movies, music or television have today.

With all that said, while I recognize that this is where theatre stands today in 2015, I refuse to say that we should accept this grim outlook for theatre as a culturally-relevant art form in the years to come. At the end of his article, Mr. Douglass says that once we can be honest about the “relative cultural obscurity” of theatre today, we can have a good discussion on how to make it “more relevant to our communities”. Since we already have an argument out there for why theatre has become culturally obscure, I would like to keep the focus on the future of theatre by continuing a discussion on how to fix this, which is why I wanted to write this follow-up to Mr. Douglass’ article.

So what exactly could be done to make theatre more culturally relevant in the 21st century and beyond? Some things, such as better marketing, fixing ticket prices or calling for more arts funding, might be more obvious means of how to eventually reach this long-term goal. But if you ask me, we ought to go even further and think even bigger if we are to be able to sustain this discussion.

For me, one way that should be obvious is to make more shows that are so memorable or thought-provoking, it is impossible for the general public to ignore them. Whether we’re talking about a humor-driven musical like The Book of Mormon or a politically-charged drama such as Angels in America, shows like this are able to figure out ways to separate themselves from their contemporaries in ways that make them stand out. To be clear, while discussing this issue, maintaining a strong degree of commercial viability is also something to keep in mind. But that does not mean that playwrights, and the producers that decide which of their plays get to see the light of day, shouldn’t be afraid to think outside the box in some way or another when creating new theatre. After all, that might just be the key to making it more exciting and relevant to a larger audience in the future.

Another might be to not only change the shows that are produced, but to consider changing where they are produced. I know people will call me crazy for bringing up this possibility, but I personally dream of a day where we could see a return to live theatre being performed in arenas rather than auditoriums.That was the way it was done centuries ago, in the golden age of theatre in which live theatrical events were just as exciting to audiences at an event such as the Super Bowl would be today. When I was a young kid, I remember going to arena-like venues to see events such as “Disney On Ice” and being among a very large crowd to be thrilled by the spectacle of such a performance. So even if does take a long time for there to even be a remote chance of seeing a show produced in a stadium as big as the kind that hosts the Super Bowl each year, I see no reason why national tours of Broadway spectacles shouldn’t be allowed to have the same treatment that something like “Disney On Ice” gets at a place like, for example, the XL Center here in Hartford, Connecticut.

It also might be worth taking a look at how today’s public figures use elements of theatre or performance to make themselves more culturally relevant. All one needs to do is look at certain sporting events –especially the clearly-rehearsed and overly-dramatized professional wrestling matches on TV – to see how elements of dramatic performance are able to keep audience that don’t normally go the theatre engaged and energized. Or you could try going to a pop star’s upcoming concert – and watch all the set and costume changes that someone like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga goes through – to see just one of the more obvious examples of how celebrities use theatrical elements to make their shows more enjoyable for their audiences. These people who are involved in so-called “pop theatre” – whether it is as worth sitting through as most plays are – might be on to something, in terms of both keeping their audiences engaged and making sure that they continue to expand.

These are just a few suggestions on how to make theatre more relevant and exciting to larger audiences in the 21st century. I realize that for many ideas, it will require other resources (namely more funding for the arts, but that’s a topic for a whole other article) to make it a reality. But the point is, those of us who want to have this discussion ought to start by not being afraid to think big, as I believe that’s the best way to approach this issue. I hope to continue to write about this topic in the future, and I hope as time goes by, more of these big ideas will come up and maybe…just maybe…this discussion will actually lead to some sort of change in the direction of theatre in the future.

I already know what some people – some of whom may be young theatre artists like me, while others may be seasoned veterans who have been in theatre long before my time – might be thinking as they are reading this article.Some might say that I am too young or naïve to know what I am talking about, and that little can be done about this. They might even argue that this is a non-issue or dismiss me as being too pessimistic or too over-dramatic (can you imagine someone in theatre thinking THAT?) about the future of theatre. But the fact of the matter is that I have a great deal of reason to be concerned, especially given the position that I am in at this point in my own life and career.Personally, as a young playwright who only has one year left in college after working toward a degree in Theatre, I would HATE to think that the field where I would like to make much of my life’s work as an artist has little cultural relevance in the age that we live in. I would think that any other living theatre artists – regardless of age or experience – would agree with me on this. That is why I felt the need to write this column in the first place. If we really love theatre – and if we care about seeing it thrive in future generations – then this is something we all need to be honestly thinking about, without being afraid to discuss what things might need to be changed or fixed in order to save theatre from cultural obscurity.

So what are your thoughts on this subject? Is theatre becoming (or has it already become) culturally obscure? If so, do you have any big ideas or suggestions of your own to make this great art form more relevant in the 21st century? Let us know in the comments section! Some suggestions might become the subject of a future column.

P.S. Here is the link to the original article at the Clyde Fitch Report by Sean Douglass, for anyone interested. It’s worth a look.