Olivier and Gielgud

While on tour with Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud was performing somewhere in Scotland on a dismal snowy night. As the curtain was about to rise, Gielgud peaked through the curtains and saw one person sitting in the house. Yes, only one person in a venue designed to seat hundreds. Gielgud was rumored to have said,” ah a darling in the house, the show must go on!” Now it may stretch credulity to think that two of the giants of theatre would perform to a single person, but the antidote reflects the spirit of commitment that artists have to their passions.

The commitments aside, why is it that so many theatres operate with marginal attendance? According to historians, at it’s peak, ancient Athens had a population of maybe fifty thousand people. (In perspective, that’s less then the population of North Hollywood.) For a city that size, an amphitheatre was built to seat more than fourteen thousand. Again, according to historians, the houses were always packed. If the same proportion of population attended theatre in Los Angeles today, as they did in ancient Greece, theatre attendance would be in the neighborhood of 12 million people per day of showings.
So why is it that it is not uncommon to walk into a theatre and see empty seats? In some cases, amazing shows have performed for nearly empty houses. And from the story mentioned above, it is not a phenomenon relegated to the unknown, it can and does happen to the famous. Perhaps it’s that we have too many diversions, too many things to attract our attention and focus. Or, could it be that maybe there is less relevance to theatre today than there was in Ancient Greece? If that is the case, how do we affect theatre to become more relevant?

Yet, despite the plethora of competition, theatre continues to expand and in some cases flourish. Theatre is more than a creative art. It’s more than a collaborative art. Theatre is a resonating sounding board of human existence. The events, trials and tribulations of mankind are the fodder of theatre. Be it waiting for something to happen, or the unforeseen consequence of action, theatre reflectively ponders the fate of mankind. And while the other outlets for our attention do address the human condition, it’s only in theatre that we taste it with intimacy.

For theatre to thrive and achieve its full potential, support on all levels is essential. The most important element of support that can be offered, even more important than money, is to state, nay avow, with vigor what it is that draws you the audience to see a show. What excites you, what turns you off.

Theatre is an art form intended to incite thought and conversation. If it succeeds, there’s probably something you’d like to share. Do so. There is no greater means of building an audience for a show than word of mouth. If you’re not inspired by what you have seen, let the theatre and artists know. Tell the artistic director, write a blog make your feelings known.

Artists working in the vacuum of their own imaginations can and do get lost, producing what may often be seen as self-indulgent results. If however, as the audience, we hold the feet of theatre to the fire, we can contribute to the synergy that makes theatre so dynamic.

When modern theatre began to flourish, around the time of Shakespeare, the playwrights drew their inspiration from whatever amused their patrons. In time, we allowed those with haughty opinion and self professed credentials (critics) to lead us in accepting or passing on shows. Intellectualism became the prime motivator. We are now in an age when every voice can be heard, and the possibility of community inspired theatre is at hand. We can be as connected as the ancient Greeks. To accomplish that an for theatre to prosper, we the audience must speak out and inspire the artists to engage us. We at Footlights invite you to join us on Facebook at Footlights LA Fan Page. Share your experiences. Use the tools available to you to help theatre grow and prosper. If we provide the same commitment and passion to the theatre that we expect to receive from theatre, we will have done our part.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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