What if we asked “What If?”

Let’s begin with the assertion that we at this publication passionately support the art of Theatre. We continually cry out, “If you are a patron, continue to support theatre, go to as many shows as you care to see, and if you have money or time to spare, donate. There is no better forum for grappling with social issues than theatre. There is no more fitting a place to drop political correctness and challenge status quo.” Having said that, fasten your seat belts, because we’re about to ask some questions that will make many theatre makers unhappy.

The national conference for Theatre Communications Group occurred in Los Angeles this past June. A thousand or so non-profit theatre professionals from around the world gathered to answer the question: “What if…?” The challenge was to re-envision the future of theatre. Administrators and managers of professional theatres were asked to dismiss their preconceptions, to “pretend you don’t know what you know” and then try and solve the problems that confront theatre today.

The questions posed ranged from the practical how to reach new audiences and embrace new technologies, to the philosophical “Is Theatre a place or an event?” However, the existential question never came up — What if theatre has to re-invent how it does business? What if the model were no longer “spend what you must and we will find the money”, but “here’s the budget we have; how can we live within it?”

Since the establishment of the non-profit Regional system in the 1960s, Regional Theatres have grown to the model that others now follow, non-profit institutions relying on the magnanimous nature of donors and foundations. What was originally a handful of theatres spread around the country has now bloomed to more than 1800 organizations striving to gain the audience’s attention. Where a couple of dozen or so theatres used to compete for the philanthropic dollar, there are now hundreds making applications to an ever-dwindling pool of funds.

The largess of the foundation dollar has long been the mainstay of non-profit theatres, and the holy grail for those that had yet to achieve endowment. What if theatres stopped looking for these handouts? What if theatres saw their livelihood as beholden to the final product, the production itself? As Shakespeare tells us, “the play’s the thing” Is that the answer? This is not to deny the needed graciousness of private donors, but to acknowledge that not every company can or will find grants, and that funding does not eliminate the essential and eternal need to work in partnership with audiences.

Theatre is an art form that relies on communication. Somehow the passion, the message of why a given play is important here and now must pass between the participants. Artists and audience blend together to achieve the apex of the art, and if the audience isn’t engaged, if it is not invited to participate, or is not even considered to be a participant, then it will turn its back on the artist and will not only cease supporting the effort, but will no longer be an audience.

What if… Theatres listened to what audiences wanted to see? No, not the 500th interpretation of an old war horse, but what was it that brought a community to a particular stage? For the definition of community, we can be as narrow or as broad as any would wish. Is it the women’s community, is it the geographic community, is it the Socialists, or the Young Republicans? Ultimately, the community defines itself. What if theatre became so imbedded in that community they saw their mission as a service, an extension of the community? What if the artists applied their crafts to challenge or illuminate the assertions of that community? What if shedding light, compelling thought and discourse were the goal?

Audiences want to be engaged and involved. Those that come to see a show do so either because the show addresses an issue or passion within them, or because they know someone connected to the show. It is the first that must be cultivated. The endless downward spiral of discounting to induce the latter to see a performance is a recipe for ruin. Understanding the audience is as essential to a theatre as is the understanding of the theatre by the audience.

While the audience needs to mature and take responsibility for supporting the theatre they want to see, more theatres must mature and become responsible to those they serve. While the creation of art should never be held to a purpose or standard, the artist needs to be aware that art created without an audience is merely masturbation. If there is no communication, there is no art.

John Milton in Paradise Lost has the devil say, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven.” Is the devil right? Is it better to live asserting oneself in an abyss, or is it better to exercise the breath of art to a purpose greater then the whim of the artist? Each theatre needs to make the choice, and in the choosing will find its just reward.

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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