Is Theater Serving Its Audience, Take Two: Defining Audience

by Jason Rohrer

Every year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reports on the artistically praiseworthy habits of each American region: Pacific residents go to a lot of straight plays; New Englanders are more apt to see a musical; East South Central dwellers don’t read as much as Mountain inhabitants. These divisions largely support the stereotype of cultured, elitist coastlines flanking a large, simple-minded heartland. Let’s, just for a minute, study that imperfect picture.

Some artists create works of art, like opera or modern dance, that nobody likes but other artists. Meanwhile, non-artists either ignore these works, categorize them as obsolete, or call those who create them elitist. Some even argue that because more than half of all American fine-arts funding comes from the government – roughly $400 million a year, with the NEA spending about a quarter and the rest coming from state agencies – these fancy-pants artists with their obsolete art forms are getting an unfair slice of the entertainment subsidy pie. However, other forms of entertainment, such as NASCAR, the NFL, and Hollywood studios combine to receive about twice that amount annually without any government funding whatsoever. What causes this vast difference in profit? The answer may be a question of community service. NASCAR, the NFL and Hollywood may make that much money because they serve the communities needs.

From a survey of recent theater offerings, observe that a Southerner is more likely than a Northerner to write a play set in the south; an Auschwitz survivor is more likely than a Nazi to write a Holocaust musical; and a woman is somewhat more likely than a man to write a play about women. Least surprisingly, a playwright is very likely to write, at least tangentially, about the arts and about the academia surrounding it. Let’s not forget that playwrights tend to be highly educated liberal products of the same institutions that spawn their highly educated liberal audiences.

The situation echoes that Steely Dan line about Show Biz Kids making movies of themselves. We tell writers to write what they know, and behold! Theater best reflects its own demographic. And that’s fine, as long as we want our audience to keep getting more insular and, most importantly, smaller. Judging by one statistic, if we keep appealing to fewer people on this failing trajectory, there will be no theater left in twenty years; or at least no audience for it, which may be even more depressing.

No doubt, there exists in America a large handful of theater companies working specifically to address this issue. But they tend to nurture a minority voice, and to tell stories appealing to community-specific sensibilities (to a particular ethnic or social strata), and therefore also to liberal (dare we equate that term with “open-minded?”) mindsets. And so, by and large, like most theater offerings, they do not speak to the much bigger and more conservative heartland entertainment audience.

How then, could theater reach this larger audience? One might argue, condescendingly or otherwise, that there’s not much appeal in most current theater for people who like to watch cars race in circles. So if the goal is to broaden theater’s demographic, then perhaps the solution would be to create theater more specifically tailored to this crowd – maybe a NASCAR-themed opera? But since opera fills a dramatic need, and you could say that this crowd already has their dramatic needs served by NASCAR itself, then the idea of an opera based on this form of entertainment seems redundant.

People who do not want to attend the theater may believe that there is no inherent difference between following a two-hour story of manufactured jeopardy, such as one might receive from Shakespeare, and following a story unfolding week-to-week during a sporting season. If we judge an audience’s connection and catharsis based upon their reactions, then the number of downtowns looted and buses overturned following NBA championship games safely trumps the number following performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen. A Denver Broncos fan will tell you that the Tim Tebow saga, available to anyone who watched network sports coverage in 2011, has all the elements of good drama. It has the fetus doctors who recommended his mother abort; his overcoming a second-string position to win a division title; and the manic outspokenness that got him traded by the team for whom he had done so much – is the plot of Oedipus really any better than this arguably true story?

If you believe that it is, and that a designed, artistically controlled piece improves on the experience of an ongoing human interest spectacle, then you must act to preserve your precious resource by helping others to value it as you do. When unemployed Alabama fishermen believe they have more in common with $12 million-a-year athletes than with Willy Loman, it can only be because professional sports organizations have done a better job than theater professionals at selling their product. So what can a theater audience do?

Since “show people” and their audiences share so much in terms of experience and bias, there’s not all that much difference between them. You certainly have the authority to encourage your favorite theater companies to foster new plays by non-traditional writers. You can become an advocate for someone you don’t even know yet, for an issue of which you currently may not be aware. You could also write to your favorite playwrights and ask them to write about characters from outside the professional classes. The point is not that writers should write what they don’t know, but that to extend their appeal they must get to know more.

The NEA tells us that playgoers are more likely than not to volunteer, so why not devote some resources and instill a love of theater in those who do not currently possess it? You could donate theater tickets to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Or, next time you go to the theater, take a kid who’s never been. For reasons of purely selfish gratification, this is an experience not to be missed, but it may do more than make you feel good; it might make that kid’s life a little richer.

By encouraging theater on unfamiliar subjects, you can stop being a spectator and become a participant. You may extend the life of an art form as well as stimulate intellectual curiosity in another demographic. Broaden your horizons by helping broaden those of many, which is an act of community service in itself.



About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and 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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