"Rock and roll is dead!" Hey, don't blame me. That's what it said on the page that I read aloud to my rock-fan significant other. My s.o. then proceeds to tell me why rock and roll survives and will survive. The point made by the article that gave impetus and direction to our conversation is that rock and roll no longer drives the young folks or youth culture or popular culture. Rap and hip-hop seems to have been taking care of those functions for a while.
Theatre really hasn't been a driving force in American culture. Or has it, and we haven't noticed?
Regularly one either reads or hears about the death of American theatre. Certainly the corpse that is Broadway has allowed many to spill ink in numerous eulogies. And Broadway continually dies – the patient who keeps giving people the opportunity to weep, mourn, gnash teeth, etc. I come neither to praise Broadway nor to bury it.
Nevertheless, thoughtful people make the argument that theatre is a 'boutique' entertainment for the upper-crust. And if one looks at reports from the United States' major theatres, the audience appears to be a fairly small portion of the vast majority of citizens who've never been in a LORT house. The audience seems to be a graying group of genteel, educated folks, and people wonder if they'll have replacements.
All of this begs the question – what is the theatre that draws a deathwatch. Is it theatre as an art form? Is it theatre as a popular culture or entertainment activity? What?
As the years pass by as so many cars on a slow Midwestern train track, I'm always struck by the reaction non-theatre people give to learning about what I do. Very rare are the folk who don't talk about being in a play themselves. My first day on the road on a national tour, we meet a manager who tells us about her one opportunity to tread the boards – she was an Evil Stepsister in an elementary school play version of Cinderella. She tells us in glowing detail (some decades after the event) of her performance. She can still quote a line or two from that long ago event. How many times do I hear, "Oh, you're an actor/director/theatre teacher? I was in a play once." Or, "I played a part in the school musical." Or, "I was just in the chorus." And then the tag is, "It was so much fun!"
The experience of live theatre is neither dead nor dying for any of these people. For them, the memory of participation conjures vivid memories of bright pleasure.
I observe as well that as I and my generational cohort age, a great many of the folks I know are very willing to support their children in participating in school theatricals. The proud parents go see the young folks do all sorts of work. Last year, the New York Times reported about the growing size and 'professionalism' on high school musical and theatrical programs.
Now, also true a vast number of these people have not and probably will not pay to see a professionally produced play in a big house. Many reasons can be found for this ambivalence from ticket prices to selection of material to misconceptions about what a professional play might be like to . . . . . . . The list is likely long. These people, though, are not against supporting theatre as a form or as an activity, but they may not support professional theatre the way a theatre professional might want.
When I hear someone ring the death knell for theatre, I think of the Middle Ages. In scattered communities throughout Britain and somewhat on the continent, towns and guilds sponsored the mounting of religious pageants. Some communities had a tradition of production that went back decades after decades – possibly as much as a couple of centuries of mostly continual production. A young man playing Noah might know that his great-great grandfather played the part in that town long years before he was even born.
As someone who has worked to make a living in this thing we call theatre, I fully and desire and support appropriate compensation for the people doing the work. (I recently made a conversation-stopping comment that a theatre's budget should include a line item of the in-kind subsidy given to the organization by under-paid actors.) I also recognize, though, that if we think of theatre solely in terms of its professional guise, we don't take the full measure of what theatre is. Theatre is a story-telling art in which the story is told by means of the enactment of the story in the present moment by the story's participants. That behavior amongst humans is old. Not every culture has theatre, but once a culture has theatre, it doesn't go just go away.
Very smart and creative people keep working on things like ticket prices and material and the rest of it. In the meantime, when someone opines that theatre is dying, think of the community pageant, the elementary play, the high school spring musical. We'll figure out the rest.
Theatre is very much alive.