Last week, I came across an interesting tweet from Toronto actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (recently featured in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience), who posted the question: “Is Theatre Really Dead?” along with a link to this hysterically funny and thought-provoking YouTube video:
And it got me thinking. I know. A dangerous thing. So please bear with me – this is a long post.
Joking aside, the ongoing debate about the state of theatre in Canada has become increasingly urgent in the face of theatre closures, funding cuts, the controversial dismissal of an artistic director by a theatre’s board, a continuing lack of diversity in casting, and the ever-present – and growing – challenge of attracting and retaining an audience.
I think theatre isn’t so much dead as going through the growing pains of transformation. This is a positive evolution. How we create and perceive theatre needs to change. Its survival depends on it.
Competition for audience has always been a big issue in a large city that has so much to offer in terms of live theatre, music and entertainment. Even the smaller theatre companies, which initially filled a void in terms of providing audiences with new, often edgier, more cutting-edge fare from lesser known and/or local playwrights – and at lower costs to the company and audience – have been facing increasing competition from other smaller companies. And all this during an economic climate that has people tightening their purse strings at the expense of things like arts and entertainment in order to pay for essentials. Some companies have attempted to remedy this challenge by partnering up with other companies, sharing infrastructure and saving on production costs.
But beyond this competition for audience is the evolving nature of the audience itself. Demographically, theatre subscribers tend to be older – with season subscriptions traditionally being accessible to those who could afford it and, perhaps more importantly, had a lifestyle that could accommodate fixing theatre attendance well in advance. Subscription packages – and theatre ticket pricing in general – have been revised in an attempt to accommodate and engage younger audiences, especially those under 30 years old, who have less discretionary income and don’t necessarily want to nail down their theatre schedule so far in advance. Still, we’re not seeing a significant increase in younger theatre-goers, so ticket prices and scheduling aren’t the only issues.
It’s no secret that theatre isn’t only in competition with other theatre for audience attention; it is in competition with other entertainment media – and, more than ever, in competition with hi-tech media. Even movie theatres and certainly video stores, which are all but extinct except for some hardy indie locations, are feeling the pinch of cheap or free, convenient access to movies afforded – legally or otherwise – by the web and services like Netflix. And competition with other media is especially strong when it comes to younger audiences, who are more tech-savvy and wired than any audience before – and at a much younger age.
Multi-media theatre productions – featuring onscreen text and/or video, multiple arts disciplines and live music on stage – are going a ways toward engaging new, and younger, audiences. But is the addition of hi-tech audio-visual elements and effects enough to draw in – and sustain – a whole new generation of audience? And how do theatres avoid alienating an existing audience that may prefer its theatre productions done up old-school, without all the “bells and whistles” of extra tech, and who come to the theatre for the comfort of an expected, classic presentation?
The socio-cultural relevance of theatre has been kept alive by women’s and children’s theatres, and companies focusing on the stories and experiences of Black, LGBT and Asian communities, as well as those that seek to produce plays of socio-political significance. In terms of “colour-blind” casting, however, most of the larger mainstream theatres are, by and large, woefully behind walking the talk. What may be an open casting policy encouraging diversity on paper is not being reflected on stage. One could also argue that there is a double standard regarding the casting of straight actors in gay roles and casting out gay actors in straight roles. Here again, it is largely the smaller niche market theatre companies that are championing the presentation of diverse stories and/or walking the walk of diversity policy in their casting process.
The good news is – it’s all storytelling. And in watching and hearing the story, each member of the audience becomes a participant in that story.
This is where theatre can distinguish itself. The experience of seeing live actors performing in a play has something that watching a story unfold on a screen does not: flesh and blood immediacy, and in-your-face emotion. And I’m not talking about live interaction with the actors here. Audience participation can be tricky at the best of times, and it’s hard to say whether an audience that is used to interacting with characters on a computer screen will take well to a live character. In any event, it can be scary to witness live emotion. But it can also be exhilarating and moving. The same intense or funny scene played out onscreen and on stage, with the same actors, differ in the sense of immediacy. In a live performance, you can experience those moments as a direct viewer, with only the audience and the edge of the stage separating you from the characters. In some cases, you can see and hear them breathe, sweat and register change of mood in a flicker. All happening in real time, with live actors right in front of you. Even the way a theatre smells is different – hints of paint, stage make-up, that smell of hot dust on a lighting instrument. Theatre is a living, breathing, organic thing.
The way we create and perceive theatre is changing. But, since theatre is a social beast, change can be slow – and dreadfully so at times. Change can also be scary, and – especially in the case of diversity in casting – that fear can stall action toward doing what is right in favour of doing what is easy. Sometimes the status quo just feels too damn comfy to give up, no matter how detrimental it might be. Isn’t it enough to simply hope that it will all work out in the end?
Experiencing a performance with other people, even in a room full of strangers, the collective energy is palpable, whether in a movie theatre or live theatre. Add to that the give and take of energy between actors during a live theatre performance – and between the actors and the audience – and you have an even more electric hum in the atmosphere. A live performance provides the kind of buzz that you just can’t get from a performance onscreen. It’s a rush unlike any other.
Maybe that’s what theatre needs to promote in order to attract new audiences. Not the cheaper tickets or mini-subscriptions or multi-media presentations. Canadian theatre needs to promote that rush, while remaining socially relevant and reflecting the faces of its people. That electric, living, breathing rush. Theatre can do this.
What do you think?
With thanks to Paul for the Twitter chat that followed his posting of the vid and my response to it.