by Seth Rozin
There have been many an article, missive, blog, and rant, even a graduate thesis in recent years about how most of Americas’ largest theatres have become corporatized behemoths lacking any kind of real commitment to taking artistic risks, representing cultural diversity on stage and off, cultivating younger and more diverse audiences, etc. In fact, almost any conversation about the professional theatre, as a field, ends up referring to that small handful of once-revolutionary theatres that have succumbed to the forces of the marketplace, and are now producing cookie-cutter seasons that include a Shakespeare, a musical, a modern American or European classic, a regional premiere of a recent Broadway hit, and maybe, maybe a new play by a not completely unknown writer that the theatre is hoping will be the next major American playwright.
These conversations—some public, most private—are especially common among playwrights, and the resentment and outrage that are expressed is palpable. The sentiment is essentially “If only these twenty-five major theatres would change their ways, our field would be much healthier, and we would be much happier.”
Underlying that sentiment are two assumptions: (1) that if all those theatres really did commit to producing plays by lesser known and more diverse writers, American playwrights would be appeased; and (2) that those major, flagship theatres are leading our industry down a dreary path toward homogenization and corporatization, and that we need them to change course in order for the American Theater to not just survive, but thrive.
With regard to the first assumption, even if all the largest theatres did produce more new plays, only a handful of playwrights—those happy few who get produced—would feel appeased. Because the numbers of playwrights will continue to exponentially dwarf the number of production opportunities.
With regard to the second assumption, expecting these major, flagship theatres to voluntarily alter their programming and operational practices, or close shop, is ludicrous. What playwrights really want is for those largest theatres to take artistic risks, produce new plays by lesser known writers, engage artists and audiences of color, etc. yet stay the same size, so that the paycheck and prestige remain just as worthwhile. That would be akin to living composers asking the major orchestras around the country to stop programming Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky in favor of works by twenty-first century composers; the simple economic reality is that the orchestras would all go out of business in a heartbeat.
At the same time, we need to stop demonizing this class of theatres for doing exactly what their substantial audiences, powerful boards, and major institutional funders are rewarding them for doing: Being large. When the only thing you are leading in is size—of budget, staff, and especially audience—bigger really is the only better.
The conversation we need to be having is how we can educate and galvanize audiences, donors, funders, critics, agents, and other power brokers in our field to not automatically equate value or leadership with size; to not automatically reward theatres according to size; to not assume that the quality of the art has to do with size of the institution; to not assume that change can only occur from the “top” down (since history has shown us that change so often occurs from the “bottom” up).
Hard as this may be for most playwrights to stomach, the overwhelming majority of America’s theatregoers are choosing to spend their money and time at large theatres that offer fairly predictable seasons. These hundreds of thousands of patrons are mostly middle-aged and older, upper middle- and upper-class, and white. They find familiar titles and playwrights, proven classics, and New York Times-approved offerings to be comforting and appealing and reliably worth their investment. They are not clamoring for new plays. They are not clamoring for greater diversity on stage. They are not clamoring for greater artistic risk. So why should the large theatres that serve these audiences change? What incentive is there, really, for them to do anything fundamentally different? Continue reading