Twenty-five hundred years ago in ancient Athens, theater shaped the body politic. It was a sacred space where commoners and leaders sat side by side and watched their most pressing national questions dramatized and choreographed. In America, however, neither our leaders nor our citizens flock to the theater, and our playwrights, unlike Sophocles (or Vaclav Havel for that matter), do not serve as national leaders. So what has changed in twenty-five hundred years? Why has theater been relegated to the periphery of the national dialogue in America, and more importantly, what can we, American theater artists, do to rediscover our sense of purpose?
For me a rediscovery of that purpose begins with a frank admission of what theater cannot accomplish in twenty-first century America: it cannot act as a catalyst for a national transformation. I feel confident saying that there is no American playwright that will incite the masses against the King Louis’s of our day as Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro did foreshadowing the French Revolution. The current social and political conditions make it impossible for a play to take a major role in contemporary political discourse. The manifold reasons for this include the absence of a national theater, prohibitive ticket prices that have produced a predominantly monolithic, bourgeois audience, and the fragmented nature of twenty-first America. Certainly, the immensity of our country makes it exceedingly difficult for a work of art, particularly one that thrives on direct contact between performer and audience, to reach a critical mass of people. Unlike major motion pictures and YouTube videos, live performances cannot replicate themselves and be viewed in multiple locations simultaneously, and if they are, then their impact is instantly diminished. The magic of theater derives from its immediacy. Because of this, it can never truly go viral, which means it is doomed to play second fiddle in matters of social change.
So what is theater to do now that online media and forums such as YouTube and Facebook have become the primary venues for social discourse and public performance? One possible answer is to identify what virtual media cannot provide, such as a sense of community and a connection to a tangible, geographic location, and to offer these things in greater quantity at the theater. In other words, the theater must go local. It can take a lesson from the locavore movement, a form of social and ecological activism that champions community and resists the fragmentation brought about by the Information Age, and transform the theater into a gathering place for a group of people, not a viewing space for a disparate collection of individuals.
There are three steps that the theater can take to hasten this transformation: (1) Get out of the theater more. (2) Produce multidisciplinary works that involve collaboration with local artists. (3) Seek out plays that are more geographically specific.
In the modern era, the theater has become increasingly private. My use of the word private here has two meanings. First, the theater no longer belongs to the public. The market squares that played host to commedia dell’arte performances have been replaced by formidable buildings where spectators are no more than guests passing through. Today’s audience member is a visitor in a place that he should be able to call home. Second, the theater experience has become completely private and individualized. People, myself included, often go to the theater expecting to be left alone. They go seeking a personal experience, not a communal one. One possible antidote to this problem is to utilize more non-traditional performance venues. A theater company should be connected to the city in which it finds itself, and if it never ventures beyond the confines of its own space, then that relationship is very limited. A major component of Shakespeare in the Park’s success is the public venue. That space belongs not to a company, but to the people. Consequently, individuals who do not usually attend the theater make the trek to watch a play they would otherwise not see. Other successful site-specific performances include the work of Punchdrunk and the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2007 production of Waiting for Godot on a street corner in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. For me, the latter production is a seminal example of the kind of service and communal healing that theater can offer. A theater can also do things to transform itself into a public space. There is no reason that every theater in the country cannot collect food for local food banks, host blood drives, or serve as a location for AA meetings. Not only would such actions benefit the community, but they would also deepen the theater’s connection to its audience.
Increasing collaboration with local bands, painters, and dancers is another way for a theater to expand beyond its walls. Why can’t Chekhov be done with live, local music, and is there a good reason not to use paintings and other pieces of visual art in a production design scheme? The Greeks envisioned theater as a multidisciplinary organism. The segmentation of artistic disciplines is a relatively recent phenomenon. One way to combat this unfortunate turn in history is to tear down the artificial barriers that separate the arts. As long as theater remains a place for one type of artist, it can only do so much; but if it finds ways to include all the arts, its influence will certainly grow.
When I worked as a script reader in a literary office, I was struck by the paltry number of texts that focused on a specific location, culture, or region. So many realistic plays, including the good ones, take place in offices and apartments that could be anywhere. Even plays that are set in a particular city seldom explore issues of cultural identity and geography. As a result, theater is almost utterly devoid of regional character. If theaters are unwilling or unable to explore what is happening in their own backyard, then how can they assist in the process of community formation? One recent innovation, the concept of a rolling world premiere, is a tacit admission that new work need not have any connection to the city/cities in which it is created. In fact, it is encouraging work that is not specific to any one community (I should note that despite this problem I recognize the economic value of this model as well as its potential benefits for playwrights seeking a larger audience, and certainly, we should do what we can to encourage the spread of our best plays across the country; however, we should be aware that this sometimes hinders a theater’s ability to serve its particular community). So what would a community-based theater look like? I point my readers to the 1930s and the Federal Theatre Project. Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the Federal Theatre Project, had the genius to recognize that theater must target specific populations and be responsive to local issues. As a result, in no other time has our country produced such regionally diverse works, and not coincidentally, in no other time has our theater been more lively or topical.
Today, American theater artists are faced with a choice. In our work we must prioritize either breadth of impact or depth of impact. Given the current state of affairs, I argue that we must pursue depth of impact. Our art may no longer be the spark that ignites a revolution, but it can still be the necessary spark in the dark to heal a broken community if we just take the time to connect.