What do you imagine might happen in the American theatre over the course of the next quarter-century?
That’s the question we asked 25 theatre artists to address on the occasion of American Theatre’s 25th-anniversary issue. Their answers, which wend their way through the following 16 pages, make for a lively, sometimes unsettling, frequently funny, persistently inspiring read.
Who are our commentators? They’re richly accomplished folks—directors, performers, designers, writers, dramaturgs, producers and curators of new work. All have demonstrated something special in their approach to the art and craft of theatremaking that convinced us they have not only vision and foresight about the field they’ve chosen, but the tenacity and commitment it will take to realize their aspirations over time.
Our artistic future, we figure, belongs to people like these. Here’s a chance to glimpse that future through their eyes. —The Editors
Associate producer/community, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland
In theatre, as in everything, the old adage remains true: The more things change the more they stay the same…. So instead of writing about what I think the future will be, I will strive to be a bit more aspirational. This is what I hope American theatre will be in the next 25 years, and I’ll be working to make it happen—just watch me, just help me, just join me.
Shakespeare will continue to be American theatre’s little black dress, appropriate for all occasions and able to be paired with just about everything and everyone. Theatre will mix both local and virtual communities in terms of developing, marketing and producing the art. Ways of producing that have less impact on the planet will flourish. The term “American theatre” will begin to mean less as we embrace a more global outlook and a more diverse aesthetic and audience. The current forms of mainstream producing models will naturally atrophy to make room for the current underground to take the forefront. A sexy new underground will form to take its place.
Some of us will be tempted to make safe and stupid choices.
This new underground will challenge popular forms, take old stuff that was cool and flip it on its head. I can’t be really specific about what the coolest new stuff will be—it would be reductive, repetitive and ridiculous, and God knows we don’t need more of that. Times are tight right now, and some of us will be tempted to make safe and stupid choices. We need to be smart and embrace uncertainty. DON’T PANIC. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do theatre naked in a field under the sun because you can’t afford lights, costumes or sets. But isn’t it awesome that some of us will choose to do that? And isn’t it even more awesome that that’s all you need for theatre? That’s why theatre won’t die. All you need is people doing something, people watching, and the magic in between.
Theatre will continue to cause a ruckus and make waves. Theatre will continue to make change. The job of theatre is not to tell us what to think, but to tell us what to think about. And boy, do we have a lot to think about over the next 25 years!
Artistic director, Soho Rep, New York City
When taking on a project to direct, I am always attracted to plays that I don’t know how to do. Plays that I don’t know how to tackle upon first encounter—whether I’m stymied by their content or their form—turn out to be more surprising and unpredictable (of course) in the long run. Right now as a community I feel we are at a similar juncture. We face a climate we don’t know how to deal with. We are full of fear and uncertainty. And yet we are also emboldened with a new sense of spontaneity and faith in what we can do. We are working from a place of ignorance, so we are actually functioning together to make something.
So, I think the future will see us reconnect with the strange intimacy and potent feeling at the heart of the theatre. That has nothing to do with big budgets or fat adverts, but rather with embracing the weirdness and power of our strange, ephemeral art form.
We will embrace the weirdness and power of our strange, ephemeral art form.
What will emerge is a more culturally connected and art-driven model that stems from the work, rather than simply sustaining self-perpetuating institutions. The most exciting work will be exuberant, uncompromising and handmade. It will be intimate, whether made for tiny or vast spaces, and yet large in scope. And it will utilize the strange theatrical principle of alchemy, by taking rough materials and using them as they are—to turn out something remarkable.
In terms of specific wishes for the next quarter-century, as a space-travel nerd, I hope that by 2034 there is a space program for theatre and the arts. With the advent of space tourism, extended exploratory time in space is only around the corner. Being able to see the curvature of the earth from high above, and take that back, is one of my obsessions. There is such potential in space travel for a more interconnected way of seeing our environment, that I sincerely hope the arts, alongside science, can be a pioneering part of that.
My other dreams for the American theatre are, I hope, more straightforward: more multi-year general operating support, a more engaged and diversified critical landscape, a stronger sense of theatre as a public and democratic art form, an engagement with the right to fail as an important part of creative process, more work created with artistic autonomy rather than the need to fit into a “slot,” a more locally integrated community, an international theatre realm full of cross-pollination, cheaper tickets—and, finally, more theatres with a bar!
Senior curator for performing arts, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
It will surprise many how robustly theatre will break free from its current constraints. “Theatre” will come to encompass a much fuller range of performance possibilities. Complex media forms, visual art, new sonic and sensory designs, object theatre, creative movement, extended vocal techniques, new visual and ritual forms, simplicity and minimalism, physicality and high design, will all push theatre forward. What’s viewed as “experimental” today will become commonplace.
Kitchen-sink realism will no longer hold such sway; film and TV can do naturalism so much better. In the DIY age, content delivery will not just travel on a one-way street from the playwrights, directors and performers to the passive ticket-holder sitting still in the dark. A greater embrace of interactivity, participation and personal lineal connections with artists (before, sometimes during, and after performances) will become the standard. The social and presentational will deeply and regularly intersect.
Theatre will become fast enough on its feet for a breakneck nation in the digital age.
Theatre will play an essential part of our culture, but only if it continues to take chances, push out at the edges, rethink its relationship to time and space. “All really good theatre,” said A.R. Gurney, “has an element of anarchy underneath it, of chaos, of real darkness.” Radical theatre practice will be the fuel that drives our live art forms on paths that serve as an alternative to small- and large-screen magic.
What we currently think of as “unusual” theatre venues—social settings (clubs, bars, living rooms), site-specific locations, galleries, black boxes, parks, community centers—will become the new normal, while traditional proscenium venues will become more the selective shrine, the museum.
The ensemble and the collective will assert an even greater spirit; older hierarchies will break down both internally (with strict job functions falling away) and externally (with presenters and producers, commercial and not-for-profit sectors, audiences and critics blurring roles with abandon). As interdisciplinary approaches become more standard and artists with distinctly different training and backgrounds collaborate, content will also expand. Youth and pop cultures as well as global influences and diverse cultural perspectives will blossom forth, allowing theatre to play what David Jubb of London’s Battersea Arts Centre wrote he hopes for—“a more dynamic and responsive role in 21st-century life.”
Yes, theatre will confront severe crises of confidence in coming decades, but these pressures will force collaborative conversations, new formal approaches, and more immediate social and political directions, which will allow theatre to become more relevant and welcoming, important and surprising, provocative and fun, fast enough on its feet for a breakneck nation in the digital age.
Executive artistic director, Cleveland Public Theatre, Ohio
I don’t like long-term planning.
For me, devising a new play is like going on an uncharted adventure. At the beginning, I have an idea of where we are in the process, and I have dreams about what we may find. I have some experience of past journeys and an evolving set of working principles. Typically, I know what our next step might be, and I have a sense of the direction—it is as if I am being pulled by something, drawn toward the play that wants to be made.
Spirituality trusts the audience and invites them to play with us.
When thinking about the future of theatre, I am not sure about the next 25 years. I have no charted course, but I am drawn in a certain direction. I am interested in the future of theatre that is pulled by two forces—practicality and spirituality.
Practicality drives us to issues of craft. It forces us to live within our means, organizationally and artistically. Practicality insists on relevance. How do we respond to political events, societal movements, or new technology? How can theatre truly make a difference in our community? Practicality compels us to move beyond the conventional role of theatre, to use our specialized skills to engage and empower disenfranchised people. Practicality keeps us honest and grounded.
Spirituality keeps the spark of life at the center of our work and reminds us that theatre is deeply personal. Spirituality places high value on truth, even if that truth cannot be easily packaged or explained. Spirituality trusts the audience and invites them to play with us. It reminds us that if we are to transform others, we first must seek our own transformation. Spirituality asks that as we reach out to others we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to change. Spirituality demands that, no matter how uncool it may be, we cannot shy away from the deepest questions and the search for meaning in life.
If we make well-crafted plays that express the essence of what it is to be human, then theatre will have a future, because this kind of theatre can result in a singular, extraordinary transmission that cannot be sent through the Internet, conveyed by text message, experienced remotely or projected on a screen. It is a deeply personal moment where true magic exists.
The future? Theatre of Magnets (or Magnet Theatre).
My prediction 25 years ago that American theatre in 2009 would rely heavily on Jet-Packs should, like a lot of speculation about what has not yet occurred, be allowed a slight margin for error. That said, I feel with unquestionable certainty that the future of American theatre lies in magnets. A magnet is an exciting and fun metal thing that sticks to other metal things without any glue or residue of any kind (through some process of magnetizing). Curtains that should stay closed most of the show but need to be yanked open at one point without making a Velcro or snap noise should (will) have magnets. Small magnets can be used in quick changes (the Velcro noise will go the way of busy signals and plays about “human relationships”).
The Velcro noise will go the way of busy signals and plays about “human relationships.”
A good way to stab a guy (theatrically) is to have a piece of metal under the guy’s shirt and some kind of magnet on the knife. This way, the knife sticks out of the guy (I know, right!?). I don’t know how to make the knife look like it goes in but this can probably be worked out in a meeting. There will still be meetings. My friend Jeremy Beiler thinks that “blocking” can be eliminated by putting metal in the actor’s shoes and having them moved around the space in a pre-arranged pattern by giant magnets under the stage. The people moving the giant magnets would not need any advanced degree in acting or need to be particularly attractive. Future generations can decide who determines the patterns of the movement in some kind of meeting.
Naturally, artistic and administrative roles will shift significantly in the Theatre of Magnets (or Magnet Theatre) and will give rise to the Magneturg, particularly in the big regionals. (Issues like programming, marketing, development, diminishing audience, diversity, commercial versus artistic concerns, unions and healthcare, the buffeting of the artistic soul, questions of social relevance, etc. will all be handled by affordable computers and/or robots.)
Puppets. Holograms. Listening. They’ve all had their moment in the sun as predicted futures of the American theatre. All have come to naught. What is left for us to try? I offer you magnets. How else are you going to stab a guy?
Monologist and playwright, New York City
The American theatre movement is nearing disaster. Without an adequate sense of tradition or a sense of social responsibility, it is in danger of becoming a movement whose only purpose is self-perpetuation. This idealistic movement begun some generations ago has been unable to achieve a living wage for its actors, a livelihood for its playwrights; it demands that its designers accept 12 to 15 productions a year just to make ends meet, and forgoes its responsibility to train directors while permitting, under the heading of financial survival, the average income of its audiences to climb higher and higher, until this once bastion of social ideals and aesthetic concerns has become the plaything of the upper-middle-class and the very wealthy. How did this happen?
Richard Nelson wrote these words 25 years ago as the opening to an essay about the state of American theatre.
It’s instructive to see what a quarter-century has done to these words. Today they seem fiery but obvious: Of course there are no living wages. Of course the work suffers. Of course we play increasingly to the rich. Of course, of course—an expression we don’t often think about, it literally means to stay the course. We forget our own complicity. We are our own worst enemy, because we begin to believe that change is impossible.
For risk and reinvention, we must be awake in our souls.
Today we are in the midst of a seismic transformation in American theatre as traditional subscriber bases are aging and dying off. Though dire, it is an opportunity for risk and reinvention, but we must be awake in our souls to see it through.
How many of us have accepted less, year after year? How many of us have acted with appeasement, as programs are gutted? How many of us have valued buildings over people? How many of us have honestly lost touch with the original source—the charged, cathartic magic of the living theatre?
I submit that we all have, inch by inch. That’s why I look forward to the great work of the next quarter century as a time of crisis and renewal. I hope we begin to take back institutions for artists, in cities and towns we don’t hear from today. I hope that we will discover together a new theatre of the living moment, beyond the thumb of film and television. I hope we are making art that is like life itself: unrepeatable, illuminating and unforgettable.
Michael John Garcés
Artistic director, Cornerstone Theater Company, Los Angeles
Theatres have spent a lot of time and energy over the past 25 to 50 (maybe 100) years being anxious about becoming, or being, obsolete. But, given the ever-increasing rate of technological change, it is other media—the electronic kind—that is verging on becoming anachronistic. Movies and TV will be quaint nostalgia in less than a quarter-century, as will laptops, iPods, PlayStation and other gadgets. Other mediums, maybe unimaginable to most of us, will take their place.
The world is spinning faster, and most technology is obsolete by the time it reaches the market. But the human species evolves at a drastically slower pace. People will still be people. They’ll be messy, needy, loving, angry and noble, and they’ll still be doing the same terrible things to each other, which make for good plays. We’ll still want to see the drama play out in real time, still want to think and talk about life. Which means that the basic human needs met by theatre—by communion, ceremony and story—are not going away. And that’s good for business.
People will still be messy, needy, loving, angry and noble.
Theatre companies will evolve to suit changing economic times and social needs. Certainly, those running our larger theatres will be forced to think critically about why they make theatre, and whom they imagine they make it for, in order to remain at all relevant, or even viable. Most that don’t will become part of theatre history; a few will probably hold on as museums.
It is the immediacy and the “liveness” that will keep theatre a vital part of people’s lives. The strength of plays lies in what happens in the room, the space, the place, between performer and audience. I think that plays and performance that communicate a sense of being a citizen of the world—of being part of concentric circles of community, of art-making as a democratic platform for voice and story—will increasingly become the predominant and healthiest strain of theatre. How artists respond to the neighborhoods and communities in which they are working—viscerally examining, celebrating and critiquing them—will be at the center of the form. As always, technology will change. Those changes will make us question our basic understanding of our world and ourselves, and we’ll want to be together when we do it. So we will.
Co-artistic director, HartBeat Ensemble, Hartford, Conn.
In 25 years no space is safe from theatre.
It happens anywhere.
It happens because we crave live connection beyond the digital saturation.
It happens in traffic.
Julie and her friends drive toward Broad and Oak, the intersection where StopLight Theatre frequently performs. A 20-foot cow appears.
“What’s up with that cow?”
Who’s the first to figure out what StopLight is doing?
“It’s two actors on stilts.”
“They’re trying to cage it….”
“The animal rights provision. In the new farm bill!”
“Damn, how’d you know that?”
Victorious, Julie smiles, throwing money into StopLight’s collection tub.
It happens in garages.
Tonight DoubleHop Theatre plays in Deshawn’s garage. Fatima drops 10 bucks and enters. Deshawn places a DoubleHop homebrew into her hand as she squeezes into an eager audience. The show begins with the hypnotic melodies of a live string quartet, blurring into the chaotic apartment of the shoplifting Italian housewives, Dario Fo’s We Can’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! Afterwards Fatima is whisked into Deshawn’s bedroom for a DoubleHop encore performance. A marionette Robin Hood plays off of the loft bed.
No space is safe from theatre—it happens anywhere.
It happens at work.
It’s almost lunch. Donald’s stomach rumbles and he wonders what the lunchtime theatre will be. He checks his e-mail:
Commedia del tête! Lunchroom—$10—“Hold onto Your Sandwich,*” a 30-minute ride through corporate America!
Carlos and Tonya meet Donald at five minutes to twelve. They enter the lunchroom, grab their sandwiches and beeline for choice seats. Commedia del tête’s rib-tickling ride includes a musical number stressing the scarcity of office supplies, a clown copy machine routine, and a classic clumsy and clueless boss bit.
Best half-hour at work—ever.
It happens when we invite it in.
Marcus and Jasmine are out cruisin’. They approach the abandoned drive-in. Marcus slips in for a quiet place to make out. To their surprise it’s full of cars. Intrigued, they pay 20 bucks to see what BackSeat Theatre is all about. Marcus and Jasmine pull into their spot. Actors begin to rotate in and out of their car, unraveling a complex murder mystery in a series of minute-long scenes.
In 25 years public and private spaces blur, making stages of 18-wheelers, elevators, fields, basements, rooftops, train cars, dining rooms, airports, parks and ferries.
Theatre, alive with human connection, is at every turn.
Producing artistic director, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Borrowing from Facebook’s ubiquitous “25 Random Things,” here are 25 thoughts about the next 25 years in the American theatre.
- We will recognize that we are the servants in this game, not the masters, and that our theatres belong to the communities that they serve.
- The sector will realize that all theatre is local.
- There will be fewer LORT theatres.
- We’ll finally be able to offer a more articulate defense of the value of our work than “we think you should fund it because we like making it.”
- We will make the argument so beautifully that asking why theatre is important will be like asking for a flashlight to find the sun.
- The next 25 years will include the passing of some of the giants in the field; we will find ways to put young people at their feet to learn everything before they go.
- There will be many more women and people of color as leaders of our major institutions…
- …and so we will see still better guidance of our institutions than we have seen in the last 25 years.
- There will be increased intolerance of arbitrary, capricious and mean-spirited leadership.
- There will be more resident acting companies.
- There will be more artists in leadership positions.
- It will all be about the Vision Thing.
- The days of “come admire our work and get the hell out of the building” are over.
- Fiscal responsibility will be a value held as closely as artistic excellence in all surviving institutions, and not just by the managing director.
- Deliberate artistic and administrative opacity will make way to transparency and invitation into process.
- The field will learn how to take care of its artists, particularly actors, more responsibly.
- Social networking is not the future (not even sure it’s the present).
- Stewardship will not be enough. Leadership is required, and the field will find a comprehensive way to identify and develop it.
- An end to constructing buildings bigger than the ideas that they hold.
- An end to vilifying mature audiences.
- An end to infighting about who is making more meaningful theatre.
- Finally figuring out how to engage young people meaningfully in our work.
- There will be no such thing as a newspaper critic.
- Future leaders will need to do two things: First, learn everything from those who have come before and second:
- Take the old way outside and shoot it.
Playwright and composer, New York City
Sometimes I worry that there is no future for the theatre. I go to shows, look at the audience, and see few people my age (29) or younger. It’s not all that surprising. Too often the subject matter, the high ticket prices and the style of presentation don’t resonate with a younger generation.
But before I despair, I think about two things:
- High school
- Rock concerts
These things give me hope for the next 25 years of the theatre.
- High school: I hated high school as much as anyone. But the good news is, many high schools around the country have theatre programs—and these serve as a gateway drug into the arts. Students carry these experiences with them long after graduation, fueling an interest in theatre later in life. High school theatre programs don’t have to be limited to doing yet another production of Guys and Dolls, either. They offer an opportunity to show students the diverse scope of what the art form can be—regardless of whether those students end up as artists or audience members later in life.
- Rock concerts: People in my generation, including myself, go to many more rock concerts than plays. I think this is because rock show provide a greater immediacy and intensity of interaction between audience and performer. Plus they’re often raucous, loosely structured, spontaneous, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. (Not to mention the fact that you can usually drink at them!) The theatre would do well to harness some of this energy. I’m not saying every theatre piece should be a rock musical or De La Guarda, but bringing some of that rock-and-roll ethos to the stage—as increasing numbers of writers and directors are doing in straight plays, musicals and more avant-garde theatre work—is a great thing. After all, life itself is raucous, loosely structured and spontaneous. And we’d all do well to take ourselves a little less seriously.
So, in conclusion, what I’m saying is: High school theatre programs + immediacy of interaction between audience and performers + raucousness + rock-and-roll energy + not taking yourself too seriously + a more diverse range of subject matter = getting younger audiences into seats = a pretty bright future for the theatre.
And, come to think of it, serving drinks might not hurt, either.
Artistic associate/dramaturg, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta
In the next 25 years, theatres must push and expand what is possible on the stage. Parallel to the art, theatres also need to push and expand what their communities demand of themselves. Great work in Atlanta, for example, highlights the city’s diversity and rapid growth. When we really hop, we build on Atlanta’s unique legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in creative and unexpected ways. Perhaps because of this legacy, we (including our academic theatre artists) work most creatively when pulling together to share talent, contacts, energy and ideas.
I hope to see an eruption of structured, community-building risk-taking.
At the Alliance Theatre, we annually promote growth and change in Atlanta by producing the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. Every year we bring a wide-ranging group of recent graduate MFA playwrights to Atlanta. Then a wide swath of the theatre community comes together for a week of readings around the opening night of the winning play’s production. Each playwright immediately
impacts our institution and our theatrical community. They push us to explore new actors, tackle new and often difficult subjects, challenge our producing aesthetics and our audience’s artistic expectations. I jealously guard their idealism and talent, hoping to create the highest expectations in the Kendeda playwrights for new-play production and institutional dramaturgy. The goal of the program is to have local and national impact, and to be leading the conversations about new work both locally and nationally.
In the coming 25 years, I hope to see an eruption of this kind of structured, community-building risk-taking. It’s time for America’s regions to celebrate their own cultural diversity, not merely as “colorful” or “regional,” but as the cornerstone of the romance of American culture—and it’s time for America’s theatres to lead this celebration. We have to dream nationally (with ambition, creativity and excellence) but produce locally (inviting audiences to help nurture new work and innovative artists). Then American theatre can dramatize a changing America, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, region by region, in the 21st century.
Young Jean Lee
Playwright, New York City
I feel that as American theatre becomes increasingly conservative, we are hastening our own demise. If we continue to deliver up plays that are pretentious, inferior imitations of television shows and movies that only middle-class white people can afford or relate to, eventually funders and producers are going to stop giving us money altogether, and I don’t blame them. Nor do I blame the artistic directors (although some people would argue that we should), because I think they have as good a sense as anyone about what their audiences will or will not tolerate, and part of an artistic director’s job is to keep his or her theatre in business. I don’t blame the audiences either, because it’s their right to shun the unfamiliar if they want to (I know I wouldn’t want anyone judging me for my choice of airplane reading). And I certainly don’t blame the artists, since making theatre is so difficult and most people are presumably doing their best. I think as long as we go around blaming everyone else for our problems, things are unlikely to change.
Audiences have the right to shun the unfamiliar if they want to.
American theatre needs more funding, more adventurous new work, more diverse artists and audiences, and more affordable tickets. In the next 25 years, I’d like to see challenging new works for theatre playing for months on end in 300-seat theatres filled with diverse audiences of people who all paid $15, and I’d like to see everyone involved making a living and having health insurance. I’m not sure how to get there, but I do feel that if I want my work to get seen by more people, I need to work together with theatres and audiences to figure out how to make that happen. I can’t expect American theatre to change around me while I stay the same, nor can I change things on my own. I also think it’s a good idea to make an effort to support the next generation of theatre artists and producers, since they’re going to have answers that we’ve never dreamed of.
David D. Mitchell
Managing and interim artistic director, Run of the Mill Theater, Baltimore, Md.
Looking 25 years into the future is hard. I hope that our national theatre community continues to diversify both on the boards and off. We need to nurture and train more people of color on both the artistic and managerial sides of theatre. This will give rise to work that reflects America’s melting pot of culture and ethnicity.
I think it’s imperative that theatres develop and maintain community-based programming—programming that continuously involves the needs and wants of the “would-be patron.” We’ll need a theatre that illuminates and authenticates the triumphs and tribulations of both the bourgeoisie and today’s common man.
Who will write? Who will direct? Who will produce and perform?
I hope that we are able to preserve craftsmanship. It’s important that technique and process never take a backseat to the demands of technology. This may be our biggest challenge—evolving our theatrical tradition to include the technical modes of the future. Oh! The-Internet-HD-right-now-generation! Will they hold fast to the timeless teachings of our theatrical forefathers, our great performance theorists? Or will these great contributors become “reflects,” only to be unearthed 20 years from now like some lost Egyptian artifact? We need young voices that are committed to the idea of fusing the old tradition with the new.
As we move into the future, I think arts education will reveal itself to be the true cornerstone of contemporary theatre. There must be a serious commitment to the youth! Who will write? Who will direct? Who will produce and perform? Who will come see and support theatre 25 years from now? As a national community, one of our primary goals should be to provide access to all, no matter what economic hurdles lie in the way.
We are resilient, passionate, intellectual beings. Let us strategize and forge into the next 25 years with as much certainty as our lessons from the past and present allow.
Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar
Co-artistic directors, Big Dance Theater, New York City
A provision in an early version of the economic recovery bill stated that “none of the amounts appropriated…by this Act may be used for any…gambling establishment, zoo…golf course, swimming pool, stadium…theatre…and high- way beautification project.” An accurate clustering so it seems to me…some insight on theatre today. Most theatre being supported/lauded today is the aesthetic equivalent of highway beautification. The anti-theatre view expressed by this provision is very much embraced by the handful of disgruntled, whack-job theatremakers who, I think, are making the most vibrant work—theatre that liberates the rational mind from mimicry of the already known.
My hope for the next 25 years (let’s say minutes, not years, because I already feel myself switching to an opposite opinion) is that more theatremakers will embrace their pariah status, be emboldened by it, and thus elevate theatre in the eyes of the Senate from mild scorn to downright detestation. May we be equated with the scoundrels of our age (stiff competition). May we be a toxic asset to our society.
A Prophesy in Five Parts:
Tell Me a Story: We never tire of our stories: our Greek gods and our mortals sparring for agency, our heroes and anti-heroes. After thousands of years, I don’t think the love of story will go away—but it may look very different. Staging will be less dependent on trying to reproduce what we deem real. Productions will live more in the world of the imagination and metaphor. Painter Giorgio Morandi said: “Nothing is more abstract than reality.”
There Will Be Dance: And there will be dance in all plays—because dance is always true. Dance makes us know things that are ineffable, and theatre trades best in what is mysterious and without answers.
Noisy Feelings: American audiences will at last tire of the noisy, sweating and spitting school of acting and prefer their theatre drier and their emotional moments earned. The theatre will get unhooked from mawkish sentimentalism, and try to stay sober—until the sobriety breaks, and we cannot sustain it, and we weep.
Matters Durational and Electronic: Theatre is getting shorter and shorter. Maybe in 25 years it will be like a haiku. But I don’t think theatre will go electronic. Theatregoing is in part a love of sitting in the dark with strangers watching live bodies sweat.
Addictive Audiences: Samuel Pepys, who lived in the 17th century, had to ration how many performances he would allow himself to see to accommodate his budget. He was an addict for the stuff. And he often broke his own rules and went to the theatre every night. Let us be optimistic and say that in 25 years, audiences will come running from all the flat screens to the multidimensional, spontaneous and unpredictable world of the stage.
Artistic director, American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.
As the new artistic director of American Repertory Theatre, I am grappling with questions that many theatrical institutions around this country are asking: Why are we losing our audiences, and why aren’t new audiences coming to the theatre? It is common to explain these trends by pointing to the changing world outside the theatre: Video games and interactive digital technology have shortened attention spans, and have therefore changed our audiences’ appetite for theatre; how can we possibly compete, given the multitude of entertainment choices available in our world? Even worse, perhaps audiences have lost interest in “culture.” The problem with these explanations is that they blame the audience. I believe the responsibility lies with the people who create theatre. Could it be that as arts producers, we are failing to provide a theatrical experience that values the audience’s engagement and empowerment? If we want to truly broaden our penetration into the culture at large, we have to concentrate our attention on the total arts experience for our audiences.
Club Zero Arrow will be the venue where cell phones can be turned on.
This is an idea that I have been passionate about in my own work as a director, and it will be the focus for A.R.T. as we move forward in the 21st century. Our new initiative, “Experience A.R.T.,” seeks to revolutionize the theatre experience through a sustained commitment to empowering the audience. This audience-driven vision will completely transform the way we develop, program, produce and contextualize our work. A new allocation of A.R.T. resources will give equal importance to the social aspects of theatre and the potential for a full theatre experience, including interaction and engagement before, during and after the production. A.R.T. will be the first theatre in the country that has a club venue as its second stage. Club Zero Arrow will be a unique environment that will foster the development of work that encourages a whole new relationship with the audience. Club Zero Arrow will be the venue where cell phones can be turned on. People will be told from the get-go that they are allowed to participate as they would at a rock concert or a sports event—capturing images, making videos and recordings, using Twitter, sending text messages while they are experiencing the event, and then sharing their response with friends on networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Club Zero Arrow will promote an open-source culture in which creative content (such as video footage, audio clips, photographs and other forms of creative commentary) can be generated and shared, making the events more accessible and widely distributed. I believe that if theatre is to remain a vital art form, it must give audiences a voice, a sense of ownership and a feeling of importance in the theatrical event.
Playwright and performer, Beacon, N.Y.
Three things I see. One is the willingness as a nation to look back to the past with a more critical and complex eye. I feel often we tread a bit too lightly when telling of, say, the civil rights era. We treat the period’s figures as either wholly villainous or completely heroic and angelic. This has been a great opportunity lost. Riveting theatre, of course, must pulse with characters and storylines rich in the un-simplicity of chaos. I can see more theatre practitioners in the future unearthing the multitude of colors and contradictions that the past truly was.
Second, with our country fast approaching a time when no one ethnic group will dominate, I see a reality in which a regional theatre presenting a five-play season will only feature one show from a European-centered perspective. This will occur not out of any kind of affirmative action, reverse racism or “payback sucker!” mentality, but instead a natural, consensual outgrowth of what and who the United States will be.
The audience will be more diverse than it is today—in every sense of the word.
And, lastly, in 25 years I see theatre attracting a much larger audience. This audience will be more diverse than it is today—diverse in every sense of the word. It will consist of the very old and very young, the rich and the poor, the middle class and the working class. The theatre in 25 years will serve as a place for one to celebrate one’s own community’s stories; at the same time, the theatre of tomorrow will act as a true bridge from one community to another, from one culture to the next. The digital age will continue to expand as we move into the future, but because of this expansion, human beings will feel an excited urge to renew the irreplaceable feeling of live, human interaction and connection. We as theatre artists must work to make this vision a reality—and we must be ready for the day that it comes.
Sound designer, San Francisco
Ideas for a Future-Proof Theatre in 2034: Hovering audiences—or at least suspended, viewing the action from above the burnt-out husks of broken-down prosceniums; all theatre achieved with minimal technology—King Lear using Christmas lights, a tuning fork and a banana; site-specific theatre installations on the moon; the continuing practice of periodically switching out stage weapons with actual weapons, and a kick-ass marketing campaign to go along with it; hearing-aid feedback symphony; Best of Broadway Surgical Procedures; tooth-decay dance theatre; particle-accelerator theatre; the dissolution of all placards, announcements or notices of any kind warning of loud sounds or cigarette smoke on stage; more loud sounds and cigarette smoke on stage; more spontaneous audience deaths; the dissolution of all committees, boards and task forces involved in “season planning”; the dissolution of the “season”; onstage toilets; bring your own text (SMS), bring your own soundtrack (iPod), light your own show (LED); black-metal theatre; noise theatre; improvised death theatre; the return of syphilis and serious opium addiction; the evolution of a sophisticated catharsis that reincorporates the working class without pandering; more guts; more fangs; less brochures; bring back the rotten tomatoes; more music; less musicals; no more program notes; no more pre-show announcements; no more post-show discussions; BYOB/BYOD; more superstar stage managers; less offstage ignorance; more onstage ignorance; the production meeting with fisticuffs; Armed Audience Interaction®; way way way less self-importance and formality; more dirt, more grime, more fractured spines.
Anika Noni Rose
Actor, New York City
I wish I could envision the future with certainty. It may be tougher than ever being a theatre artist, due to the changes in the scope of entertainment—or maybe toughness will have shifted like a kaleidoscope, showing a different tone, tint or shape.
What do I hope will happen? I hope producers will get brave again and decide that it’s all right to use an actual stage actor or “theatre star” for their next show—that it will be okay to use someone who’s not a household name, but instead to make one. I hope there’ll be no more casting of Celestial Beings (who’ve maybe never seen the boards before, forget sending a voice to the back row) so they can work near their spouse or their vet. I know people in this city (people without health insurance) who are so talented that if they let out on stage an inkling of what they had, it might cause a Times Square brownout or a government investigation into hidden WMDs! Twenty weeks of work, one year of coverage—for many, accomplishing that is rare. I hope that changes. I hope Broadway stops being a reality-show consolation prize.
Anyone game to let me do a quick craniotomy?
I love medical shows where you get to watch surgery and track scientific progressions. Anyone game to let me do a quick craniotomy? I’ve got some free time. Okay, acting isn’t brain surgery, but it is a craft. I hope that we go back to recognizing people who’ve studied it and worked at it by giving them jobs; that I continue to meet producers who aren’t afraid to shake up preconceived notions of casting; that they continue to say, “Why not do a Latino slice of hip-hop musicalized life? A show with white folks sitting at a table cussing each other allllll the way out? A black woman playing what had only been thought of as a white woman’s role (thank you)? Or a show with black and white folks rocking out in such a way that you just want to run up someone’s back and stand on their head yelling, ‘It’s alllll righhht!!!?’” It could work, and it does. If it’s good, people come. May the critics that tell truths continue to do so, and may regional theatres continue doing inspiring, innovative work (cheers to American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre!). May our First Family inspire us to show less homogeneous family settings without comment. That’s America. I hope that in 25 years I won’t still be hoping.
Playwright, New York City
What the next 25 years might bring in theatre:
Our government will start more and more to imitate Scandinavia, and everyone, including artists, will have health care. There will be a new government agency for the arts, granting us months and years to finish projects, simultaneously revitalizing our theatre and our economy.
The government won’t imitate Scandinavia, and so, in response, the Dramatists Guild will become an incredible force for change, replacing the United Auto Workers in its pull, determination and tactical brilliance. We will do away with subsidiary rights participation, so that playwrights will only give back their own earnings to a theatre when they earn as much per year as their artistic directors; then, and only then, will writers give tax-deductible donations to the not-for-profit theatres that produce them, out of gratitude and choice (rather than giving away 40 percent of their New York income by fiat). We will convince theatres who produce our work to provide us with health care for two seasons. Playwrights and dramaturgs working at the same theatre will have health insurance; directors and managing directors will have the same health insurance.
Theatre artists, worried about the effects of institutional sameness on art, weary of the economics of theatre and of competing with pilot season, will band together to create different models of poor theatre. There will be a resurgence of non-Equity, non-subscriber-based theatre, beautifully alive and reminiscent of New York in the ’70s. These new ensembles will have such loyalty and such groundbreaking life that it would be unimaginable for an actor to leave a show for a cameo in a movie. The level of dedication and synergy in these ensembles will be almost religious in nature, banding artists together in small communities rather than living as traveling mercenaries. The audiences, in awe of the newness of the work, the relevance, the sheer liveness of the performances, will be diverse, across age, race and class. The performances will feel like ancient and contemporary ritual, as central to the lifeblood of the community as food. Actors will hand out bread at the end of performances, which will themselves be free.
Theatre artists, weary of the economics of theatre and of competing with pilot season, will slowly stop acting in plays, writing plays and directing plays altogether. The art world will be completely consumed by commodity culture. The only thing running on Broadway will be Disney musicals. Straight plays will be a thing of the past, relics from another time. Once a year, stars will do staged readings of A Christmas Carol for nostalgic and charitable reasons in the Hollywood Bowl. After many years of this state of affairs, a great cry will well up in the nation, and new, miraculous plays will be written by the very young, who have never before seen a live play, or snow (this will be after global warming has taken effect). These plays will be much like the groundbreaking plays written in Greece during the birth of democracy, and the symbolist plays at the turn of the century. There will be a new poetry on our stages, and a new form, unimaginable to all of us now. Let us, then, turn our attention to the invisible and visible worlds—to poetry and to health care—to prepare ourselves for the next epoch.
Scenic designer, associate artistic director, New Paradise Laboratories, Philadelphia
I was at a production meeting the other night for a show in Philly by a midsized regional theatre, and given the current economic situation, the mood was understandably somber. The first agenda item, in fact, was to issue a 20-percent, “cross-departmental” budget cut. The room fell silent. Then the director speaks up: “Look, I know this is bad news. It’s terrible news. But, hey, what are we gonna do? At the end of the day, no matter what, we still have the potential to change people’s lives, right?”
I am encouraged by how many of my colleagues share those sentiments. Budgets have been cut on six of the nine shows I’m designing this year, yet everyone around me is unflinchingly passionate. Ideas abound. Artistic conversations are intoxicating. Truthfully, when I think about the next 25 years in American theatre, I am without panic or alarm. I am utterly excited about the possibilities of our evolving work together.
We still have the potential to change people’s lives, right?
I have so many questions. How can we integrate new technology in ways that are not just “cutting-edge,” but also meaningful? What does it mean to “author new work”—is this role in our field relegated only to playwrights and ensembles? What is our relationship to pop culture? Can we continue to incorporate populist trends in our work without conforming to them entirely? How do we maintain a sense of history while embracing the appetite for adventure more commonly associated with the visual arts? How do we draw the line between creator and audience? Are we in the process of blurring that line or drawing it more clearly? How does our commitment to community evolve as the geographical boundaries that define them are fading away? Can we find new and inventive ways of producing work outside the paradigm of big institutions and subscribers? And, yes, of course, how do we engage and excite new audiences?
No matter what the economic, social or political climate may be, our art form will evolve as society itself evolves, because there is something at the very core of our work that is essential to the human spirit. It’s an innate desire to gather together, tell stories, sing songs and dance the impossibilities of our existence. In the next 25 years, how do we stay true to that?
Director, writer and designer, Cambridge, Mass., and New York City
I’ve developed most of my work outside of traditional theatre institutions, which causes me to see the future as an ongoing, disparate collection of events. My thinking about the future is really very short-term.
In the past 10 years I have tried to assemble my creative process into makeshift seasons. The first season lasted from 2003 to 2007 and was titled “The Flight Out of Naturalism.” This season was comprised of about nine productions and focused dually on Naturalism and Cinema Vérité. I was interested in Reality.
We barely have a center toward which to aspire, or against which to rebel.
My interest is now in Fiction. The upcoming season is called “Simulated Cities / Simulated Systems,” and it looks like this: a trilogy of science-fiction performance works (of which part two, Bellona, Destroyer
of Cities, will be developed in Salzburg, Germany, then New York); an opera about ice in Antarctica composed by Eric Sanko (premiering in Australia); a documentary performance with Andrew Andrew (on North Korea) and another with Tanya Selvaratnam (on Sri Lanka); a play by Brecht in his hometown state-theatre in Augsburg; an evening of songs about the life and times of Peter Lorre, with the World/Inferno Friendship Society (at the Spoleto Festival, and later at the Vancouver Winter Olympics); a choreographic installation for a solo performer based on All’s Well that Ends Well; and Motion Studies, an opera with composer Keeril Makan and Alarm Will Sound (to premiere in New York).
This is roughly my Future, for three years.
This Future relies on relationships with a dozen or so producers and theatres, a host of collaborators, some six or seven countries, and several institutions. In this Future, Organization is the price of Independence. I’m not sure that this is what the future should look like, but I suspect it is not so different from that devised by other independent theatre artists.
In the American theatre we are so Independent. We barely have a center toward which to aspire, or against which to rebel. But we have a Market, and we have a rich history in need of synthesis. In this Market, however, the discussion of synthesis is usually swallowed by the noise of Negotiations. Many of my friends speak with optimism about the collapse of the Market because in the silence which remains, a discussion is beginning to emerge, and it is getting louder and louder.
Director, New York City
I’m a person who needs a plan. I’m a planner. I can’t relax without a plan. I wake up in the morning and begin to plan. So as I’ve considered this question of what lies in store for us in the next 25 years, I feel…anxiety—followed by a desire for a really good plan! Because this is a tough moment. Every day brings new proof that the resources we’ve built our lives and work on—all of them, economic, environmental, institutional—are disappearing. (And even in the best of times, I often wonder how any of us find the stamina to do what we do.) My plan? Tap into a skill so basic and fundamental we often overlook its full potential—collaboration. I think we need to broaden our definition of whom we collaborate with and how. This is already starting to happen as we (both as a country and as a theatre community) are coming to realize that we no longer have the luxury to operate in a vacuum, spinning in autonomous orbits. Interconnectedness looks increasingly interesting.
Find the people who keep you creatively churning and excited.
There’s the practical part of it, of course: A trend is already starting toward the sharing of resources, including productions, buildings and staff. But I’m also thinking about collaboration in the bigger sense, of unexpected relationships that forge new ways to create art as well as new paradigms for the business of theatre. Directing can be difficult work because even in the good times jobs and resources are scarce—and sometimes, like now, they’re even scarcer. But the process of collaborating with playwrights and translating their ideas to an audience sustains me. I concentrate on new plays because it allows me to engage with writers who are grappling with the mysteries and challenges of existence, with originality, audacity, humor and profundity. So my personal plan, and my recommendation to you, is to find the people who keep you creatively churning and excited. Keep them close; see what their ideas are. Gather your collective resources. And then, together, make a new plan.
Actor, New York City
The next 25 years begins with economic adversity, new national leadership, inter-union dissent and technological advances that, while simultaneously bringing knowledge and communication to our fingertips, also seem to be taking away our face-to-face interaction and leading us toward screen-to-screen interaction.
The skill in, patience with, and presence of human exchange is dwindling, which will make what we do all the more fearfully esoteric, as the tools that are meant to bring us together also keep us further apart.
I have never thought of my occupation as merely entertainment.
There is something spiritual about What We Do.
There is precious little like the communion between audience and artist.
There is hope for the world in those moments.
There is something spiritual about What We Do.
I participated early last year in a discussion at the Actors Center’s Congress at Lincoln Center about the role of the actor as collaborator in today’s creative environment. I spoke briefly about having been a part of collaborations where I had been welcomed into the process, and, on the other hand, of collaborations where I had been told what to do, how to do it, what I would wear, and with no acknowledgment of, or interest in, my own insights.
The talk moved to actors taking their rightful place as collaborative voices in the artistic process, and of taking a leadership role in guiding artistic endeavors themselves. I shared an anecdote about one of the first classes I took as an undergraduate—playwright Robert E. Lee was invited to speak with us, and what he said, simply and emphatically, over and over, so as to burn it into our minds, was, “CARE.”
It struck a very deep chord with me.
It comes back to me both in times of despair and revelation.
A call to reassert one’s rigor; to “get one’s mind clean and vigorous,” and to go deeper.
It was at this Congress two years earlier where the idea of artistic leadership found its way into Marco Barricelli. That day he took a step away from being a frustrated artist, and took a step toward becoming the present artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz.
The future will be what it will be.
I believe that we are creative resources to be utilized, and also the Life Force in magic-making.
If we take responsibility for ourselves, open our ears, hearts and minds to each other, together we’ll do amazing things.
Artistic director, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, San Diego, Calif.
My very unscientific “methodology” for exploring the question of what the next 25 years will bring to American theatre began by looking back 25 years and seeing both happy and horrific sights:
…The Real Thing.
After waking from my daydream, I realized there are lessons to be taken from each of these “icons,” allowing us to take a good look at where we were and consider where we’re going:
Miniskirts: Great at the time, but I wouldn’t dare wear one now. Lesson learned: Time to clean up my closet and time to clean up our act. I hope that within 25 years we clean up our theatre buildings and identify eco-friendly theatre processes and materials to be used throughout our operations. Mo’olelo is currently developing a Green Theatre Choices Toolkit, thanks to a TCG grant—a first step in identifying how to create theatre without sacrificing the long-term health of our communities. (And I promise not to sacrifice the long-term health of humanity by wearing that miniskirt again.)
Marketing departments will become community-organizing departments headed by activists.
Duran Duran: They’re about to record a new album, described as an “art school project” driven by curiosity. Lesson learned: With or without shoulder pads, artists will remain curious over the next 25 years, creating new forms and incorporating new technologies (and, yes, I still heart Duran Duran!).
The Real Thing: Tom Stoppard’s play won a Tony in 1984 and still gets produced widely. Lesson learned: As society becomes more digitized, equal and opposite to that drive is the growing need for authenticity. Live theatre offers just that: authentic artistic experiences. But beyond our work on stage, we will need to be transparent in all our operations, especially how we engage audiences. Current marketing strategies, particularly paid advertisements, will no longer prove effective. Instead, good old-fashioned word-of-mouth will draw the audience. So we need to generate word-of-mouth proactively. At Mo’olelo, we take a community-organizing approach to each show, holding grassroots, activist-type gatherings with community groups, engaging them as stakeholders in each production months before the first rehearsal. It’s a page out of President Obama’s handbook.
I hope that within 25 years, our marketing departments become community-organizing departments headed by activists. That kind of authenticity inspires new theatregoers and creates something that stands the test of time—more so than my miniskirt, and perhaps even more than Duran Duran.
Associate artistic director, Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-five years is a long time. Twenty-five years ago, I would have never thought of myself as an artist—I’m not even sure that I do now. I’ve known too many absolute geniuses to count myself among them, and I’m constantly humbled by the opportunity to work with them. I feel like I learn something new every day, and not only in the company of my mentors and my peers, but from our audiences as well—it’s always some lesson about how to be more responsible in my work (or more rigorous), or how to be more respectful of the vast array of experiences through which we navigate. This is what theatre does to me—it immerses me in a currency of humanity that leaves me breathless.
So when you ask me where I see the American theatre going in the next 25 years, I see it doing more or less what it does now. Sure, the form may change—there will be new media and new generations of artists, there will be preservationists and radicals. But the dynamic of audience and artist is constant, no matter what. The difference (and this belief sings in me) will be in how the audience will value theatre in the years to come. No, it’s not about teaching audiences about the importance of theatre (that’s a Quixotic effort at best)—no amount of literature, or study, or discourse, can amount to the alchemical event of a live performance. We know that. Get them into the theatre. Or take the theatre to them.
The dynamic of audience and artist is constant, no matter what.
There is a certain faith that I keep in the (sublimely) mutable nature of theatre. But theatre can also be brittle, and it is in that tension between the then and the yet-to-be that I think we find ourselves today. The crucible is still ahead of us—that seems clear. But I believe that people, caught up in today’s alienating culture, are hungry now for what theatre has to offer. They just don’t necessarily realize it
There is a way that theatre becomes a model for living: Seek the vital and visceral experience, imagine that anything is possible, break into song and dance at sudden and unexpected moments. Life. Improvised.
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