Theatre Facts 2013, TCG’s report on the state of resident theatres across the U.S. for the most recent fiscal year, is complete—and summarized for your perusal in Celia Wren’s detailed report in this issue of American Theatre. For most big-picture observers, the report’s numbers carry on in a similar vein to previous years, confirming an overall five-year trend that shows modest improvement in many key areas. Attendance slipped a bit since 2012, but has nevertheless seen a net increase over the five-year period since 2009.
About a half of the theatres posted deficits in 2013, but the five-year trend overall favored surpluses, particularly in 2010 and 2011. And cash flow problems represent a growing source of stress for many theatres. As for the subscription system, reports of its death may have been greatly exaggerated—while subscription totals declined between 2009 and 2013, the number of subscribers has increased in each of the last two years.
Less examined across the field is the increasing audience and community interest in connecting with theatre’s process—taking the deep dive into understanding what goes into making theatre, into the ideas it brings forward, into the powerful ways it pulls communities together to explore issues as well as to create collective historical memory. While total attendance at resident performances grew by 1.2 percent over the five years, Theatre Facts shows a 28.8-percent increase in attendance at behind-the-scenes activities such as workshops and staged readings.
In Wren’s article, Charles Varin of Denver Center Theatre Company points to the increasing attendance the DCTC’s Colorado New Play Summit and goes on to say, “There’s just an adventurous audience out there that likes the idea of being in at the ground level.” He It turns out that cultivating a deeper sense of connection between theatremakers and their audiences by inviting them into parts of the process more regularly, and with more attention to the development of an overall relationship, really does work.
When the subscription model took off in the 1970s, it succeeded because it offered a pathway for building tighter relationships between community members and theatre organizations. It encouraged people to buy into the idea of that theatre, rather than shopping for a particular play title. Subscription became like a form of community-supported agriculture—people paid in advance to see a full season, even though they weren’t sure what kind of fruits and vegetables those new plays might turn out to be.
So the challenge today becomes how to mine more than ever before what is truly unique about theatre—and theatre’s aliveness does becomes more unique every day. Can models be formed and shared beyond a single institution? This is a key goal of TCG’s Audience (R)Evolution, now entering its second round, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. What happens if several theatres in a community (or across the nation) try a new program simultaneously for greater impact?
In October, the National Jewish Theater Foundation/National Jewish Theatre launched a new website, the Holocaust Theatre Catalogue, with over 550 entries of plays written since 1933, about or related in some way to the Holocaust. Addressing the absence of any such comprehensive resource, the archive also came about in part because we are losing the last of the survivors of the Holocaust—and with them go their firsthand accounts of that horrific time in our history. The archive’s catalogue provides an opportunity for resident theatres to read and produce these plays and engage survivors in community dialogue about their experiences. In addition, the catalogue, which has an advisory board of scholars and theatre leaders (on which I am privileged to sit), aims to strengthen the idea that theatres and other community institutions can combine their resources to create stronger community awareness around pressing topics, current and historical.
The archive is open to the listing of any and all plays dealing with the Holocaust, and information on how to obtain the script is available on the site. “It is our sincere hope that the utilization of these select theatre works in education and production will inspire all to keep alive the lessons of the Holocaust and provide an artistically driven moral compass for future generations,” says the website’s introduction.
There are also specific suggestions for national impact. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in April, the hope is that theatres around the country will select one of these plays for a production or a staged reading, and that there will be a wide local and national discussion about the lessons of the Holocaust, involving audiences, scholars and survivors.
Our theatre movement stands at a unique place in time, where the work on our theatres’ stages is more intentionally reflecting social and historical realities, and where the possibility is stronger than ever of nuanced and powerful conversations taking place among audiences and artists. Longtime practitioners may feel that has always been the case—but as people become exponentially inundated with technology, time spent in the presence of a live, handmade art form becomes more special and very difficult to replicate in other media.
Theatre has the capacity to bring sense and meaning to individual lives and shared histories. There’s nothing like it.