If yesterday’s news that theatre attendance is down more precipitously than any of the arts caused you to spit out your coffee over breakfast, well that’s probably because you haven’t been paying attention. To be fair, I suspect a lot of people haven’t been, with virtually every discussion of the performing arts in since 2008 having been prefaced with either “in these challenging times” or “since the financial meltdown of 2008.” But the time for qualifiers and excuses is clearly past, especially as every news report on American life in general seems to invoke the fairly recent cliché “the new normal.” Things have changed. Things are changing. Things will change. The arts need to change.
In citing slides of 9% for musical theatre and 12% for non-musicals over the past five years, and even more pronounced numbers over a longer range, the picture painted by the NEA shows an overall decline in arts attendance, with theatre hardest hit. Coming just days after some co-mingled summary numbers from an Americans for the Arts report suggested theatre might be looking up, it was certainly startling news. But a closer look at the latter study actually confirms the reported NEA trend.
Looking elsewhere, the same picture appears. The last Theatre Communications Group “Theatre Facts” report, covering results from 2008 to 2012, shows a 1.8% decline in attendance in the portion of their membership studied – not as pronounced as the NEA figures, but certainly heading the wrong way as well. It’s also important to remember that as expansive as it is, TCG itself is only a subset of overall US theatres. In a more easily defined theatrical realm of activity, Broadway in the same period shows a 5% audience decline, with a 17% increase in income, suggesting an increasingly inaccessible theatrical realm, and an economic model that will only further stratify audiences.
The only encouragement that one might wish to cling to is a report from Ticketmaster’s analytics division, which shows stunningly positive stats about arts participation by younger audiences (including a snappy infographic). While it hints that there might be some lessons to be learned, we’d have to go to England to get them, because the study is entitled State of Play: Theatre UK. While it does include some US audience members (as well as a selection from Ireland, Germany and Australia), the US sample represents only 13% of the total, with 65% from the UK. Also, under theatre, Ticketmaster has folded in opera and dance, so it’s not a true apples to apples comparison.
Now I am one of the many who believes that theatre as a discipline will manage to survive the onslaught of electronic entertainment precisely because it is live and fundamentally irreproducible. We may be a niche, but there will always be those who treasure being in the same room with artists as art is created; I have often joked that theatre will only be in real danger when Star Trek: TNG’s holodeck becomes reality. Even these reports don’t sway me from that conceptual position. But I’m not sticking my head in the sand either.
Appreciation of the arts is, for many, something that is learned in childhood – namely in schools. Yet we only have to read about the state of public education to know that resources are diminished, anything that isn’t testable is expendable, and fewer students are being exposed to arts education than they were years ago. Citing the 2008 NEA SSPA report: “In 1982, nearly two-thirds of 18-year-olds reported taking art classes in their childhood. By 2008, that share had dropped below one-half, a decline of 23 percent.” In less than 30 years, inculcation in the arts through the schools declined notably, so is it any wonder that we’re seeing declines in arts participation over time?
In a 2012 Department of Education study, it was reported that “the percentages of schools making [music and visual arts] available went from 20 percent 10 years ago to only 4 and 3 percent, respectively, in the 2009-10 school year. In addition, at more than 40 percent of secondary schools, coursework in arts was not required for graduation in the 2009-10 school year.” That’s all the more reason to be concerned. Certainly many arts organizations have committed to working with or in schools, but are the programs comprehensive enough? We’ve become ever more sophisticated in how to create truly in-depth, ongoing education experiences, but perhaps in doing so, we’re reaching fewer students. Maybe we have to look at how to restore sheer numbers as part of that equation, while maintaining quality, to insure our own future.
It’s time to make an important distinction. As I said, I believe ‘theatre’ will survive for years to come. Where we would do well to focus immediate attention is on our ‘theatres,’ our companies. On a micro basis, it may be easy to shrug off declines, especially if you happen to be affiliated with a company that is bucking the trend. But these reports with their macro view should take each and every theatre maker and theatre patron outside of the specifics of their direct experience to look at the field, not simply year to year, but over time. It suggests that there is a steady erosion in the theatergoing base, which hasn’t necessarily found a new level; just as a rising tide floats all boats, eventually our toys lie at the bottom of the tub once the drain is opened.
I don’t have the foresight to know where this will lead. One direction is that of Broadway, where the consistently risky business model favors shows that are built for the truly long run, but only for the select audiences with the resources to support ever increasing prices. Might that be mirrored in the not-for-profit community as well, with only the largest and most established companies able to secure audiences and funding if resources and interest truly diminish? Or might we see a shift away from institutions and edifices and towards more grass roots companies, where simpler theatre at lower prices and more basic production values finds the favor of those who still harbor an appetite for live drama?
I’ll make a prediction. While in the first half of my life I watched the bourgeoning of the resident theatre movement, which in turn seeded the growth of countless smaller local companies, my later years will see a contraction in overall production at the professional level; it’s already begun, as a few companies seem to go under every year and have been for some time. That means that it will become ever harder for people to make their lives in theatre, because there will be fewer job opportunities for them.
Since I’ve already employed science fiction in my argument, let me turn to it again. We’ve all seen or read stories where someone goes back in time to right some past wrong (and for the moment, let’s forget that they often as not ruin the future in the process). Is there a point where we could or should make some fundamental change in how theatre functions – not as an art, but as an industry? Is there a single watershed moment where one choice determined the course of the field that some future time traveler could set right? I suspect not, unless we were talking about preventing (in succession) the discovery of electricity, the invention of TV and movies, or the creation of the internet.
That’s why we have to shift the paradigm now, and not just worry about selling tickets to the current show or meeting next year’s budget, but focus on what’s truly sustainable in 10, 25 or 50 years time. This week’s data barrage shows one thing we mustn’t ignore: even if we can’t see it in our own day to day experience, what we’re doing now isn’t working and the tide is going out.
My thanks to Mariah MacCarthy, who brought the 2008 NEA SSPA Report summary and the 2012 Department of Education report to my attention.