Is the American theater a living museum?

June 19, 2013 by Sam Graber

Is the American theater a living museum?

That’s the big question I’ve been asking lately. I’ve been asking because it seems like a lot of the characteristics of today’s working American theater emulate those qualities I might otherwise attribute to culture organized for presentation in a museum.

There’s a lot that makes me wonder if my theater brethren/sisteren and I are unknowingly putting ourselves out to pasture. As the American theater declines in relative attendance, revenue and mindshare, am I harsh in making this museum comparison?

Here what I think of when factoring the notion of American theater as a living museum:

  • The most well-known product is 400 years old
  • Much of the product getting staged is historical in nature
  • Academia is pretty much how the general public gets exposed to it, and possibly the limit of their exposure
  • Activity is heavy on the ‘non’ part of non-profit
  • Significant operating activity is allocated to study and educational outreach
  • Part of the product offering includes tours to see how it works
  • Going once a year is considered ‘active’

In addition, I factor the massive ongoing changes in consumer content consumption. The instancy of in-home entertainment not only endangers theater but also all industries celebrating and preserving the Euro-devised, pre-American art form.

This is what makes me question whether the American theater is a living museum.

So let’s go on a thought journey, and ultimately bring it back to theater.

Those performing centuries-old art are in trouble

Over the past year here in Minneapolis the principle city orchestra, calling itself the Minnesota Orchestra, has been mired in a protracted labor lockout. The lockout, of course, stems from money, or rather the lack of it. The Minnesota Orchestra board of directors has basically taken the position that financial instability and a depleted endowment have forced them to shrink the rate of musician compensation, including salary, benefits and pension, while the musician union has taken the basic position that a pay cut in any form would result in their largest cello shoved up the board of directors’ buttocks.

Early in the negotiating war the sparring factions decided the best airing of differences should travel through the press. The press, a perennial slave to anything reeking of controversy, obsequiously obliged. The major dailies in town kept the Minnesota Orchestra lockout front-and-center. The constant cycle of updates fueled the ire of both musicians and directors who continued to wage war through snippy quotes and biting accusations. It was pretty good entertainment, at least for those of us not missing the sounds of 18th century European music.

Meanwhile, the mayor has been noticeably absent from the conversation. Not that one can blame him. The quickest way to discount your standing as a true man of the many is to run your smiling mug through the sunny elitism of a dark concert hall. No, the only statement I caught was the city saying it needs to keep the Minnesota Orchestra thriving because of cultural reputation.

But how does the very expensive preservation a 300-year-old art form relate to today’s American culture?

Today’s American culture

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Sam, plenty of different people have plenty of different interests. We’re not some kind of monolithic culture.’ Yes, and kudos to you for using the word monolithic.

According to the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as ‘the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions…of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.’ So it’s not about a singular pattern as much as how traits differentiate. But if you’re working in a field such as theater, with a very small and shrinking group worried about its future, then you might gander at what’s happening with American culture at large.

After moving to Nashville for grad school, I noticed on Thursday afternoons all the big RVs with out-of-state license plates rumbling onto the Vanderbilt football stadium parking lot. Lines of RVs, orderly and meretricious, unfurled awnings festooned with SEC college banners. This had to be investigated.

‘Hey,’ I’d approach with.
‘Howdy’, they’d roar back over their shoulders, while being careful not to spill fried ingredients into their grills.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Football game on Saturday.’
‘It’s Thursday.’
‘You gotta get in here early. Claim your spot. Wanna burger?’

Thousands of people configure their weekly work schedule so as to drive to the ‘away game’ team’s football stadium at least two days in advance of kickoff. That means thousands of people, at least six times a year, spend four days of their week traveling for football. And not just any football. We’re talking teenage, semi-pro football. Professional football is a whole ‘nother level. Meanwhile, by Friday morning you couldn’t even see the Vanderbilt parking lot.

This says something about the type of attraction that defines American culture, that outlines the shared behavior and patterns of our interactions. I might argue that the number of Americans who share and interact at something like college football on just one Saturday alone surpasses the number of Americans who share and interact at theater over an entire calendar year.

As far as cultural in this country, I’m for spending Saturday at the college football stadium and watching the student marching band strut it out in grand halftime style, because that’s our culture and those kids are awesome. Meanwhile, to see classical music performed live, I wouldn’t be interested in traveling down the street to the Minneapolis orchestra hall. Instead, I would be for getting over to Austria and seeing it done in Salzburg by the original peeps. Because that’s their culture.

Look at it another way. How would you feel if you went on a vacation, and traveled to some exotic European locale, and during the first night out, flush with the anticipation of engaging a foreign culture, the music that played was good ‘ol southern American country western. You’d feel cheated in a way, right? You’d say to yourself, ‘I just sat all scrunched up on a long, crowded, bumpy flight with no meal and a terrible Adam Sandler movie to get over here and you’re telling me I have to listen to what I could hear at home? No thanks. Also, monolithic.’

That’s what happened to me. I went over to Spain for New Year’s Eve 2000. I ventured via various plane, bus and foot iterations to reach Grenada. There I was, just off the Mediterranean coast, miles from everywhere, packed into a festive social club with nothing but Spaniard natives…and the music playing was American country western. I am not even kidding, part of the mix was Witch Doctor, as recorded by Alvin & The Chipmunks. Here’s to the new millennium!

Obviously, I’m not advocating that something like marching band music is better than classical music (I adore classical music, my favorite genre). I’m advocating that marching band music is the music of my country, and that if someone came here from Europe to visit, I’d show ’em a good time at the college football stadium because that’s a predominant and distinctive form of living American culture indigenous to this land.

In the past one hundred years

Over the past one hundred years, we in the U.S. have benefited from a major increase in limits and quality of life. As mortality rates have plummeted, life expectancy has risen 63%. Major diseases have been eliminated. Illiteracy has been all but crushed. Education is up, and mass transit is accessible and safe.

Inside the home, the number of average individual annual work hours has decreased 33% while total recreation expenditures have risen 400%, including expenditures on cheap energy to exert to the exact degree the temperature in our bedrooms.

So how many of us medically safer, richer Americans (population up 375% since 1900) are spending their ballooning leisure time patronizing theater?

In the past three years

What matters is what has happened in the past ten years. In the past ten years (ten years!) the entire sum of human knowledge has been getting transferred to an online encyclopedia. In the past ten years (ten years!) the sum of recorded media has been getting transferred to an online video site. In the past ten years (ten years!) entire media industries have been overturned or abolished.

And in the past three years, a new device has changed everything about the way we consume content.

If you saw my two kids you would get a big chuckle. They sit on the couch at home, right next to each other, knees drawn up, popping their fingers onto the screens of their respective iPads. Yes, we are lucky in that, through work and gift, we have two iPads in the house, both now fully commandeered by the kids.

The iPad was released during 2010 and three years later you can see the immense change in how the next generation consumes content. Especially with my kids, chins on their chests as they peer into the tablet screen. They are all over YouTube. Each has a full video history spanning the gamut: airplanes landing, gymnastic routines, crazy international tourism promos, old cooking shows. And whenever one stumbles onto something new, like a funny PSA from China, they crowd together and watch it over and over and over, chortling like some juvenile conspiracy.

My kids are 4 and 2.

Everything they watch is unscripted. They are not into scripted entertainment. And not only do my kids swallow all of it up, but they have this incredible capacity to absorb multiple media streams at one time. Which does not include the TV. They don’t know what the TV is for. To them, the TV is something they can’t touch, can’t fondle, can’t manipulate. It is an obsolete orb on the wall which only streams one content at a time.

We are at the start of a major shift in programming involvement. By the time my kids are in high school, will the cost of creating motion media be so low and the tools of production be ubiquitous that the notion of putting on My Fair Lady be laughable? Will interests in dramatizing emotional truths in an academic environment move from theater to an entirely new forum?

If you don’t have a tablet (the 66% of you, according to a new Pew Research study) (BTW, that’s a third of American adults owning a tablet in just three years) then let me explain where the world has gone. Scads of televised and movie content are now available on demand through tablet apps. My family is still, for annoying security reasons, a Comcast subscriber, and its Xfinity offering is bundled as a tablet app through which a tremendous amount of such televised and movie content can be accessed instantaneously. It can be watched wherever a high-speed internet connection is present, be that the master bathroom or an airport concourse. Just right there, all neatly categorized, a library of shows and movies. It’s so far beyond and absolutely better than TV. And, again, it’s all been done in the past three years.

With this kind of apparatus and content control, why would you need to exit your house for live scripted programming?

Coming back to theater

If you’re reading this then you’re likely a theater person. But the super-majority of Americans, the RVers for instance, know little of this theater of which we do, and who are now getting endowed with technology tools for in-home (in-RV?) storytelling not just on their TV walls…but in their hands. The psychology of this physiological adjustment in content consumption and control is enormous.

As the American theater continues its tug of war for leisure activity relevance, I ask why would people commit to a live, out-of-home scripted theater performance?

Why would they want to exit their house for live theater, especially when the most well-known product is four hundred years old? To the average American, theater is a guy from England who lived in the early 17th century plus whatever they were forced to study that one semester in high school. And even if the general public was interested in a 400 year-old script, why would they leave their house and go see a production…when the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance is available for free on YouTube?

In other news, much getting presented by theaters today is historical in nature. I see plays that revisit historical episodes or period characters. I get that artistic directors are staging works featuring milestone American events on the comfort their seats will get filled. I also recognize the fascination with writers writing about writers. But is the audience fascinated?

Does the audience care? There is a lot of theater getting done by theater people for theater people. Again, does the general audience care? In an era of increasing socialization, why would someone feel it desirable to sit in the dark, silently next to strangers, at a scripted performance reliving Thoreau’s Walden (a play I saw getting done this season)? Why will people go to a theater performance for a history lesson or for recreation of a classic text, all of which clearly will not offer the flexibility or cost value of immediate in-home digital storytelling?

And when I tell persons of the general public that I’m a playwright? “Like screenplays?” No, theater. “Oh. Theater?” Yes, we still exist. You have likely seen us writing down the funny thing you just said while preparing your smoothie or handing you miniature golf tickets or during any other holdover job when we’re not trying to become the next Arthur Miller. You are familiar with Arthur Miller, yes? Perhaps not.

With culture being the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions of a particular group, everything from pet clubs to sports has grown up in a hurry to attract and retain leisure time attention and patronage. Have we? I go to theater conferences and hear from marketing panels how American theaters need to spice up their product by offering backstage tours. Really? I guess that makes sense. If you’re a museum.

Do you work in a museum?

If your mission as a theater artist is rooted in preservation, then good for you. Seriously. Guarding the particularities of a historical era for conservation purposes is laudable.

But if it’s not, and if you first got into theater seeking a bold and satisfying adventure, yet over the years grew tired of both bureaucracy and stultifying process, feeling as if the whole thing wasn’t a bit tiresome and repetitious, then you must know the buildup of pressure will have one disgorging hiccup.

The ugly lockout of the classical musicians forebodes an uglier truth for the American theater. The Minnesota Orchestra, like other orchestras around the country, are busy trying to keep afloat an experience which retransmits old European culture. How many American theaters are out there doing the same thing? How many working in the American theater wonder if they also labor in a living museum? How many wonder if the burgeoning presence of in-home mimicry of the out-of-home scripted experience will transform or abolish their industry?

But I know quality American theater is out there. I’ve seen it. It’s not a museum, it’s strong. So strong that each time I bring someone back into the fold, I feel like I’ve slyly introduced them to a hidden culture they didn’t know they already had. In fact, after taking someone who hadn’t been to the American theater in twenty years to a new play I received from them the following: “loved seeing the play and very impressed all around…definitely kept us talking all weekend about it, so if you wanted to make people think, you did, and laugh, too.”

How often does a museum do that?