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Theater in Crisis: A Call to Arts Activism

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Message Liz Maestri

Theater isn’t dead—yet. Approximately 1,500 theaters exist in the United States, most of which are struggling to survive the difficulties of disappearing funding, increasingly geriatric audiences and a perceived loss of relevance.  Theater leaders commonly throw around phrases such as “audience initiative,” “long-range planning,” and “accessibility.” They need energy in their audiences and youthful, innovative minds on their management staff, but the question of how to attract the young and hip remains unanswered.

The idea of roping ‘em in while they’re young is a wise one, and consequently many theater companies have beefed up their education and marketing departments. Sadly, the vast majority of their desired youthful target audience does not go to the theater because they believe it is—in a word—uncool. To some extent, they are right. Theater houses full of senior citizens and yet another production of The Tempest do not make a thrilling Saturday night for the Millennium generation. Despite the well-worn attempts of student matinee programs, discounted ticketing programs and the like, theaters are failing to successfully build new audiences and validate their existence.

The theater field's stunted growth certainly cannot be attributed to any lack of attention by its decision-makers. Formal and informal gatherings of theater leaders and their allies take place on a regular basis, and service organizations across the country offer full-scale, national convenings. The field itself is alive and energized. Those who create and love the theater care deeply about ensuring that it has a future, but are crippled by their own kinship. Through a combination of working in a community of scarcity and by preaching to the proverbial choir, the industry has fallen into the trap of insularity. Talk is cheap, and while theater folk are aware that their companies are struggling to end fiscal years in the black, there is a surprising lack of resulting action. Endless conversations about the state of theater, love for the art and the urgent need for change fall by the wayside as leaders reluctantly choose inaction, overwhelmed by the present and unprepared for the future. Not only constrained financially, theater leaders must operate under the shadow of their funders and subscription base. Radical ideas for administrative change, branding and the possibility of political art pieces meet an early death when the question of risk-taking is asked. Risk has the potential to be financial suicide, and voices of dissent come from trustees and artistic leaders alike. Perhaps their nay saying comes from a certain fear of change, or far more destructively, perhaps they do not see a reason to rework their methods. What does the future hold for the next generation of artists and managers if the current state of theater remains unchanged?

Arts advocates are needed now more than ever. The country has reached an era in which artists must prove their worth, and the notion of art for art's sake is a thing of the past. Both individual artists and arts organizations are obliged to prove their "legitimacy" on both social and economic levels. Affordable, user-friendly technology has changed the way people share and disseminate information, and yet even as creators of content, artists have not been diligent in keeping up with the next wave. The next generation is that of the iPod, MySpace and YouTube, not season subscriptions to classical theater. This is a world of highly personalized, instantaneous information and it is changing rapidly in ways that the arts community is not adequately prepared to face. If arts organizations cannot adapt to these changes, they will become obsolete. Although young people determine the future health and success of the arts, they are too often overlooked as its consumers and funders, and rarely have a place on arts boards. The aging constituency of arts leaders owes it to their craft to include the next generation in their efforts to develop and sustain their disciplines.

By using the media to engage youth in the arts, including young professionals in the discussion and reframing theater to emphasize its necessity, there is hope that the field will be unrecognizable in years to come. Theater needs its champions, its talking heads, on television and in print media. The way business is conducted must be updated, from branding and marketing to lobby design, ticket sales and subscription packages. Arts organizations must claim ownership of what they stand for. The arts are for communication, exploration and discovery, and the arts are for everyone.

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Liz Maestri is a theater artist and activist. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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Theater in Crisis: A Call to Arts Activism

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