• Patrick McAndrew

Theater’s Life Expectancy in a Digital Age

What is the future of theater in a digital era?  Who knows!  But let’s dive in and perhaps we can parse this out together.

Harvard magazine posted an article a few years ago titled, The Future of Theater: In a digital era, is the play still the thing?  Written by Craig Lambert, this lengthy article is definitely worth the read.  Lambert talks with established theater artists regarding where theater is heading and how the digital revolution is impacting how many people fill the seats.

Lambert states, “Electronic and digital technologies have spawned an array of media, from 3-D movies to crowd-sourced video like YouTube to smartphones, that compete with the stage (and with other traditional media like books, and each other) for the audience’s finite attention.”  A lot of people are not going to the theater simply because they’re not interested.  They’re more than happy with the endless amount of entertainment that they have in the palm of their hands that’s easier and cheaper to access than sitting in a theater for a few hours.

Why is this the case?  Some of my fellow subscribers (represent!) may not even read this post simply because its about theater.  In a lot of ways, theater is the antithesis to excessive technology consumption.  So why do so many people choose the latter?

Because of budget cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts, many young playwrights are looking at careers in writing for television because that’s where the money is.  Because of the lack of money, a lot of theaters are aiming towards market appeal in order to fill the seats, which means less experimental, perhaps more thought-provoking work.  But Lambert explains that theater, in its nature as an artistic medium, cannot rely solely on the marketplace.

Robert Brustein, founding director of the American Repertory Theater states in the article, “We have a theater that’s indistinguishable from Wal-Mart—just products to be bought. There is no organic quality to it—just something to consume and throw away, with no enduring aftertaste.”

André Gregory, an influential theater practitioner, states, “Broadway isn’t theater.  That’s show business.”  He comments that Broadway is, “passive theater that doesn’t force you or seduce you or charm you into asking questions, that tells you what to look at onstage” instead of “active theater that demands you to ask serious, challenging questions of your own life, the culture, and society we live in.”  And Lambert questions if there is an audience for this type of “active theater.”

I suppose that’s the big question moving forward as technology continues to advance: what is theater exactly and how do we make it more of a relatable experience to society?  Despite criticisms of Broadway, it’s filling seats and making a lot of money, as far as making money in theater goes.  But is it impacting people the way we want it to impact people?

This makes me think that theater is indeed a slippery slope.  As theater is about human beings and the human experience (also known as life), it’s going to mean something different to everyone.  Some people want to go to the theater, watch a couple dance numbers, leave in a better mood, call it a night, and forget about it the next day.  Others want to laugh their pants off.  And others want to leave the theater thinking and pondering life’s biggest questions.  All of those forms have their place in the theatrical world and it’s up to the theater practitioner or the theater goer to decide which one floats their boat.

As a theater practitioner myself, I am drawn to work that is going to leave an impact on people, that will leave people either feeling great or at least questioning their own lives.  What I think is most important, however, is getting across the importance of theater and how it can play a role in each individual’s life.

Anne Bogart, an influential theater director in New York City, has this awesome quote about theater and how it relates to the world and our relationships with one another:

“To create significant change in one’s perception of the world, it is necessary to engage in emotional journeys of empathy and narrative that help us to participate in the world with others.”

And this, my friends, is why theater is so important in a technological age that can sometimes seem like it’s tearing us apart.

Let me know what you think.  If you’re a theater person, do you agree?  And, most importantly, if you aren’t a theater person (don’t care much, or are very indifferent to the art form), comment below and tell me why not.  It will give us insights.


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