Theatre around the world is in a parlous state following the ravages suffered in the wake of the pandemic.
This has led to a full-on round of navel-gazing in the New York Times, initiated by an article written by Isaac Butler entitled American Theater Is Collapsing, the Federal Government Must Save It.
Grateful thanks go to longtime friend of BTG, Carol Tambor, a contributor to the debate, for drawing this to my attention.
Butler is hardly the first person to predict the demise of theatre, but he certainly does so pithily, commencing his article with the depressing prediction, “The American theater is on the verge of collapse.” While the pandemic didn’t help, the problems were present long before became a reality.
His initial thesis is simple: “Government bailouts saved the automotive and banking industries. American theater is in similar trouble and deserves to be saved.”
It quickly becomes apparent from his analysis of the problems faced on the far side of the Atlantic that they largely mirror those in the United Kingdom but are exacerbated by an establishment that has no history of funding theatres centrally.
Instead, American companies have relied on angelic benefactors, both individual and corporate, supplemented by patrons willing to subscribe to whole seasons at their favourite theatres.
In an economic downturn, this is apparently a recipe for disaster at a time when many companies in the country are cutting back drastically on staff and programming.
Mr Butler’s solution is simple but unlikely to be practical. That is for a massive injection of federal funding to bolster the theatre community and help it back on to its feet.
The principle may be good, but right-wing elements in the power structures in both United States and United Kingdom generally seem to be populated by Philistines.
To make matters worse, not only do they fail to appreciate the cultural or even economic value of artistic endeavour, but there is currently a hysterical response to what proud culture warriors describe as “wokeness”, which just happens to be their view of so many in positions of influence in the theatrical communities across the globe.
Given this negative climate, one hopes that Isaac Butler is not holding his breath while awaiting a billion or two of federal funding to come charging over the horizon like the cavalry in innumerable westerns.
His article met with a series of intelligent responses from the newspaper’s readers, which put the subject into perspective, if not necessarily offering much in the way of confidence that his proposition will ever come to fruition.
Optimistically, the letters editor of the New York Times entitled the selection of “laments and suggestions” How to Save American Theatre.
A rather cynical actor, director and playwright Scott Klavan attacked the increasingly political nature of the plays in non-profit theatres, suggesting that they frequently amount to little more than propaganda and are both bad art and bad economics. This will be manna from heaven for the anti-woke brigade.
Jim Vagias and Stephen Schnall from American Theater Group explained that, “we all persevere because we believe to the very marrow of our bones that theater is essential, not for our own personal fulfillment, but because we know that it makes a profound contribution to our community and the body politic.
"The ancient Greeks considered theatergoing a civic duty because they knew that an audience exposed to theater fostered a more vital, vibrant community.”
Lighting designer Peter Maradudin was depressed that, “Republicans loathe what theatre promotes—critical thinking”. He also wondered whether a more likely source of funding might be corporations and identified Disney suggesting that “I look at the 1 percenters and ask them, for a decimal-dust fraction of their wealth.”
Carol Tambor recognises that London theatre faces similar problems and is fearful that producers also worry excessively about offending, meaning that “risk-taking is verboten”. She is concerned that this could lead to a cycle where audiences desiring stimulating plays will stop supporting unadventurous companies, which will then shrink or collapse.
Theatre has survived similar prognostications of doom for millennia and will most certainly do so again this time around. However, in the shorter term, prices will rocket while the quality of the entertainment is unlikely to follow suit, to the detriment of the whole of society.