From the Executive Director
On the 21st Century
By Teresa Eyring
Standing at the edge of the 22nd century, what will our successors say about the main achievements of theatre in the 21st? What are we, the creators of theatre in this century, building? Will it most resemble a conversation, a rocket ship, a whole new world? Is there something we are building together—and that future leaders will be inspired by and reflect upon with awe? Perhaps a trillion small independent acts will add up organically to some impressive whole.
The 20th century was revolutionary for theatre in America. After years of theatre as primarily a commercial endeavor, certain practitioners began the aggressive pursuit of theatre as an art form. The realization that this approach required subsidy, combined with favorable tax laws and enlightened philanthropy, allowed a field to emerge and grow by leaps and bounds. From a New York-centered activity, theatre eventually became a source of pride in communities across the nation.
Along the way, there have been positive and negative swings in attendance, funding and artistic opportunity—but the net effect has been massive, nationwide growth, particularly from the 1960s on. As copy machines, cell phones, fax machines and eventually the Internet proliferated, so did theatres.
At the beginning of the new millennium, TCG constituent members were experiencing record attendance, regularly reporting surpluses, launching major capital campaigns and otherwise seeing enormous growth in contributed income.
In 2007, the landscape has shifted somewhat, with concerns about attrition in subscription, unpredictability in attendance patterns and difficulty in launching new work because of its riskiness, real or perceived. We're time-strapped and electronically over-stimulated. It's difficult for many theatres to think beyond year-to-year survival, and, in some quarters, questions have been raised about whether there are too many theatres or if the model is broken.
In spite of trends indicating growth or decline in real numbers, there is a widespread and seemingly unstoppable theatre energy on this planet. Every minute of every day, somewhere on earth, managers are striving to make budget, artistic directors are grappling with what work is the most important to produce, and new collaborations are being hatched. Stage managers call 15 cues to launch the start of a performance as if they are piloting a plane taking off. Playwrights wake up in the morning with new inspiration (including at least one who wakes up determined to write a play for every day of the year). Artists are devising new ways of using theatre to expose corrupt governments, educate young people and improve literacy efforts. New business and community leaders are choosing to volunteer their time to join nonprofit theatre boards. The hum of theatre practitioners and audiences is everywhere, affecting the globe as it creaks on its axis. And someone somewhere is blogging about it.
To a large extent, our sense of success rises and falls with factors such as the economy and consumer confidence. But there are other dynamics at play, some of which may hold the keys to new realms of development for theatre in this new century.
Jack Uldrich, a leading voice on the subject of nanotechnology and author of The Next Big Thing Is Really Small, talks about the exponential nature of change as it multiplies upon itself. He suggests that social and scientific changes occurring in the next 25 years may be as dramatic as changes that occurred over the entire last century. He puts this in the context of life span as well. The average life span at the beginning of the century was 47; it's now closer to 80, and may increase well beyond that within our lifetimes.
The new frontier for theatre in the 20th century had to do with artistry, geography and philanthropy. What are the new theatre frontiers now? Audience age, technology and geography—again—are three to consider.
Even with the distractions presented by cell phones, iPods, MySpace and all technologies heretofore and as yet to be invented, young people are excellent and enthusiastic theatregoers, once introduced. They must be actively cultivated so that they are aware that theatre exists and can participate throughout their lives. With a paucity of arts education in schools, the work to engage this audience requires immense creativity and individualized attention. An early investment in engaging young people and young adults in theatre has the potential to pay off for years and years to come, especially as our life spans increase.
Technology and virtual content is absorbing increasing amounts of everyone's attention. Yet theatre still offers the unique activity of gathering together in a room for a live and human experience. With careful positioning, the singular nature of this activity has the potential to keep going strong. Whereas the 20th century realized a web of theatres across the continent, with the increase in globalization and international commerce, theatre has the potential to be at the forefront of a growing international network among people worldwide.
At the TCG National Conference in the Twin Cities in June, attendees will have the opportunity to examine and explore opportunities for theatre in a new century—to look at innovative approaches to the art form as well as ways theatre can promote activism, connection and civic engagement. Let us take on this new century with creativity and innovation and optimism. In establishing a collective vision for the future, there's no time like the present.