I’ve written a special essay for today’s Wall Street Journal about the problem of shrinking audiences for live theater in America–and what to do about it:
The house lights fade to black. The room falls still as an actor steps from the wings and speaks the simple words that set a plot in motion: “O for a Muse of fire.” “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve.” “This play is called ‘Our Town.'” Suddenly the outside world vanishes and you’re swept into a parallel universe of excitement and adventure, poetry and magic, fear and hope.
That’s what it feels like to go to the theater and see a great play. But when did you last do so? A week ago? A year? Or do you now prefer to stay home and watch cable television, or use Netflix to stream a movie?
If so, you’re one of the reasons why live theater is in trouble.
Take a look at the NEA’s latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the most statistically reliable study of its kind. Not only did “non-musical play attendance” drop to 8.3% from 12.3% of U.S. adults between 2002 and 2012, but attendance at musicals fell, to 15.2% from 17.1%, the first time the latter figure has declined since 1985….
I don’t know whether watching a play on TV will persuade a significant number of viewers to go out and see one in person for the first time. The theatrical experience, after all, is unique unto itself. It’s radically different from watching a movie, or even an HD simulcast. People who go to the theater regularly take that difference–the immediate physical presence of flesh-and-blood actors–for granted. Yet it’s the main reason why old-fashioned low-tech live theater is still and will always be worth seeing, even in the age of Netflix.
The trick is to treat it not as a problem but as a marketing opportunity–something that can be sold….
Read the whole thing here.