Checkup - The Health of Theatre

Arts Journal Home Page
PublishingTheatreVisual ArtsArts IssuesPeople

common threadsarts watchletters

Arts BeatSearchContact Us

News Service Home`Services
Digest Samples
Headline Samples







THEATRE NEEDS TO CHANGE: A London conference on the state of theatre heard a lot of bad news last week. The consensus: theatre is an artform in trouble. "Theatre thinks 'we're very worthy, we earn about no money, so sit on bad seats because we're poverty-stricken and we will tip you out into the cold night without a drink at the end.' The cinema learnt its lessons. Theatre hasn't adjusted itself to the lifestyles of the people it wants to come in." The Independent (London) 03/03/01

STATE OF THE ART(OF WRITING ABOUT IT): America's theatre critics gather in New York to talk about the state of their art: Too many critics write snap judgments, critics shouldn't be writing plays or acting in communities in which they write, and the jury's still out on theatre coverage on the internet. Philadelphia Inquirer 03/04/01

ONE WAY TO CUT LOSSES: Sending immediate shockwaves through Britain’s theatre world, acclaimed director Richard Eyre told a conference investigating why UK theatre audiences were falling that the nation’ subsidized theatres (including the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre) should be disbanded, rather than continue churning out stale work. "We have to acknowledge that theatre companies have a finite life span and that few manage to sustain artistic ardour beyond seven years." The Telegraph (London) 3/02/01

PUTTING PEOPLE OFF: Theater-ticket sales are declining in London’s West End, amid cries of an impending "crisis point" due to traffic congestion, poor public transportation, and escalating street crime. BBC 2/28/01

END OF ACTING? Is the actor an endangered species? "I think the first big leading indicator was baby boomers' abandonment of live theater. This is an overstatement, a gross generalization, but it's also true: for cosmopolitan people of my parents' generation, experiencing live actors on stage was an obligation—a kind of secular humanist sacrament in a way that it simply isn't for people who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. Younger people tend to find live theater too intimate, too unmediated, too real, too creepy." PublicArts 02/18/01

LIFE AND DEATH THEATRE: "Theatre has shot itself in the foot by giving in to this cult of success, status and glamour. Theatre has been taken down this glitzy route that has destroyed its validity and truth. Will there be any theatre in 10 or 20 years' time? Every other art and entertainment medium is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with new technology and the multiplying distractions of contemporary life. Theatre, meanwhile, is examining its collective navel." Sunday Times (London) 02/04/01

MAKING THEATRE BETTER: "Should we ban all new Australian works from our stages for five years with the note, 'Write better'? Clearly, most plays being written at any time, anywhere, are third-rate literature. Even a good play rarely bears comparison with the wit and complexity of a fine book of essays, the complexity and mystery of a great novel, the mystery and beauty of a great poem. But a play script isn't literature; it's one limb of that deeply complex, mysterious and volatile organism called theatre. Promising playwrights won't become good playwrights by being kept at arm's length from the activity of theatre-making." Sydney Morning Herald 01/23/01

DEATH OF AN ART? Cabaret as an artform is 100 years old. But will it survive much longer? "Admittedly, we've been hearing about the death of cabaret for years. And many young comedians who once considered themselves the heirs to this form of entertainment are now over the hill. Nevertheless, the developments of recent years are hard to ignore. Almost all the major ensembles have either disbanded or lost their relevance." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 01/24/01

BROKEN PROMISES? Britain’s regional theatres were thrilled when the government announced an extra £25 million to rescue the country’s ailing playhouses. But now suspicions are running high over exactly how the money (due to be allocated in 2003) will be spent. "The main cause of disagreement is simple. The 50 building-based English theatres that produce their own work feel betrayed. They believe that the entire £25 million increase should have been passed directly on to them, and are alarmed that the Arts Council is apparently keeping back nearly a third of the money for other projects." The Times (London) 1/16/01

NEW ISN'T BETTER: Lottery money has led to massive building of theatres in Britain. But "theatre isn't about bricks and mortar - or, these, days, concrete and glass. It's about what happens on that stage inside. It's about imagination, about content and about ideas. The heresy that a new building was more important than a new idea began about a generation ago. The glamorous, if sometimes tacky, Edwardian music halls were pulled down. Lottery money made this obsession with rebuilding even worse." London Evening Standard 12/29/00

THE ART OF CHANGE: "Theatre is rapidly changing, and audiences shun routine and crave something special. It may take the form of a day-long event - the shared experience of watching together from morning to night forges a sense of community. But the profusion of short plays also implies that audiences are happy to have a short, sharp theatrical shock, an intense experience as a prelude to dinner. To reverse Brecht's dictum, first come the morals, then the bread." The Guardian (London) 12/27/00

IS OUR THEATRE OKAY? Should a critic express grave concern over the state of Canadian theatre when the poorly funded non-profits embrace facile populism and the commercial sector shrinks to a shadow of its former self? Or do all those dynamic little shows popping up here and there indicate irrepressible creativity and renewed health?" The Globe & Mail (Canada) 12/25/00

WHAT WILL MUSICAL THEATRE LOOK LIKE? "We've come to the end of the road for one style of musical, the giant pseudo-Romantic pop-rock sludge pile. I never liked these things; now nobody likes them. As far as I'm concerned, Cats (closed) and Miss Saigon (expiring next month) have been flops all along—the public simply didn't take my reviews to heart until now." But what comes next? Village Voice 12/20/00

CULTIVATING THE NEXT GENERATION, NO DOUBT: A mother calls up a radio program in Sydney to complain about having to pay $27 for a ticket for her in-arms baby when she went to "Annie." The producer responds: "We are not a charity. The company could have $45 or $50 for the baby." And the radio station's switchboard lights up and patrons call the theatre to cancel their tickets. Sydney Morning Herald 12/18/00

ACTORS IN POVERTY: The Equity actors' union takes a poll of 408 of its members and finds that the majority of actors (72 percent) earn less than £10,000 a year from their profession. "Performers felt they were seen either as glamorous, arrogant, overpaid slackers or laughable luvvies and that acting is not a proper job". BBC 12/13/00

THEATRE THREAT: Melbourne's commercial theatre owners are complaining - about the cost of producing, about "subsidised operations at the Arts Centre, gaming-supported shows at Crown casino and the looming distractions of the $400 million Federation Square." The Age (Melbourne) 12/11/00

THE ALLURE OF LIVE: Regular theatergoers take it for granted that there's nothing like a live performance - which, I think, is why the theater is perennially in trouble. The uniqueness should not be taken for granted. Boston Globe 12/10/00

MORE THAN LIVE: "We all know that what makes theater irreplaceable (and, on dream nights, irresistible) is that it combines live performance and fakery in ways no other form of art or entertainment can match. Call it the unities of the primal, the artificial and the mythic." New York Times 12/10/00 (one-time registration required for access)

ALL ABOUT THE BUILDINGS: "Truth being stranger than cliché, the very notion of re-inventing theatre spaces - or, to borrow estate agent terminology, location, location, location - is spreading through theatre like wildfire for the simple reason that the biggest problem facing the allegedly dying art form is the buildings themselves." The Observer (London) 12/10/00

PROFIT? NONPROFIT?: Manhattan Theatre Club is the latest nonprofit producer to venture into Broadway’s commercial turf, with plans to transfer three shows and a takeover of a commercial house in the works. "The debate over what is the proper province of the nonprofit theater vs. the commercial theater long ago was drowned out by the irresistible din of the Broadway box office. It may have been a shotgun wedding between dysfunctional families, but the marriage is a keeper." New York Magazine 12/11/00

REGIONAL THEATER BOOM: Taking advantage of the strong economy and unprecedented production support from commercial producers, regional theaters are booming across the country, presenting ever more adventurous work and strengthening ties with local audiences. "The point is that the American theater gospel is no longer being spread papally from New York. It has its own independent denominations." New York Times 12/05/00 (one-time registration required for access)

THEATRE IN AUSTRALIA: "In the 1970s and early 1980s Australian theatre was seen as part of an integral social debate about national identity and self confidence. The advent of serious arts funding came out of clearly articulated statements on the importance of the arts, and our politicians were well versed in the reasons why a funded arts environment was important to a social system. The arts were seen as a necessary expense, like roads or water." Now we should enjoy the rewards. Sydney Morning Herald 11/29/00

A HISTORY OF THE THEATRE: Theatre is a vanishing art - that is, once produced on a stage it recedes into memory, and even a film of a performance can't truly capture its essence. So how do you produce a TV history of the theatre? "Sir Richard Eyre, doyen of British theatre, has produced a history of 20th-century stagecraft. He says it won't please everyone. The Independent (London) 11/07/00

THE TROUBLE WITH THEATRE IN PORTLAND: "Why have so many small and midsize Portland theaters gone belly-up in recent years? Why don't the city's hip trendsetters have the kind of yen for drama that keeps the Seattle theater scene hopping, from our spiffy professional houses to our fringe cubbyholes?" Seattle Times 10/27/00

WHAT THEATER IS NOT: "Entertaining," "instructional," "celebratory," or "cathartic," at least in the opinion of one riled performing arts professor. The solution? "We should refuse to sit and watch the same old masquerade, the same old plays, the same old actors. We need to kill the theatre off so that new performance can have room to grow." The Guardian (London) 10/04/00

LEADING BLACK THEATRE CLOSES: New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company has closed down. The Tony Award-winning company, one of the nation's most prominent black theaters, announced its decision Monday. "The bottom line is that we are in great debt - $1.7 million to $2 million in debt." Philadelphia Inquirer (AP) 10/04/00

RUMORS OF ITS DEATH… Even before the British Arts Council promised £37 million in additional funding, there were plenty of signs that regional theater is already thriving. Audiences are growing, communities are showing support, and theaters are discovering that their power is in numbers. “If one regional theatre thrives, so will others. If one closes, it threatens others. If you've got leprosy and your hand drops off, it doesn't benefit the rest of the body. It's still dying.” The Guardian (London) 09/27/00

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE? After two decades of underfunding, Britain’s regional theatres were promised a £37 million rescue package from the Arts Council of England (to be paid out between 2002 and ’04). But “there is a general acceptance that regional theatre must reinvent itself. [It’s] at a crossroads, a crossroads littered with signs pointing in different directions.” The Telegraph (London) 09/19/00

IS THEATRE DYING? "What we are seeing these days is, more precisely, the theatrical version of the hostile takeover. 'Englut and devour' - the name that Mel Brooks once invented for a Hollywood studio - is becoming the motto of the American stage. The triumph of American commercialism is hardly a novelty of the millennium. What is different today is the lack of any indignation about it. It seems almost quixotic these days to criticize the relationship between art and commerce, and a little nostalgic even to try to evoke any interest in the question." The New Republic 09/08/00

STOMACHING GOOD THEATRE "Theaters talk a great deal about how they want to keep their patrons happy, how they want to attract younger audiences and how they want to stir discussion. But too often they ignore the obvious fact that along with first-rate fare on the stage, a good cup of coffee, a calming glass of wine, some simple but appealing food and a few cafe tables might do the trick, making the theatergoing experience something more than a park-the car, sit-through-the play, run-for-the-garage kind of night." Chicago Sun-Times 09/03/00

BROADWAY BOOMING: Broadway theatre ticket sales were up a phenomenal 21 percent this summer over the same period last year, leading to hopes for a strong fall as the new season opens. Variety 09/01/00

GET WITH THE PROGRAM: You may take for granted that thin, glossy free program the smiling ushers hand out to you as you enter the theatre, but you should keep in mind not all arts-goers in the world are as fortunate as you: Says one deprived Australian, "Why can't our theatres offer free, or at least cheap, information? Why do we pay six, 12, even 15 dollars for what should be a basic audience service?" Sydney Morning Herald 08/31/00

HOW'RE WE DOING? "The current state of play in the theatre is actually decidedly encouraging on many fronts. I would hazard a guess that the recent drive towards cheap TV programming and its dumbing down have driven ranks of citizens out of their living rooms in search of better arts and entertainment in public venues. I'm also not convinced the net is going to produce future generations of stay-at-home IT and virtual-reality addicts." The Independent (London) 08/17/00

A DEFENSE: "Who says the theater has reached a dead end? The current London season is filled with confirmations of how protean the discipline remains, as variable and potentially surprising as human beings themselves. Local observers may lament the Americanization of the London stage, with its adaptations of Hollywood movies and reliance on brand-name celebrities. But if you look past pandering hits like "The Graduate," you'll discover an abiding, very British penchant for playing with plays, a delight in demonstrating what theater can do that other forms cannot." New York Times 08/17/00 (one-time registration required for entry)

IS THE NET GOOD FOR THEATER? While many theater lovers bemoan that Internet culture is eroding the audience for live performance, one critic at least sees it differently. “The current state of play is actually decidedly encouraging on many fronts. I would hazard a guess that the recent drive towards cheap TV programming and its dumbing down have driven ranks of citizens out of their living rooms in search of better arts and entertainment in public venues.” The Independent (London) 08/14/00

FEASTING ON SUMMER THEATRE: Canada's summer theatres are booming. "The Ontario festivals are tourism fat-cats who feast on private dollars. During a decade when government funding of the arts has been steadily shrinking, the festivals' incomes and expenditures have steadily grown. Stratford is the largest performing-arts organization in the country, and its $35-million budget has increased almost 50% in the last five years. With smaller theatres and fewer seats to fill, Shaw's growth has been less spectacular but is certainly healthy." Toronto Globe and Mail 07/28/00

RUSSIAN REVITALIZATION: “With more than 100 theaters in Moscow alone - and another 400 in the rest of the country - Russian theater has survived, in large part because Russians refuse to let it die. There were several times when Russian theater should have fallen flat on its face, but it has survived every crisis with flying colors.” Many deem director Kama Ginkas largely responsible - as Moscow’s busiest and most successful director, he saw five of his plays staged last season alone, each one in its own way a hit. New York Times 07/25/00 (one-time registration required for entry) 

MAKE IT FREE AND THEY WILL COME: The British government proposes to make admission to museums free. But what about theatre? "An entire generation has got out of the theatre habit: education, prejudice and attention span are all partly to blame, but the biggest barrier is expense. As an incentive to people who don't like theatre because they've never tried it, a proportion of seats should be free. There will always be those who save hard to afford the outrageous prices, but unless we make it easy and cheap for some of the others, those who grew up on cheap and easy visits will be dead and there will be no one to replace them." The Observer (London) 07/09/00

BOOM TIMES FOR PHILLY THEATRE: Philadelphia has had another record theatre season at the box office. A boom economy and popular plays are given credit. Philadelphia Inquirer 07/09/00

HELP FOR THE THEATRE? A group of prominent British actors writes to England's Chancellor to plead for help for the theatre. "We feel that for far too long lack of adequate funding has led to a decline in working opportunities, to fewer new productions and to smaller casts. The extent of this decline is such that quality of productions in our regional theatres is seriously threatened." The Independent 07/01/00

A CRISIS IN BRITISH THEATRE: The chairman of the Arts Council of England  says there's a crisis in British theatre. "British theatre is living in the past and is failing to attract young people," he says, and called on the government to pour an extra £100 million into the arts to help solve some of the problems.  The Independent 06/28/00

PRODUCING A NEW REALITY: Long gone are the days when a Broadway producer could come up with a good idea and $50,000 and head into production. The theatre world has changed - "from the large sums of money needed to get a production off the ground to the corporate presence in the theatre world to the role that advertising and marketing play in promoting a show. The day of the independent producer - nurturing a project from start to finish - is largely a thing of the past." Backstage 06/22/00

LEARNING THE HARD WAY: How can Broadway shows possibly satisfy the tastes of the crowds lining up to see “Footloose” and “Saturday Night Fever” as well as those looking for avant-garde productions and the many critics sore that the Great White Way has “become just another aisle in the great Disney store”? The Public Theater is learning the hard way - its “Wild Party” just closed at a loss of more than $5 million (just two years after its “On the Town” lost them $7 mil). “The Public's multimillion losses might be admirable for an online pet-food start-up, but not for a nonprofit organization with just over 30 million dollars left in the bank. And all because a director of extraordinary but erratic ability - George C. Wolfe, the man responsible for Tony Kushner's “Angels in America” and “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk” - wanted to single-handedly reinvigorate Broadway. What a dumb idea.” Feed 06/19/00

THE CHANGING FACE OF THEATRE: "In 1974, the first gathering of commercial producers and leaders from the nonprofit regional theater was, by many accounts, a prickly session that featured name-calling, walk-outs and the feeling that there was nothing remotely in common between those two disparate sides of the American theater." Now, telling the difference between the two is often problematic. Hartford Courant 06/18/00

REINVENTING THEATRE: "If theatre began the 20th century as the dominant art form and the major source of entertainment for most people, it begins the 21st in a much less happy position. Some claim that the new digital technologies will sound the death knell for theatre. This seems as absurd as the idea that the replacement of candlelight with gaslight would destroy all the magic of the stage. After all, old technologies were once new technologies. There was a time when the stage revolve was considered a thing of wonder." The Guardian 06/14/00

BEYOND BROADWAY: It’s been widely reported that this year’s Broadway season was boffo box office, with record-breaking ticket sales and the second highest attendance on record. Now the numbers are in from regional theaters around the country, and they’re equally encouraging: a combined box-office take of $1.2 billion and total attendance of more than 23 million. Backstage 06/07/00

THE FUTURE OF BROADWAY: A while back, Stephen Sondheim complained to the New York Times' Frank rich that too much of Broadway's recent fare is "recycled culture," and lumped shows like "Lion King" in with spectacles like "Cats." What's he want to go dissing "Lion King's" Julie Taymor for? "He should be championing her. Sondheim and Taymor are kindred spirits, erudite and verbal to a degree that makes them outsiders in the context of Broadway." New York Press 05/31/00

TOUGH TIME TO TOUR: Who’s to blame for the sad state of Britain’s touring theatre companies? “This is not a story of villainous theatre managers unable to recognize a good thing when it is stuck under their noses. It is the story of an often ignored, certainly underfunded and distinctly unglamorous sector of theatre that is in crisis.”  The Guardian 05/31/00

THE BIG APPLE'S HOLLOW CORE: There was a time when all American theatre seemed to flow from New York. Now, because of the economics, new work - particularly new plays - almost never start in New York. "What does manage to find its way there can be as odd and eccentrically selected as an ill-sorted group of birds who get blown hundreds of miles from their native habitats by a hurricane." Dallas Morning News 05/28/00

WHAT IF THEY HAD A THEATRE BOOM AND NOBODY CAME? More theatre is produced in Los Angeles than in any city in the US, including New York. But more often than not, the cast outnumbers the audience in dozens of small 99-seat theaters spread out throughout the metropolitan area. "Audience apathy can partially be attributed to there being no theater center in Los Angeles." Los Angeles Times 05/22/00

BROADWAY HAS RECORD WEEK: Broadway set an attendance record during  the week of April 17-23, when some 308,000 people saw the 36 plays and musicals currently playing Broadway houses. The League of American Theaters and Producers says the number “challenges both Shea and Yankee stadiums’ weekly in-season draws.” Gross receipts for the week were reported at $17 million, an increase of more than 25 percent over last year’s figure of $13.4 million. Backstage 05/05/00

THEATRE UTILITY: For most of us, watching live performers act and sing is an infrequent luxury. Theater, like many of the other performing arts, long ago broke with its proletarian roots and assumed the gilded mantle of "culture." In an era of instant entertainment on the TV and the Internet, attending a play or a musical has become a special event, identified (unfairly, some might argue) with formality, cultural literacy, seriousness and, above all, disposable income. But theater, by its very nature, is about emotional outreach. Orange County Register 04/23/00

A LUDDITE ART: "As theater artists ponder the future of their form, they return again and again to the idea of longing - and to language that seems to have more to do with the bedroom than the stage. Technology, which promises to bring drastic changes to the arts in terms of style and substance, will affect theater, too, of course. But at root, theater is a Luddite art, one that rests on the same equation as in the days of Sophocles: The theatrical relationship between performer and audience, like the relationship of lovers, depends on being in the same place at the same time." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 04/17/00

THEATRE GLUT? It's not like business is terrible - there are still hits aplenty in London's West End theaters. It's just that many of the theaters are having a hard time making a go of it. Are there too many theaters to go around? The Observer 03/26/00

WELCOME TO THE MIDDLE CLASS: In Los Angeles a new theater middle class rises. There are a hundred theaters out there. But, like the city itself, LA's "theater district" is spread out hither and yon. "People from out of town look at a map of L.A., see all the theaters and can't believe it - they're all over the place." Los Angeles Times 03/05/00

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: The commercial theater business has been booming. But ominous signs are afoot. Some are proclaiming the end of the mega-musicals, the engine that has been driving business on Broadway and on the road. What's to replace the big musicals on the touring circuit? Boston Globe 02/27/00

THEATRE DICTATE: A study for the Arts Council of England finds that traditional "text-based" drama is rapidly losing its appeal to modern audiences. "A funding review of 50 theatres, mainly in the provinces but including some noted London venues outside the West End, has found an alarming decline in the popularity of conventional plays. The review suggests that 'live theatre', such as laser, acrobatic and video spectacles, have wider appeal and should be embraced by theatres as a condition of receiving public grants." London Telegraph 02/14/00

MISSING THE MEGAS: As the era of the mega-musicals on Broadway wanes, theatres around the country that count on the shows to fill their seasons face difficult times. Hartford Courant 02/13/00 

THE THEATRE PROBLEM? Stephen Sondheim goes to London and sounds off about the current state of theater: "It's quite discouraging to see that London is slowly becoming like Broadway," he says. He bemoans the fact that Americans are drawn to productions whose values are based less on the words and the music than the length of the spectacle and the number of scenery changes. He is most frightened by the lack of serious plays on Broadway. In his opinion, audiences in London have broader tastes, attend more regularly and treat the theatre as enjoyment rather than a chore. The British hunger for challenging productions has helped to provide opportunities for new talent, from the West End to the fringe. London Sunday Times 02/13/00

CONSUMER REPORTS: A new book finds British theater critics in a state of disarray. Some blame editors for making their jobs harder. Others report a dichotomy between older and younger critics. "The older generation instinctively sees theatre as central to our culture. Younger critics won't talk about theatre as a serious art medium. They question it all the time." The Independent 02/02/00

LACK OF BROADWAY DRAMAS has some in the theater business lamenting the Disneyfication of Broadway and wondering if there's a crisis in American theater. CBC 02/02/00

ON OUR OWN: Two seasons ago, faced with a dwindling number of affordable touring shows to book into their theaters, a couple of East Coast theater presenters entered the business of producing on their own. Nothing big budget, nothing flashy, but at least the shows fit these 1,200-seat venues. Philadelphia Inquirer 01/24/00

BROADWAY ON TOUR: Touring Broadway shows make more money than even a record year on the Great White Way itself. But what are patrons of the road shows really getting for their money? Some of these shows are Broadway Lite. San Francisco Chronicle 01/23/00

IS MUSICAL THEATER DEAD? And just why is everyone so eager to ask the question? But maybe to ask it is to ensure its revitalization. Village Voice 01/04/00

NOTHING TO LAUGH ABOUT: For the first time in memory there are no recently written dramas or comedies playing on Broadway. What does this say about the health of the city's theater biz? New York Times 12/28/99 (one-time registration required for entry)

ENDANGERED SPECIES: New report says that regional theater in the UK is in trouble. Access has been encouraged over quality with the result that in a few years there could be "a crop of new lottery-funded theatres with nothing to put in them because local authorities cannot afford to run them." BBC 12/7/99





Click Here!