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Home from Stratford and back to the Real World

By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES September 2007

When I go to Stratford, Ontario to the Shakespeare Festival, I find that I have a very strong perception that something is wrong. Not wrong with Stratford, but in comparison with what I see back home, still very, very wrong.

The experience boils down to what I feel when I go to the theater back home, which is a major metropolitan area. The experience is this:

Itís getting lonely out here in the seats. It may be nothing but good old-fashioned selection bias, but Iím beginning to wonder where the audience went. At show after show over the past season, was part of an audience that could really only be described in one word: small.

Then I go to someplace like Stratford, Ontario. And suddenly IíIm in the middle of a large bunch of people enjoying a show. In some cases, a very large bunch of people. The Festival Theater can hold 1800, although there are two hunks of seats at the extreme wings of the auditorium that are almost never sold. Thereís about that many more seats altogether at the other three theaters combined. So at any given time, there can be quite a few theatergoers running around that little town, and there usually are.

And of course, if you go to the major venues in places like London and New York, you find big crowds as well. But then you go to the minor venues in those places, and suddenly there you are again—wondering how you managed to pick such an apparent loser of an entertainment, along with the few dozen or less of your fellow oddballs.

Are there as many as sixty genuinely major theater companies in this country—one for every five million people? Even if there are as many as three hundred major theater companies, that still is only one for every one million people.

And so I come back to Stratford. Here I can see the model with perfect clarity: a major theatrical production center, supported by an audience that comes from a very, very large geographic area, an audience that treats their Stratford experience for what it is—a destination travel experience, a cultural vacation, something essentially separated from their ordinary lives in time and space, and equally separate from their lives in meaning.

You see it clearly in small places like Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake or Ashland. In huge places like New York and Chicago, you donít see the model that clearly, because those urban areas can supply enough local theatergoers to make one think that the art is actually a local art. But itís not. It doesnít function as a part of ordinary life, as movies and television and novels do. It is an exception, expensive, rare, infrequent and separate, even if itís only across town. The giveaway is the experience of theatergoing in venues in those cities that are not part of the major-theater-center phenomenon. Youíre back to square one of this essay, wondering where all the people went. Well, the answer is, they went to the major center, and they donít come to where you are, and they arenít going to.

Many of the theater artists I know feel the same way. Where the heck is everybody? You pour your blood, sweat, tears and money into what you do and when you get apathy in return, it sinks in that there would be greater rewards doing something else. Film or video—storytelling forms involving drama, impersonation, the elements that make theater seductive, and that pay, and that draw genuine response.

Hereís what I see: The total size of the theater audience slowly shrinks. A growing majority of it attends theater only at a small number of large venues. The artist population also slowly shrinks. The cream of the crop find work at major venues, but theater artists as a group go into other kinds of work, and even the cream of the crop come to treat theater as a sideline to film, television, and other kinds of work that draw on their talents.

Imagine major league baseball if Pop Warner baseball, Little League baseball, high school and college baseball, and minor league baseball all withered. The major leagues would die.

Thatís why I think what Iím seeing is a very, very bad thing.

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the station commander nostalgically recalls the game of baseball, and owns a baseball used in the very last World Series game. I think it is possible, in a generation not too far away, that someone will sit and talk about the very last live theatrical performance, and handle an artifact—perhaps a mask—used in that performance, and tell stories about how wonderful it was.

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