Scott Klavan’s Talk at Heartland Theatre Company
You Don’t Have To Be (So) Depressed About Writing for the Theater
By Scott Klavan
EIL’s theatre writer, Scott Klavan, an actor, director, and playwright working in New York, was the guest playwright and final judge of a one-act play competition in the Midwest this summer. He gave a public talk on the state of theatre today and a private workshop to the winning playwrights during a visit to Normal, Illinois in July. The public talk was enthusiastically received, with the audience asking if and when it would be published! So here is the text of the talk given by Scott Klavan at Heartland Theatre Company on July 17, 2014, as part of the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland, sponsored by Paul and Sandra Harmon.
Hello. Thank you. I’m happy to be here with you today. I bring you best wishes from New York City. Although I was born and raised in the New York area, I know the Midwest a little bit. I have an uncle and cousins from the Chicago area, Naperville, to be exact, went to school at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and later married a woman from St. Louis. When I first went to Kenyon, I would spend hours just driving around looking at the farms. Coming from Long Island, this was a foreign and exotic site. I still remember driving down a small country road only to jam on my brakes to avoid a huge vulture sitting calmly in the middle of the street eating roadkill. Later, a belligerent locust in my car almost caused me to drive into a telephone pole. I remember spending early Saturday mornings listening to farm auctions on the radio and really getting into it: “Hey, they got a good price for that tractor!” I love the pastoral beauty of much of the Midwest and the down-to-earth lack of pretension and dry humor of the people. So, it’s nice to be back.
A very little bit about my background: I’ve had a varied—we might call it “checkered” but varied sounds kinder—career in the theater. I’ve worked as an actor, on and off Broadway, in regional theater, in hundreds of productions, written and directed for the theater, and I spent many years as a dramaturge, script analyst, and consultant. I’ve also worked as a Group Leader in the field of Drama Therapy and led creative arts workshops in acting and creative writing, for people 9 to 90. For twenty years, I was Script Analyst for Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, as well as HBO, Viacom, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Scott Rudin, CAA in Hollywood and The Actors Studio, where I’m a Lifetime Member. I’ve seen the art and business of theater from many different points of view, some of them pleasant, some not so much.
I’ve entitled my talk today: “You Don’t Have to Be (So) Depressed About Writing For The Theater.” I’m often told you should stress the positive, which sometimes I find a little difficult—about everything, actually. But to me, this is a positive title. It means exactly what it says: writing for the theater, being involved in the creation of a play, may seem like a hopeless, fruitless, dispiriting endeavor, and in some ways, that may be so. But, in other ways, it’s not, really. There’s much to be optimistic and excited about in being a playwright today. You just may have to squint a little, look at things harder, or softer, or differently, anyway, to see that clearly. Today, I’ll try to help with that.
This talk will mostly be about straight plays, rather than musicals, and will focus a good deal on Broadway. That’s because I deal mostly in straight plays and Broadway is the engine that drives Theater around America. Broadway produces plays from all over the country and the world, sends them back out on the road, employs large amounts of people, helps set the tone for, and/or reflects the tone from current theater, culture and society. But different kinds of plays and theatrical institutions will be included in the subjects here. There are exceptions to everything I’m saying, of course. And everything here, of course, is my opinion, and is based on my own experience, some of which I will use to illustrate a point, or two. As they say: take some of it, leave the rest.
I’m supposed to be positive. But before we get to that part, let’s get to the part about writing for theater that might be seen as problematic.
Because: there are reasons to be depressed about the state of modern theater. Let’s look at some of them.
Part I—Reasons to be depressed:
First, Attendance: Theaters around the country are experiencing their attendance, the actual number of people seeing their work, go down. For musicals, there was a 9 percent drop in the attendance rate between 2008 and 2012, the first statistically significant change in that category in more than 25 years. Straight plays fared even worse, with a 12 percent drop over the same period, a figure that has contributed to a 33 percent rate of decline for straight plays over the past decade. Of all the high arts—ballet, symphonies, opera—attendance rates for straight plays have dropped at the fastest pace. Statistics and numbers fluctuate, and there are good and bad years. But the trend is pretty clear: it’s becoming harder and harder to draw audiences to straight plays.
Money–Ticket Prices: At least in New York, theater tickets are very high, too high for the typical middle-class or lower-middle class person to afford on a regular basis. An average ticket to a Broadway play last year was about $100; tickets to Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth were as high as $350; Cate Blanchett in The Maids, the same. One theatergoer told me that a ticket to a play at Lincoln Center was “not one of the crazy tickets” and was only $75. Off-Broadway plays are routinely in the neighborhood of $70-100. (Then you have dinner and parking, babysitting, etc.) There are many discounts available but they are annoying and time-consuming to deal with and you mostly get poor seats. (Some of these discounts come from groups that charge membership dues, and that costs money, particularly if you don’t see that many shows a year, and/or live out of town.) There are groups that offer tickets as low as $3, but it requires spending your whole day sitting at your computer waiting for them to become available. You then have to beat out every other person paying dues to this discount group and sitting at their computer. If you are lucky enough to punch in at the right moment, you basically have to meet a person in an alley, who sneaks the ticket to you in a brown envelope, then runs away.
The most popular plays, the most financially successful—Book Of Mormon, Wicked, A Raisin In The Sun—don’t discount much at all. Productions still depend on audiences paying full or near-full price, to make a profit. You don’t make money from discounts. Some producers are so opposed to discounts, they simply don’t offer them, and would rather have empty seats than reduce their prices. Discounts are only offered in the hope that audiences will like the play and tell other people about it, who will make the show popular enough to enable the producers to charge full price.
What are some of the causes of these high prices? Well, it depends on whom you ask. The producers routinely blame the unions. The acting and stagehands unions, primarily. (I belong to three unions.) True, entertainment is one of the only institutions in America where unions continue to flourish. There are no non-union Broadway plays; and really, no non-union Off-Broadway plays either. It’s complicated, but the unions still control theater productions, setting work hours and working conditions, and salaries; in some theaters, unions even have a say in the price of tickets.
Some of the stagehand union jobs are high-priced and there’s controversy about whether some of them are worth the money. There’s sometimes criticism that these positions are often “do-nothing” jobs. You hear tales of highly-paid lighting guys on Broadway watching the hockey game while they hit their cues on their computers and talking so loud, that actors can’t hear their cue to come on. When actors complain, they are given what you might call the “Evil Eye.”.As reported in the New York Times, stagehands often make several hundred thousand dollars a year, in some cases $300- $500,000. I remember being at a barbecue with stagehands, most of whom talked about their boats and vacation homes. But: as the Times stated, these are now highly-skilled jobs; the stagehands are necessary to run big complicated, sometimes dangerous machinery. In a sense, these days, stagehands are often the most important people in the production. You can easily find another actor to play Spiderman, but not the guy who can fix the flying equipment.
In terms of the actors union’s effect on ticket prices, a non-star actor on Broadway makes what is essentially middle-class money, about what a teacher, social worker, police officer, or firefighter make, but without the steady paycheck. When I was on Broadway, I was so uncertain about the run of the production, that I kept my various day jobs, working fifteen hours a day for a year and a half. When the play closed, I was on three different kinds of medication, suffering from exhaustion and a few other things. At one point, I was visited by an actress in from L.A., an experienced TV performer. Thinking of changing her life and moving to New York to work in the theater, she wanted information about my Broadway work hours and pay. When I told her, she couldn’t control the look of disgust and horror on her face, and immediately returned home. Stars make more, but it’s still nowhere near what they make on TV or in movies. Plus, the star productions are about the only ones that reliably turn a profit. Recently, Raisin in The Sun with Denzel Washington, Of Mice & Men with James Franco, and All The Way, with Bryan Cranston, made their money back and more. In a business where two-thirds of Broadway plays lose money, you could definitely make the argument: the stars are worth the paycheck.
Unions and in some cases, producers, blame the theater owners for the ticket prices. (It’s complicated: sometimes the producers are the theater owners, and they wouldn’t blame themselves.) The owners charge an enormous amount for the use of the space. The owners blame the financial times in which we live: real estate in New York is the highest in the country. Technology can be expensive: today, the audience demands a spectacle and the producers have to accommodate them—more about technology later. And the audience gets some of the blame. Shrinking audiences cause higher prices. There are fewer people to pay for the tickets, and so the price has to go up to pay for the large, impressive productions that will keep this dwindling group delighted and coming back. And the cost of all entertainment has skyrocketed in America. (Have you been to a baseball game in New York city?)
The truth is: there are many people and organizations to blame for high theater ticket prices.
Shrinking audiences and higher ticket prices join together to make the runs of plays shorter. One causes and feeds off the other. With a smaller pool of audience members, the producers have a shorter period of time to make back their “nut,” as it were. These are often called “limited engagements,” wink-wink. They have to make a quick killing and get out, in other words. (How many times have you travelled to New York, hoping to see a certain show, only to find it closed?) As far as I can find, since 1985, there hasn’t been one straight Broadway play that has run 1,000 or more performances. Before 1985, there were over 20 straight plays with that long a run; there are several reasons for this, but higher ticket prices is certainly one of them. If it works, and the money is made, these short runs are a win-win for the producer, but a win-kind-of-lose for the playwright (and the actors and crew) who might want his or her play to run longer.
There are other, serious consequences of having such high ticket prices. It limits the variety of the people in the audience, and so, the scope of the topics of the plays. People who go regularly to the theater are going to be well-heeled. Get this: the average Broadway theatregoer has a family income of $186,500. I’m not kidding. And they’ll be older: average age is 42.5 (which is actually a little younger than I thought.) Sixty-eight percent are women. And better educated: of theatregoers over 25, 74% have college degrees, 34% have graduate degrees, one out of three. In the 2011–2012 season, Broadway shows touring across North America, 70% of attendees were female. The average age of the touring Broadway theatregoer was 50.5 years. Eighty-nine percent of touring Broadway theatregoers were Caucasian. Seventy-eight percent of the audience held a college degree, and 30% held a graduate degree. Forty-six percent of national theatregoers reported an annual household income of more than $100,000, compared to only 21% of Americans overall. Over twice as many.
It’s a Buyers’ Market; the audience, rather than the playwrights, holds the power. That means the plays themselves usually have to reflect the audience’s lives in order to interest them. They will tell you what to write about, and if you don’t please them, they won’t come back. (When’s the last time you saw a new hit Broadway play about middle-class, working people?) To use my own experience (incessantly), I wrote a play, P.O., about postal workers dealing with being downsized, based on the true-life experiences of people that I knew. The play did receive some positive notices, but many people in the audience had absolutely no interest in the topic, and some reviewers were irritated that anyone would write a play about these people and this subject.
Not only do today’s plays have to reflect the lives of the audience, but, increasingly, they have to congratulate the audience on its interests, opinions, worldviews. The number of rich people is limited and the number of regular theater goers is shrinking. The producers, writers, all theater artists, are growing desperate to please this group, or they won’t have a job. Thus, the plays become soft and unchallenging. The writers stick a toe in, then leap out of the water. Throw a punch, then pull it. This is particularly true in regards to the socio-political opinions of the audience. I firmly believe that most new plays have the exact same sensibility, point of view, really: the audience’s. The remaining theatergoers, essentially told they are smart, good, and worthwhile, become happy, fat and spoiled.
Tight money causes the plots and actions of plays to be stunted, streamlined, and reduced in range and ambition. Here’s a case in point: I recently saw a play, The Velocity of Autumn with the excellent actors Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella. (A first-time Broadway playwright, and a play developed in the Midwest.) The play concerns a feisty, unconventional elderly woman who barricades herself in a Brooklyn apartment, threatening to blow her and it up, if they force her to move to a retirement home. She’s visited by her middle-aged son, a similar free-spirit from the west who comes into the apartment to deal with his mother’s problems. They argue, remember the past, etc. All the time, the son is on the phone with his sister, the mother’s daughter, a more conventional, affluent woman married to an investment broker, who, downstairs on the street, wants the mother out of the apartment. We assume that in the second half of the piece, the rich couple will enter and the real conflict of the show will begin: two pairs of people from the same family representing two different points of views go at it—sounds good, right? But the wife and husband never show up; there really is no second half, no meat to the story. The free-spirit son just argues with them a little on the phone. The play goes nowhere, or it only goes so far as to make the son on stage come to terms with his mother, something we assume was going to happen from the time he entered. The real story, real drama, the real threat to the mother and son, to their worldview, personified by the off-stage couple, never materializes. (They weren’t really far away, they were right downstairs! They could have come right up!) We can only assume the choice to leave out the other couple was a financial one. This play, by the way, with two characters and one set, had about two dozen producers. Maybe they should have paid for a couple more actors. The Velocity of Autumn closed in about a week.
The financial tightening is certainly reflected in the large number of plays that, like Velocity Of Autumn, are now one-act and 90 minutes and in the huge growth of one-person plays. In New York, there are several entire festivals devoted to solo shows.
It also causes the need to hire stars to guarantee audience; then, you can get more ambitious, as in All The Way, the recent Tony-winning play about LBJ, with Bryan Cranston, and it should be noted, a large supporting cast. Without a star, the play would never have made it to Broadway. So, it’s feast or famine.
The other side is the many small theaters in New York and elsewhere that can’t afford to pay actors, writers, tech people, at all. (Most of these are non-union, but sometimes, the union will strike a deal to pay actors virtually nothing, trying to get them any kind of work.) It is common for actors, and writers, these days, to work for months on a show, produce it and pay for it themselves, taking a complete financial bath.
What we’re really saying when we talk about the debilitating, distressing effects of money on today’s theater is: the theater is being pushed out of the mainstream of American entertainment and culture, becoming a niche experience; a rich niche or a “riche” experience. (I just made that word up, but it’s accidentally French, so it sounds good.) It’s a two-tier system, kind of like the 1%, 99% in the general economy we hear about. You can’t develop a love and a habit of going to the theater if you can’t afford to go.
Continuing our look at the depressing aspects of writing for the theater:
Technology: The rise of the use of high-tech effects, CGI, etc. on movie screens, in video games, even on TV to some degree, does make the theater seem antiquated. (It is antiquated, by the way, and ultimately, that’s not a bad thing. More about that later.) Theater has tried to catch up and the tech, lighting, sound, on many shows is excellent, amazing. But no matter what the theater does, its technology won’t be as extensive and impressive as that in movies and video games. Technology, as has been noted in many different places, does change people’s attention span and manner of concentrating. This works against a play, which requires a different kind of watching and listening. (Observe how many audience members obsessively check their phones during a play.) People don’t complain that much about a long movie, but often, about a long play. Again, plays of today, even on high-priced Broadway, are routinely one-act of about 90 minutes. The producers are deeply afraid of having any kind of “intermission”; the audience might run for the hills. Words drive plays; images drive movies, TV, and videos. The constriction of concentration caused by technology affects straight plays much more than musicals. Last season, musicals on Broadway had five times more attendees and grossed five times as much money as straight plays.
The results of our tech world have trickled down to other areas of culture. People read less today and read books with less complicated, sophisticated language. Writing in today’s popular novels is often very straightforward and simplistic. The difference between books for teens, young adults, and books for adults is shrinking fast. This bodes poorly for theater, where words and language can be dense and erudite. Technological entertainment, and tech-driven, machine-oriented world and culture is by its nature superficial; it literally focuses on the surface of an object and the machine itself is its basis, source, purpose and meaning. Marshall Mcluhan’s “The medium is the message,” and all that.
Machine culture is, by its nature, inhuman; the theater has historically been about human beings and their difficulties and triumphs. Technologically indoctrinated young people will be hard to keep interested in the theater; most plays don’t engage them. They have so many more entertainment outlets, easier, cheaper, more immediately gratifying ones; they may see Wicked, but will they come back regularly? I’ve worked in many programs for young people, both gifted and high-achieving students, and emotionally and financially troubled kids. Many of them, particularly the boys, have not only never seen a play, they know absolutely nothing about theater. I once took a group of inner city kids to a benefit performance, where they met Kevin Kline. Most of them only knew Kevin Kline, one of our best and most experienced theater actors, from films, and had no idea he had ever been in a play. So, theater is losing middle-class audience, people of lower financial status, and, due in large part to technology, it is in danger of losing its young audience members, its future theatergoers.
More things to be depressed about:
Politics: Again, I really believe most plays today have virtually the same sensibility. This is, again, because we need to please the audience, rather than challenge them. On a dramaturgical level, this undercuts the play because it takes away the element of provocation and surprise. If the sensibility is fixed, is our sensibility (meaning the audience’s), then, deep-down, we know how the play is going to end. We won’t be startled, unsettled, amazed. We will be protected. To make matters worse, the shared sensibility is one that is pretty soft and moralistic in its own way. It is a sensibility that doesn’t lend itself well to strong, arresting drama. It is one that really wants to reduce conflict, to “make nice,” as they say, don’t be “mean,” and nothing hurts a play more than a lack of conflict.
It is a sensibility that has gone under the umbrella heading of “Political Correctness”; this outlook may be seen as helpful and benign at home, or in politics, but not so much in art. Playwrights tip-toe around, trying diffidently to get some points across, or if they do produce some strong interaction, they apologize for it by the play’s close. If they truly confront the audience, they do it at their own risk, and likely, in a very small theater, for little or no pay. Political Correctness is usually associated with liberal politics. Sorry to offend anyone, but we can thus add the term “conservatives” to the list of people being left out, kicked out, or ignored, in the modern theater.
Irony: This connects to what we often call “irony” in our culture today, or the inhibited expression of emotion and desires, and a dependence on a kind of quietly sardonic, detached approach to the major issues of life. Not real good for theater. The great plays have always depended on sincere expression, not repression, of emotion. On need. Today, sincerity usually evokes criticism about being “familiar,” “phony,” “depressing,” “over-the-top,” all of which really means “old-fashioned.” But if everything we feel down-deep about the nature of life is tamped-down, does it vanish or does it just fester? Probably the latter. Which is more true and courageous: connecting with one’s inner life, fears, confusions, needs, feeling it through a surrogate such as Art/Theater, having the guts to admit and face what we think about when we toss and turn at night, or: pretending it’s not there, running away from it? Most great plays are about trouble, difficulty, even helplessness, humiliation. Stating and exploring the big, searing questions of life: what’s really going on, where are we going, what makes life worthwhile, what is right or wrong, is it even worth continuing to live? To be or not to be. Our identity as little boats tossed about by the great waves of nature and existence. Rather than avoid these challenges, theater says: “Attention Must Be Paid.”
Most great plays feature people in unbearable pain. Hamlet, Blanche DuBois, Medea, Willy Loman. The Greeks, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, O’Neill, Pinter, Mamet, all lack strong, undaunted, consistently brave heroes or heroines; they wrote about people in the midst of life-altering suffering and universal human weakness. Lear, Medea, Miss Julie, etc.; The Tragic Flaw of the Greek leading players. Theater is by and for mature, tough-minded grown-ups. It goes beneath the witty assumption, burrows and laser-beams past our stylish clothing and temporary, clever buzzwords, into our hearts and, sorry, our souls. Even Oscar and Felix, beneath their snappy one-liners, were dealing with loneliness. In that way, theater is not “cool” or detached, hip, or ironic.
Everyone today does want to feel “Empowered.” But the quest for empowerment that runs through our culture is different than the kind of intense cathartic confrontation with reality, life and death that is often featured in a good or great play. Modern empowerment is usually about patting the audience on the head, pretending that challenging things aren’t going to happen, or if they happen, aren’t going to happen for long and will be beaten, by you, just because you are you. It’s a comforting palliative. Today, a wall, like the screen on our phones, separates us from going too deep inside ourselves and our reactions to the unpredictable and erratic nature of life. But the monsters are there, whether we choose to look at them or not. Traditionally, theater has acknowledged that, explored it, and this courageous investigation has been the vehicle by which we might find comfort, solace, liberation and yes, empowerment.
Next thing to be depressed about:
Corporate Culture: We have a country whose economy is essentially run by large conglomerates, caused by the tide of mergers of the past thirty or so years. And funding for theater productions has to come from somewhere, so it increasingly comes from these gigantic companies. Huge conglomerates are more and more involved in producing plays. This can help, as it puts more money into the business. But, while—thanks to The Supreme Court—we now may look at corporations as individuals, it’s taking it one step too far to see them as artists.
The producers of old—and there are still a few left today—were creative people; while they obviously wanted to make money, they wanted to do it by making Art. If Joe Papp or David Merrick had wanted to safely make money, they wouldn’t have wasted their time and efforts in a business that so often leads to no return on your investment. They wanted to help with the formation of something profound and beautiful. This is true of the prolific producer Daryl Roth and a few others today. But the corporate mentality puts profits first and beauty—somewhere down the ladder. This is going to color every decision that is made, cause the use of focus groups, a catering to demographics, playing it safe and down-the-middle, all of the practices of our modern business environment. There is sometimes a fundamental lack of concern for and understanding of the artistic mind-set. Disney, of course, comes to mind as one of the biggest corporate players in today’s theater. And, money-wise, they do it pretty well; financially, it often works. While some Disney shows—Tarzan and The Little Mermaid—have come up short, a lot have made money. These include Beauty & The Beast, Lion King, and soon, Aladdin. But they are selling established names and products, and their shows don’t allow much room for innovation. Again, the audience grows used to being catered to, and doesn’t work hard to experience new, challenging pieces with original themes. (Now, star actors routinely come back to the theater to perform in revivals: James Franco in Of Mice & Men, Denzell Washington in Fences and Raisin in The Sun, Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, How To Suceed In Business…& The Cripple of Inishmaan. Elisabeth Moss in the upcoming The Heidi Chronicles, and many others.) Familiarity is safe; venturing into the unknown, taking a risk, by its very nature, is not. In the past, a producer’s criteria for hiring a director was: who is the most talented, driven, visionary, confident? They hoped to get the best person, hoping to stand back and let him/her pilot his/her ship to greatness. Today, the first thing the producers wonder is if the director can “work with” them; meaning, will the director be malleable enough to give in to the money-driven demands of the producers? The priorities have been reversed.
Spiderman, of course, is an obvious example. Initially, the producers (not Disney) wanted a different take on the comic-book show, and hired a renowned downtown, avant-garde director, Julie Taymor, who, it should be noted, had had a huge Broadway hit in Lion King. But she seemed almost to have disdain for the shallowness and banality of the original material and wanted to do something different: she gave them an inventive, odd, even ridiculous, screwball show, a kind of mockery of the comic book genre itself. The producers were shocked and outraged, ultimately fired her, and tried even to deny her her portion of her original salary and percentage points. (They lost that one.) The show was then revamped, and the producers desperately opted for a more conventional production and telling of the story. But it was too late. The clash of cultures was fatal, and everyone lost a bundle. Kind of like the fellow who fancies himself adventurous and free-spirited enough to be one with the wild animals in nature, but, when he tries to bond with a grizzly bear, has his head bitten off. Artists are often unpredictable, contrary, and lacking in restraints. Businessmen strive for certainty, discipline , and a straightforward dependability; the mixture is often a disaster. This was ever so, but never more so than today.
Loss of Playwrights: The best playwrights, it is said, do one play today, just enough to make enough of a name to get a money deal to leave and write for TV or film. This only points up the loss of status of the modern theater. You make very good money in TV, and, unlike the past, the quality of the work is often good as well. Writing for theater becomes a one-time lark. Successes in TV or film, venerated in Hollywood, now with full wallets, come back from time to time, to “slum,” but, often, their work is rejected. It has always been hard to write and produce a good or great play, and all the money and success in the world will not help you do it. The days of Edward Albee, A.R. Gurney, Horton Foote, who wrote dozens of accomplished plays, and only plays, are fleeting. What’s left of the theater audience can still be demanding, in their own way. But without playwrights, you don’t have plays. A secretary may not be a toy, but the theater is becoming a toy, for wealthy Hollywood types.
Theaters Closing: It is very hard to keep theaters open. Despite the best efforts of artists, local governments, audience and patrons, some regional theaters are closing. I don’t have a comprehensive list, but Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre, San Jose Rep, etc., have gone under. I do have statistics that in New York, in the last 10 years, at least 50 (and I’m sure there were more) Off & Off-Off Broadway theaters—many housing resident companies with regular productions and employment for theater pros—have closed; few were replaced. You’re more likely to see banks and drug stores in their place.
Money, Technology, Politics, Corporate Culture—all these elements work together to limit the appeal, reach, and viability of modern theater.
Feeling depressed? I’ve done my job.
Part II—Reasons not to be depressed:
Buck up. Theater still exists. Despite the downbeat nature of my comments, theater continues to survive and, by some measures, thrive. Broadway produced 44 new productions last season. Off-Broadway and regional theater produced thousands of shows. People from all over the country and world come to see theater. Last season, Broadway shows drew 12,214,823 people. In the 2011–2012 season, Broadway shows touring across North America drew nearly 13 million attendees.
The theater still produces revenue. Last season, Broadway shows grossed $1,268,881,236. A new report states that during the 2012-2013 season, Broadway as an industry contributed $11.9 billion to the economy of New York City.
Live performance is unique: People are not machines. There is no substitute for a living, breathing human being. A film of a person or group of people, even with fantastic special effects, is still dead; it is the same every time you view it. It will be the same when you view it in ten, twenty, one hundred years. There is a predictability and safety in that; what seems adventurous is really self-protective and staid. A live performance carries with it an element of surprise, spontaneity, danger. What may appear to be an old-fashioned, even moribund art form, is really frighteningly cutting-edge and changeable, random and erratic. It’s a happening: a one-time show, never to be done again, in exactly this way. Tomorrow night, the entire performance, its successes and failures, will be 100% different. There are mistakes made every night on the best stages and yet the performers and tech crew soldier on, with grit and determination, preserving the illusion of a perfect, extemporaneous story; they fly in the face of the capricious fallibility of themselves and their fellow humans, of reality itself. A theater performance is a nightly effort to do the impossible: to conquer time, and nature. It can’t be done and yet, in some major ways, it is, six or seven or eight times a week. The audience knows that and, with any luck, becomes entranced by this unique spectacle, addicted to it, comes back to experience it, again and again.
The audience is genuinely a part of a live theater show. For all of the tweets and on-line communications, Instagrams, YouTube videos, theater actually creates that participatory democracy that all of the new technologies are eager to imitate. The audience is a genuine, irreplaceable part of the program. (My Drama professor at Kenyon College, Thomas Turgeon, said: If there’s no audience, there’s no show. One person in the audience makes it a show.) You can’t help but be involved, because your breathing, sweating, thinking, and feeling is felt by the performers, and it influences them, for good or ill. There is a deep, intimate relationship between you and the actors, and by extension, tech people, directors, and writers. They are giving of themselves and you are receiving and giving back. This may happen without your even acknowledging it, but it is happening. The actors are revealing themselves, and you are either accepting or rejecting this intimacy; either way, you are in a shared, familiar, connective relationship and since it is done in a large crowd, it is different than a sex act, or a family dinner, or even childbirth. The private is made public and, not only are you “one” with the actors, you have joined with your fellow audience members in this experience. Like it or not, love it or hate it, you are forming a union unlike any other.
Technology: Even though, in comparison to film or video or TV, theater is hamstrung when it comes to the use of complex, modern technology, when theater technology does work, it can be magical. Some examples: I once saw a small troupe from Japan, performing at The Actors Studio in New York city. In their small, black-box theater, the performers piled a group of chairs on top of each other, turned on a small smoke machine, then sat on top of the chairs. I totally believed they were the WWII Kamikaze pilots they were portraying. On Broadway, in the play (not the recent movie) Frozen, a child molester hangs himself in his jail cell. As his body dangled, I bought into the illusion, and to this day, have no idea how they did it without killing the actor. As an adolescent, I attended David Rabe’s Broadway play Streamers, directed by Mike Nichols, about Vietnam-era soldiers. During an argument in a barracks, a psychotic soldier punches his timid colleague in the stomach. Only when he takes away his hand do we see that there is blood on the timid soldier’s shirt; the attacker has secreted a knife in his hand and stabbed him. That image stayed with me for years. One of my first days at Kenyon College, I attended a performance of Look Back In Anger, staged in a classroom that wasn’t even a theater. Two men and a woman have a fight wherein the woman burns herself on an iron. The fight was so real, I fully believed the woman had been burned; so, I became a Drama major.
At a small off-off Broadway theater doing the Canadian play, Escape From Happiness, by George Walker, a despondent lower-middle-class mother ponders whether to put her baby in the oven. We wonder what her final decision will be. When she leaves the kitchen, and, slowly, the stage darkens and a light comes on in the oven; we realize, she did it. The subtlety, delicacy, and inventiveness of these stage images were all powerfully affecting. It is the limitations that make theater technology great. The degree of difficulty is the point, really. You can’t do everything, and that forces the artists to be enormously creative, ingenious, and resourceful. These illusions, when they work, can be riveting, mesmerizing. Because: the Imagination is the original and best Special Effect.
More things not to be depressed about:
Diversity: Today, there are more openings for different kinds of writers and subjects. This brings new energy and attention to the theater. African-Americans are a fast-growing part of creative teams, and the theater audience. Women writers are avidly sought after. There are a large and growing number of female theater directors. Asian actors and writers are increasing in participation and representation. Theater has always been more open-minded about dealing with racial and social issues. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House depicted a nascent feminism in 1879; The Children’s Hour, by Lillian Hellman, openly portrayed lesbianism in 1934; Home of The Brave took on Anti-Semitism in the army in 1946; while they may seem somewhat tame today, plays such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, 1920, the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, 1935, portrayed African-Americans in deep and forthright leading characterizations. When these plays were made into films, they were invariably tamped-down and censored. Certainly, the classic examples: Oedipus sleeps with his mother, performed in the 5th century BC; The Merchant Of Venice depicted the agony of a Jew facing prejudice, written in the 1590s; Othello portrayed a black lead player in 1600; Lysistrata, 5th century BC, was only one of Aristophanes’ plays satirizing war.
Historically, theater has been ahead of the rest of society and has led the audience in the exploration of controversial and even taboo subject matter. For many years, theater was a place where gay people could work in much more open and accepted manner than in the rest of society; the same was true for African-Americans and Jews. Today, the theater is opening up to many different kinds of ethnic groups. This not only has the potential to replenish the lost audience, it provides a chance for vigor and variety in the productions themselves.
Sheer Talent: It may sound simplistic, but there are just too many phenomenally talented theater people to keep them off of stages. Walk into Actors Equity and listen to the great singing voices coming out of the union audition rooms. And these are mostly the people who won’t get the job. Look at the athletic, graceful dancers in musicals, the affecting, powerful actors in plays, the wonderful sets and costumes and lighting and sound. Their work is too delightful, thrilling, and produces too much joy to go away anytime soon. Now, the plays have got to keep up with the interpreters.
European Influence: If Americans can’t carry the load, European theater still provides a consistent number of world-quality plays. The English and Irish, in particular, have a vibrant theatrical tradition and continue to send us illuminating, explosive works. Martin McDonaugh, Enda Walsh, Penelope Skinner, Conor McPherson, and Nina Raine are only a small list of contemporary British and Irish playwrights whose work has been produced to acclaim recently in the U.S. I feel that European theater is better able to stand back from the current political/social atmosphere and look at it more objectively, with the time-honored artistic viewpoint, than Americans, who are too easily influenced by surrounding culture and society, producing work that is “torn from today’s headlines.” European society and government continues to support theater in a way that America never has. We are the beneficiaries of the great theatre tradition that exists overseas. We both use their great artists, and emulate and learn from them.
Big-name actors still come back to do theater, possibly because it is so challenging, and because they know, deep down, that the art form is the ultimate creative test for an actor, regardless of the paycheck. In the last five years alone, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Scarlett Johanssen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jude Law, and Will Ferrell, have all done plays. Daniel Radcliffe, Denzel Washington, Bryan Cranston, Daniel Craig—and I’m leaving out the ones who do theater regularly, Al Pacino, Hugh Jackman, etc. The attitude of star actors has undergone several different transformations. In the early days of film, the first half of the 20th century, theater was considered the pursuit of the serious actor, and movies were the lark. By the 1960s and ‘70s, with film/TV entrenched, theater became a place for stars on the wane to go to revitalize their careers. Today, it’s a place for A-list actors to test themselves and pay tribute, however fleetingly, to the original, most demanding expression of their craft. It may be condescending, but at least they show up.
Young People: TV shows such as Glee have increased interest in theater, particularly in musicals, creating something of a renaissance in college and grad school theater programs. School theater programs seem to be flourishing—now, the grads need jobs.
Musicals: the life-blood of today’s theater. As we said, the biggest money-makers are musicals—during the week of July 6, 2014, the top ten grossing shows on Broadway were all musicals—they employ a lot of people, appeal to a younger audience, and often have a greater reach, touring and later, being performed at schools, community centers, and other institutions. While this can be looked at as threatening to the writer of straight plays, it also can be a boon. It keeps theater moving forward, keeps it financially stable, and that can trickle down to the other forms of theater, straight plays, small theater, and avant-garde work.
Theater has become local: Most major cities, and many mid-level ones, have a functioning, influential, well-run professional theater. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one functioning LORT—League of Resident Theatres—theater; some states have more than one. Certainly, Chicago supplies a large number of plays—not to mention actors and directors—to New York and regional theaters. Chicago is the second city of theater, and in some ways, right up there in first place. Regional theater provides a vibrant center for the development of new plays (some examples—Ashland, Williamstown, O’Neill Center, Playwrights Center—Minneapolis, Hartford, and others, all develop new plays.) Most of them want, need, local writers to write for them. You, after all, support their theater; you are the audience and, possibly, one of the funders. It’s not all cynical “Development Hell”—where writers get endless amounts of readings of plays that will never be fully produced—a local theater would be absolutely thrilled to find a local writer whose play they could put up. Some theaters—such as Heartland Theatre here in Illinois—have play-writing competitions geared exclusively to area or regional writers. There are many excellent people working in regional theater. You have an opportunity right here in your own backyard.
In New York, there is actually a prejudice against local writers; in New York, if you tell people you’re from the city, they’re bored. They would rather you came from somewhere outside the five boroughs: it’s different, unusual, exotic, even. And, anyway, New York doesn’t really exist as a theater town—it’s made up of people from out of town. Then, living in New York has become almost impossibly expensive, and many good people move away to live a decent life, and make theater. Is it better to do a play in New York city for one hundred people total, or in Seattle, for 850 people a night? There are co-productions between regional theaters that perform in their respective cities. There are links between Midwestern, Eastern, and Western theaters, a kind of network—providing plays that tour all areas. Getting a play produced anywhere, gives it a leg up in terms of its being seriously considered other places, including New York. Work begets work, productions beget productions. Put a production in your cover letter and it will separate you from the many other letters and queries.
Instant gratification: People such as yourselves are still interested in writing for the theater, despite very little assurance of exposure and success. Unlike film or TV, though, you can get fairly immediate gratification from writing a play; you can get actors and/or friends to sit or stand and read it out loud. You or a friend can direct it. Many screenwriters never hear or see their work performed, even if they are paid for it. The scripts are optioned, then ignored, left to die somewhere. At base, theater is a do-it-yourself activity. You still can put on a show in a barn.
Here’s another reason not to be depressed, one you may not have thought of:
Failure creates openings and opportunities: Since theater is a big-money cultural practice where people really don’t seem to have a hold on how to make a success at it, you may know as much as the people currently working in it. It’s not Google we’re talking about. Many, many people are currently producing plays who have very little knowledge of the theater, and absolutely no creative talent of any kind. All they have is money, most of which they will lose in the pursuit of putting on a show. You can’t do much worse, anyway, than the current rate of success. Have faith in your acumen and go for it. Consider your skills at your previous or current occupation, and see how those skills can help you in theater. However, you should know—repeat, know—that most “schemes” to get rich in the theater don’t work. And know: almost all established rules of finance don’t apply to theater. You can’t plan or prepare to make a guaranteed killing in theater. You can’t force a play to be popular. The best strategy is: merge an excellent play with a well-thought-out business plan. You can’t succeed unless you have both. It can be done, but you can’t cut corners. While the theater seems to be a closed club, and in some ways it is, there is always a way into a business that is failing.
The lack of money opens the door for great art: When an activity doesn’t promise any reward, then it can be done for no other reason than to communicate something meaningful and beautiful in a beautiful and meaningful way. You can write from the heart, and, in fact, you have to, in order to make a good theater piece. There is less calculation in writing a great play than a movie or TV show, or even a book. When I was a script reader/analyst for movie companies in New York and Los Angeles, reading thousands of pieces, the first thing the bosses wanted to know was whether a piece was “like something else.” They wanted to imitate, to copy other works, especially successful ones, and were deathly afraid of innovation. But there are almost no sequels on stage; Othello II? It’s all about originality. So, express yourself. Because the past has been so great, standards are high. Test and challenge yourself; do your idiosyncratic best. Your true expression, your genuine effort, may very well connect with a theater, other artists, an audience.
The main reason you don’t need to be depressed about writing for the theater:
We need it: In the 1933 Irish comedy, Is Life Worth Living?, by Lennox Robinson, a small seaside village lives quietly, placidly, until a traveling theater troupe arrives, performing classic plays. Gradually, the townspeople become unsettled and start acting differently, impulsively: one couple divorces, someone runs away, all look at life in a deeper, sometimes less happy, but more meaningful way. Finally, a circus comes to town and parades town Main Street; the townsfolk run out of their shops and homes and dance down the street with them. As mentioned in the play, the theater troupe has “turned over the rock” and subsequently, the town has had a catharsis. Now, life can be lived with awareness, abandon, lovingly, wildly. “Turning over the rock” is necessary, people yearn for it—even if they fear it, hide from it, or don’t know it—yet. They want and need depth, complexity, to get under Conventional Wisdom, and search for the Truth. They want to come out the other side and fully live.
In order to provide this release, theater needs Big Themes. The big issues of life, which never go away, never stop tantalizing and tormenting us, but are often looked at as trite and old-fashioned today. Honor, Dignity, Love, Independence, Respect, Pride, Grace, Power, and a couple of others. The unchanging, universal needs. Great plays are not written about how you should vote. They are about how the fluctuations and vagaries in temporal life affect our immutable inner life. If that seems like something spiritual, it is. The spirituality of theater is baked into it. The original plays were done with a little wagon, which roamed around the countryside, stopping and offering paeans to God. And I don’t mean what church or temple you should belong to, but the electric, enthralling need that causes us to seek answers, clarity, meaning, exaltation, and transcendence. Theater can offer some light. It’s a serious calling. And if the audience doesn’t want to deal with it, stick your finger in their face and with the ferocity and energy and quality of your play, with its ability to make an audience, laugh, cry and cheer; make them deal with it. Throughout history, audiences have found that kind of challenge exhilarating.
Theater is an ancient art form and its values are ancient: this has produced good and great work in the past and can again. The very things that make theater seem old-hat can make it fresh and vital again. The values are so old, they’re new. It is highly possible people will tire of our shallow, superficial, avaricious, Machine Culture, and go back to the future. I sometimes doubt whether things “balance out,” run in cycles, etc. But it does make common, human sense, and does have historical precedents.
There is an integrity connected to theater that is seductive, titillating, and, seemingly, indestructible. Theater is like birds—ancient, majestic, mysterious. I watch birds. Birds are descended from dinosaurs. Despite all attempts to eradicate them, they’re still with us. One hundred years ago and more, there were so many birds that when they migrated, they routinely blocked out the light of the sun for hours. Today, they are diminished, but still very much here. Watching birds can be boring and frustrating; it requires patience, concentration and discipline to spot a good one. But if you are respectful; if you are dedicated and focused, if you put in the time and do it right, it can pay off: you may be surprised and experience something beautiful, stunning, life-changing. Birds fly. The theater can fly.
The Heartland Theatre audience was stunned by the inspirational ending of Klavan’s speech, impressed by the breadth and specificity of his knowledge, and delighted by the coincidence of birds, having just produced Fowl Plays, a series of 10-minute plays on the theme of birds! Klavan returned to New York after his stint with the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland to direct a one-woman show Off-Broadway, My Stubborn Tongue, by Anna Fishbeyn, which had a successful limited engagement at the New Ohio Theatre in New York and will be revived in October as part of the United Solo Festival 2014.
Sources for the Statistics:
Attendance decline: The National Endowment for the Arts
Ticket prices, demographics: The Broadway League
Stagehands’ income: New York Times, December 27, 2013
Theatre closings: Nyitawards.com
Number of performances: Wikipedia
Number of professional resident theatres: LORT.com