Spring is awards season in the theater world. With the exception of the New York Innovative Theater Awards, which are presented in September to members of the “Indie” theater community, most every event that recognizes, honors, or encourages excellence in the theater field is happening about now: the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards, the Obies, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, and, of course, the Tonys. And dozens of other awards are being proffered all around the country, as buds appear on the trees and the earth springs back to life. It is the perfect time of year to reflect back upon the work of which we are most proud before turning our eyes to the future and the important challenges ahead.
The recognition associated with these awards encourages talent and enterprise, sets public standards for excellence, and is helpful, ostensibly, to the marketing folks faced with the daunting task of creating audiences for the theater. However, I can’t help but harbor a few feelings of unease each year during awards season, as I sit in the audience at various ceremonies to applaud worthy prize winners, because there is an elephant in the room that I can never quite ignore even in my earnest joy at celebrating the accomplishments of my peers. These doubts of mine are nothing new to theater insiders, and they itch at my consciousness. I worry that the public’s general sense of the scope and responsibility of the theater is that it has shrunk to nest comfortably in what is commonly called a “boutique niche” and has lost its broad impact on society. I fear that we are becoming too insular in our profession, too isolated as Americans in the world, and too unambitious about where our work reaches and whom it touches. I quietly despair that the inspiration and vision of our artists, inventors and entrepreneurs are seen as mere “luxuries” in a market economy that increasingly measures success using the bottom line rather than the high bar. Deep within me, though, I have an unshakeable conviction that every person matters, that every choice we make is vital, and that the people of the world are interconnected locally and globally.
At the Lark, I spend lots of time with playwrights who don’t know where the plays they write will be seen and heard. And I can’t promise them much because the infrastructure that currently exists serves too few people at too high a price to provide opportunities to enough good playwrights or to give access for audiences to precious new ideas. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’ve come to describe as “public outreach networks” within different fields. In the U.S. theater, for instance, the most developed public networks are audiences for Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the regional theater institutions in many major cities. But there are many other existing networks connected to other industries: journalism, education, law, social justice, security, the military, music, science, and many more. How can the value of the work done in all these fields find new intersections that will reverse the sense of drift and isolation that many people seem to feel nowadays?
I can only enter into this conversation with my own knowledge as a theater professional. The vital perspectives of playwrights, and the stories they tell, have historically influenced our society at many levels, both directly through live audiences and indirectly through the dispersal of ideas and images to the public through the media, the cultural and educational sectors, policymaking, and elsewhere. For example, every boy and girl tragedy on TV or the Hollywood screen is drawn in some way from Romeo and Juliet, and every newspaper account of a double suicide evokes that play as well; politicians frequently borrow language from playwrights like Shakespeare and Kushner; and the U.S. Constitution itself is built on principles established in Greek drama. However, as the post-internet public becomes more segmented, organizing itself into highly-refined social networks and interest areas, many industries, including the theater, are challenged to find new ways of reaching audiences and customer bases by tapping into and mobilizing these “networks.”
The Lark, along with the rest of the theater industry, currently faces many challenges such as the lack of funds to pay artists adequately for their work, rising productions costs and ticket prices, and commercial and political pressures on artistic content. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, however, is the segmentation of the theater audience into interest-specific social networks and the field’s growing disconnection from a wide and diverse public. When a playwright, new or established, delivers a work that might once have been considered to have universal appeal, the play rarely receives multiple productions (if it is produced at all) and is unlikely to become widely known. Sometimes “cross-over” marketing is employed to attract subject-specific audiences, to temporarily align the social network that identifies itself as “theatergoers” with another, subject-specific social network. For instance, many mathematicians have been persuaded to attend math-based plays like Proof or Copenhagen and citizens with social justice concerns are attracted to The Exonerated. Even though marketers have made audience segmentation a science, these splinter-marketing strategies backfire in terms of retaining audiences because they attract people to what they know already rather than bringing them to the theater to experience the art form itself.
How will we choose to confront the challenge of the theater’s growing disconnection from a wide and diverse public? How can we establish meaningful, long-term intersections with existing networks in other fields? I am curious to reach outside of what I know and to learn what challenges people in other fields are facing, how isolated they feel (which I suspect they do), and whether their customer and user networks are also shifting. What if the theater community chose to come out of isolation, meet new people in other fields, and take a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding the public outreach challenges currently being faced in other fields like news and media, science, health care, or social justice? I feel certain that there will be reciprocal benefits to outside industries and their networks as they intersect with the unique visions of our playwrights and exposure to their creative process.
At this moment of reflection and renewal, I look back proudly on a successful season that was made possible by a ferociously tenacious community of artists. But I am also looking at the road ahead. I want us to discover new ways to address the challenges that separate and distance people that are prospective theater lovers, and the Lark hopes to start by bringing theater practitioners together with key players in other disciplines in order to discuss and discover new modes of connecting our varied user networks to one another and increasing the effectiveness of public outreach and engagement for all parties. In fact, if you have thoughts or questions to add to this topic, feel free to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is a wonderful dream to contemplate as another summer begins!
John Clinton Eisner