where does theatre go from here?
Where does theatre go from here? How will theatre progress in the 2020s?
Everything I dream of for theater in the 2020s would require major upheavals in both our current network of social programs and in the major institutions that provide this country with new work. A lot of companies have talked about radically restructuring their hierarchies recently and, while certainly a fine first step, much more action will be required in order to make theater into an actually equitable profession. As long as health insurance is tied to employment in this country, for example, artistic institutions will always have power over the artists they employ. And look, I speak from a place of PROFOUND privilege; the American Theater has catered to guys like me since time immemorial because, well, Western society at large has catered to guys like me since time immemorial. But it feels like the current system is a dead horse that we keep beating in the hopes of bringing it back to life instead of, perhaps, realizing it’s time to get a new horse.
The good news is that there have been promising developments! The Oregon Shakespeare Festival just announced a complete restructuring of their organization! The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia has appointed four different artistic directors that will share and coordinate every season! Plays by BIPOC writers are being produced at a much higher rate (though still woefully less than their white peers).
I guess my main hope would be that the success of these changes would inspire other companies to adopt them and lead to more widespread change in the theatrical community. Because the theater as it stands now is unsustainable: theater folks like to complain about losing playwrights to TV gigs but refuse to look at the underlying economic realities of why that is. And think of all the great plays we’ve missed out on because the writers had to make the choice between writing the Next Great American Play and paying rent? Even more disturbing, how many great American plays are sitting on a desk somewhere but unwilling to be produced because of the racist and broken institutions that currently stand as the gatekeepers of the American Theater?
I know that all sounds pretty bleak, but I have great hope for the future, I really do!
I love theater so much I wrote a play for Zoom!
A place where theater goes to die!
But even that particularly deep technological abyss has opened up questions about accessibility that I think ultimately benefits our entire profession. The Ratatouille musical raised over a million dollars in part because of the low ticket price and the fact that you could watch it from the comfort of your own personal quarantine bunker. Hamilton’s premiere on Disney+ brought with it a surge in subscribers because people have a hunger for theater that they can’t always afford to pay exorbitant prices to see, not to mention the fact that many theaters, Broadway or otherwise, literally aren't accessible to so many Americans living with disabilities. So my other big hope for theater in the 2020s?
Not just for the basement of the Kennedy Center but for wide distribution. It can never replicate seeing it live, but it can expose the work to an audience that could actually go on to support any and all future work of the artists involved. What I’m saying is, just let Spike Lee film more plays.
Spike Lee is VERY GOOD at filming plays.
We’re at a moment of profound reckoning in the American Theater with the potential for radical restructuring and, if we blink, theater in the 2020s is gonna look a lot like the theater of the past hundred years and, frankly, that’s not a theater I’m interested in seeing.
Oh, and ban Shakespeare productions for the next five years.
After that, sure, bring him back!
Let’s do a Lear or a --
Timon of Athens?
That can’t be right.
But give new playwrights those five years to stretch their wings and shine.
As you can see from the plays in this very magazine, you absolutely won’t regret it.