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Theatre: It Never Lets Up, Does it?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES March/ April 2011

Or maybe we should say it never rains but it pours. Consider the economics of Mishropish, a wonderful mythical town somewhere in our great land, home of Mishropish Widgets Inc. and Mishropish Repertory Theatre, a proud live professional resident theater.

Rocco Landesman, NEA chairman, threw a lovely hand grenade into the audience’s lap at a conference about new plays. His idea was a simple analysis of industrial economics as applied to theater production. When Mishropish Widgets finds out that the demand for widgets is down, they decide they’ve got too many widget factories and they shut some of them down. Mr. Landesman doesn’t think the demand for live theater is likely to increase—i.e., demand for widgets is down—and therefore maybe we need to get rid of Mishropish Repertory.

When Mishropish Widgets decides to close a widget factory, all sorts of noises erupt. The workers in Mishropish become very vocal, as does the Mishropish Chamber of Commerce, the Mishropish businesses that supply the factory, the mayor of Mishropish and so forth. However, here’s one response you might hear from Mishropish Widgets, but was definitely heard loud and clear from Mishropish Repertory: “Why not just increase our funding?”

There’s a certain logic to this. After all, we’ve been subsidizing farmers not to grow crops for decades, and we’ve been subsidizing oil companies to produce oil, and some places subsidize fisherman to catch fish, and we’re dumping money by the trainload into banks in what amounts to all intents and purposes to a subsidy to make bad loans. So if theaters are having trouble making ends meet because not very many people come to see the shows, why wouldn’t subsidy be the answer for Mishropish Repertory, just as it might be for Mishropish Widgets?

Subsidy creates its own brand of thinking. When Mishropish Widgets, lacking subsidy, realizes that fewer and fewer people are buying their widgets, they are very likely to wonder what’s wrong with the widgets. When Mishropish Repertory, blessed with subsidy, notices that fewer and fewer people are coming to the theater, they are very likely to wonder what’s wrong with the people. When Mishropish Widgets obtains subsidy and is therefore able to decide that the problem is that people don’t like perfectly good widgets, and therefore goes right on making the same widgets that the people don’t much buy, Mishropish Widgets eventually goes out of business, subsidy or not. When Mishropish Repertory decides that the problem is that people don’t like perfectly good theater, and therefore goes right on making the same theater that the people don’t much come to, subsidy is an enabler to their thinking, just as it is down the street at Mishropish Widgets.

OK, so Mishropish Repertory can seat 200 people, but only 50 people come. So let’s solve the problem with more subsidy. And what if only 25 people come? More subsidy? What if only 12 people come? More subsidy? What if only 6 people come? More subsidy? What if only 3 people come? More subsidy? What if only 1 person comes?

What if nobody comes? Perhaps the theater critic for the Mishropish Times-Herald can recall, as I do, being sent to review a performance only to find that the performance had been cancelled, quite literally for lack of interest. There may be a valid argument that Mishropish Repertory’s cultural productions are of great worth, though not caviar to the general. What happens, however, when Mishropish Repertory’s cultural productions are not even caviar to the fish?

Sooner or later, the one who pays the piper is going to call the tune. Sooner or later, live professional theater as an industry is going to be held accountable for their product by the people who give it the money. For about a century, theater artists have been able to sell quite a bit of the world on the idea that public response is not an appropriate criterion for the quality of the work. For about a century, fewer and fewer people every decade are ready to respond to the work on an ongoing, repeatable basis. It is not uncommon for theater companies to declare with pride that they deserve subsidy precisely because they cannot generate enough public response to cover their costs.

All cultural production rests on an economic foundation. Subsidy is fundamentally an economic contradiction. Sooner or later—months? Years? Decades? Who knows?—that contradiction is going to resolve itself. The decisions that resolve that contradiction are not going to be made by the artists unless the artists change the way they make decisions. Those that do will be able to go on doing theater. Those that don’t will not.

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