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Will Theatre go the way of Vaudeville?

ART TIMES May 2008

In 1923, a man named Edward F. Albee sat down to write an article for Variety.

Edward F. Albee was arguably the most powerful figure in live entertainment in North America at that time. He was the General Manager of the B. F. Keith International Circuit, the leading circuit for vaudeville. In his day, there were approximately a thousand theaters across the country devoted to nothing but vaudeville. It was the country’s leading form of entertainment, with a seeming lock on its position.

In his article, he wrote, “The steady and sequential growth of vaudeville as the favorite form of theatre amusement with the whole American public is fully demonstrated by its spread all over the nation, the ceaseless extension of the great circuits, the sustained and growing patronage everywhere, and the permanence which it has attained.”

Less than twenty years later, Edward F. Albee was dead, and so was vaudeville. Changing tastes, the ownership structure of the industry, new forms of entertainment such as movies and radio, the Depression and lack of innovation in the art form combined to kill it. Today, it is a fading memory.

The lesson for today’s theatre practitioner is simple: it can happen. It can happen to you, in your time. Beware.

Is there a fundamental difference between vaudeville, a performance form that was born, grew, flourished and died in about a century or so, and theater, a performance form that goes back about twenty-five hundred years? In essence, no. Both are forms of live entertainment. Both require similar infrastructure: theaters to perform in, talented people to provide the performance, material to perform, an audience that is willing to come to the performance. Both are vulnerable to the same forces: changing tastes, the business practices of the industry, competition from other ways of spending leisure time, the economic environment, the ability of the people who create the work to do so in a way that reaches the people who partake of it.

The economic foundation of professional live theater is extremely shaky. When we observe that ticket sales do not cover the cost of production, we can put the matter in more general terms: we are observing that the customer is unwilling to pay for the product. No such product can survive in a normal business environment. Live professional theater is forced to rely on a second tier of “customers”: people and organizations willing to pay the difference between what the ordinary ticket buyer will pay and the cost of production. Because the number of people who would like to be involved in live theater production is very large and the amount of available work is small, the industry is heavily subsidized by the people who give up higher incomes elsewhere to do the work. Reliance on charity and self-subsidy is not a path toward stable survival.

Tastes are changing. In particular, tastes are changing away from a fundamental aspect of live theatrical performance: the two hours traffic of our stage may well be about four to eight times longer than the preferred attention span of the audience. A good friend of mine has a very simple reason not to attend live theater: “I can’t sit still that long.”

Competitive forms of entertainment proliferate. We still have radio; we still have the movies, and we have added television and digital media to the mix. Massively multi-player role-playing games (MMORPG) form a multi-billion-dollar market—substantially larger than live theater in all dimensions.

Tough economic times are with us and lie ahead. Both ordinary ticket-buyers and donor supporters cut back in such times.

To a startling degree, the people who create theater are disconnected from the people who come to see it. Theater is heavily reliant on content; the appeal of most ordinary plays lies in the story and the characters. People who create theater show a strong preference for stories and characters that are relatively uninteresting to most people—sufficiently so that most people choose other forms of entertainment instead. This is not the way to gain and keep an audience.

I do not know what will happen. I know what I see, but I do not know what response is possible or likely. It is easy to see, however, when we look at vaudeville, what happens if an adequate response does not happen. The closing night of the last play to be performed is a possible event. It’s up to us to keep that date off the calendar.

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