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Theatre: Why theater matters less than it used to

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Summer 2013

Suppose we hold down the rewind button for a while standing on the south bank of the Thames just a little to the west of Southwark Bridge. Suppose we held it down long enough that the modern world faded out and thatched roofs sprouted on most of the buildings, the women suddenly sprouted farthingales, and the men suddenly found themselves wearing codpieces. After the initial confusion, and perhaps delight, wore off, we might suddenly notice something.

            We’re in Shakespeare’s London.

            Our cell phones have stopped working.

            We have no internet connection.

            There’s no television.

            There’s no cinema.

            There’s no radio.

There are no newspapers, at least not as we have known them since the early 1600’s. We’re only a couple of decades away, but that miss is as good as a mile.

“Mass media” consists of the town crier, one-off printed pamphlets, and – well, whaddya know! – theater. Live theater. People improvising or memorizing words, getting dressed up in costumes, and performing in public for money. It is strange to think of, but public speaking and live theater were the only media of the day that acted like “mass media,” capable of addressing large numbers of people simultaneously. Not only that, but aside from words printed on paper, they remained the only ways of presenting a complex message to numbers of people simultaneously for the next 300 years or so.

            T’ain’t so no more.

The functionality of theater as a mass medium has been superseded by far more efficient media forms. If you perform to 500 people a night – in which case you’re doing really, really well – and you play for 2,000 nights – 250 weeks at 8-a-week, about 5 years – you’ll have reached as many people as a typical television news broadcast reaches in one show.

None of this is news, but people who do theater do not easily give up the idea that the outreach function of live theater is like an email message that comes in marked with that red exclamation point that says, “High importance!” One can follow the example of Spencer Tracy – "Not much meat on her, but what's there is cherce" – to argue that the audience at live theater is small but select. One can argue that the experience is more direct, more intense, more lasting and so forth. One can argue that the quality of the message is superior. All well and good, but the plain fact is you can’t make a loud enough noise that way. It’s a beautiful bird singing in a forest drowned out by a continental cyclonic storm sweeping the entire nation.

I think that is why we do not see very many productions that truly are efforts to change hearts and minds. It’s not that you can’t change hearts and minds in a theater; in fact, you have a pretty good chance of changing a few hearts and minds that way, a few, a very few, compared to the number you would really like to change. Only a few people have heard you, and they’ve only heard you once. You need lots of people to hear you, and you need them to hear you many times. The disconnect is just too great.

All this means that when we do theater, trying to show our age its form and pressure, we have to acknowledge that in an odd way, we’re doing so privately. We don’t play to thousands; we play to dozens. We are talking quietly amongst ourselves, not speaking out before the world. There is value in that. Letting ourselves recognize the truth of that is very likely a first step, perhaps the most important step, in giving ourselves and our audiences the best we have to offer.

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