There is a lot of talk right now about the desperate state of the non-musical play in the United States:
“In a sense, the dilemma of nonprofit theater can be simply summarized — supply has outstripped current demand,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the national endowment, wrote in a preface to the report. “The remarkable growth and professional management of theatrical organizations across the nation has not yet been matched by equally robust growth in audiences.”
Some smart folks are offering up ideas as to how to overcome this issue. First, Alexis Soloski, one of my favorite critics, suggests that the NEA needs to get involved with a big push towards ticket subsidies and/or salary underwriting. Pretty good ideas, but still not getting at the heart of the matter, I believe. George Hunka hits a little bit closer to what I’m thinking, although I don’t necessarily think that it’s all about tragedy. Basically, his argument is summed up in this sentence:
Perhaps the spectators are finding that theatrical experiences as created by most theatre artists do not speak truly to their condition or their lives.
The hip-hop version of that comes from the opening of The Roots Things Fall Apart, which actually takes its cue from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (cut and paste job from imdb.com):
Bleek: But the jazz, you know if we had to dep… if we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death. I mean, you’ve been out there, you’re on the bandstand, you look out into the audience, what do you see? You see Japanese, you see, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slavolic, anything except our people – it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man.
Shadow Henderson: That’s bullshit.
Shadow Henderson: [slurred] It’s all bullsh… Everything, everything you just said is bullshit. Out of all the people in the world, you never gave anybody else, and look, I love you like a step-brother, but you never gave nobody else a chance t- to play their own music, you complain about… That’s right, the people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that.
I humbly submit the idea that the non-profit theater, in its great drive to promote art for arts sake (or even to pander to what they think is their core audience with the same old chestnuts and/or plays about the same old people doing the same old things), is continuously failing to play the shit that they like.
Grandiose motherfuckers indeed.