Now that the three-part Summit series at Arena Stage has concluded, the agenda is clear: this has been an investigation into the unbalanced social and financial economy of the American theatre, both broadly and as it functions here in D.C. specifically. The series moderator, Washington Post critic Peter Marks, started these “In-Depth Explorations of D.C. Theater” off with a bang back in February in discussion with local artistic directors, sparking much Internet debate over its intimations of gender and other biases in season selection.
Following that, in March, came a more placid but still probing discussion with actors concerning the lack of support onstage artists receive when they’re offstage. And, finally, this past Monday we had the final edition, with playwrights and directors sharing the Kogod Theatre stage at Arena with Marks.
The group did not, as might have been expected, tackle the season-selection and playwright’s pipeline discussion of the first event head-on. Instead, they primarily addressed, from a variety of angles, the biggest recurrent theme of the Summit – what Marks has called an “audience crisis.” They asked what is responsible for the faltering of the American theatre; whether it is faltering at all, particularly here in Washington; what the connection may be between the underrepresentation of certain groups on stages and payrolls and the declining attendance statistics Marks has continually referenced; and what can and should be done to improve the situation.
At least partially in response to that controversy over the first Summit, this event, like the second one, was live-streamed, and can be viewed in its entirety online here.
The panel consisted of Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J and a playwright; David Muse, artistic director of Studio Theater and a director; Norman Allen, playwright; Jacqueline Lawton, playwright; Rachel Grossman, a ‘ringleader’ of dog & pony dc and a co-creator of that ensemble’s works; and Robert O’Hara, playwright and director and an ensemble member at Woolly Mammoth.
“What needs to be done here?” asked Marks, beginning what would become an evening full of questions with no answers with his own set of questions. “What is theatre not doing, who is it not reaching, and how much do you as theatre professionals have a responsibility to figure out what the hell is wrong?”
Before the inquiries got underway, Roth provided a different point of view: “We’re all very much a part of a vibrant, robust local theatre scene, that has its problems, and we’ll talk about them – but there has not been a 33% slippage of straight-play-going audience in Washington, D.C.” he said. “I don’t think the numbers add up here… there’s a difference in Washington theatre over the last two decades, and over the last decade.”
“I do think we’re talking about a totality here,” replied Marks. “Jackie’s plays, Norman’s plays, Robert’s plays, want to play not just in Washington. They want to be birthed here, perhaps, or get an important boost here, but they want to go on, they want to have a life. … I think you all are invested in wanting to see your plays done all over the country.”
Marks then asked Lawton, to start, if she saw the national state of theatre as having an effect on her plays’ continued life.
“I look at it from a multiple point of entry. So if 33% of our audience is decreasing, how much of the audience is actually dying off, versus how much of those folks are actually interested in theatre consistently?” said Lawton. “Is it economically that theatre participants… are no longer able to get into the theatre?” The decline of theatre in the schools, she said, has led to a lack of a “theatergoing habit” that reduces attendance.
“I think there’s not one answer,” Lawton concluded. “It’s not just audiences dying off… it’s not just producers’ point of view.”
“It’s interesting – one of the points you bring up is ‘getting in the habit,’ said Grossman, “one of the arguments that is made frequently is ‘youth are not getting in the habit of going to the theatre,’” said Grossman. “Do we want it to be an everyday experience? Do we want it to be like going to the movies? … Is it the same type of consideration that we would look at, going to the movies? Or is something that is special, it is an event, it is very unique? I think there is everyday ritual at one end of the spectrum and there’s a unique, once-a-year pageantry that comes at another.”
“We want to be special but we’re producing a lot of work,” Grossman continued. “Are we moving towards one end of the spectrum or the other?”
“You talked about an intellectually curious environment,” responded Allen. “..You talked about students losing recess and having standardized testing. There’s a bigger picture than talking about theatre and talking about how to engage audiences more… we also need to step back a little bit and ask about whether we’re creating an intellectually curious environment for students.”
Allen described how students today are told that “the theme of Raisin in the Sun is one of these four things, and you have to pick the right one. …We’re dumbing down our culture in terms of creating the audiences that will values what we’re doing.”
“Does that mean theatre is up against an insurmountable obstacle?” asked Marks.
“That’s the challenge,” said Allen. “The audience we’re trying to reach is coming to us with that experience. Some of us who are in the education field need to kick ass and change what’s happening.”
“Do you think, given what Norman said, any of you,” asked Marks, is if the barrier is “this kind of ADD world that we live in… or is it money, is it ticket prices… so prohibitive for some people that they don’t even consider it within the matrix of possibilities for going out?”
“For that problem in particular,” replied Muse, “there is a reason why almost every theatre company in the city and in the country has some program where if you are under 30 years of age you don’t have to pay much at all to see a play. …It’s not like it’s created a groundswell. Anywhere.”
“I’ll tell you,” Muse continued, “Every time we implement them or have a program, the audience hardly changes, in terms of the numbers. I have a perception of a barrier there. And it may be that there is more work to do once you lower the barrier… my suspicion is that it’s a bigger project than ‘lower your ticket prices, keep it affordable.’”
“Do you think the audience is partially responsible for this?” said Marks. “I have a 21-year old daughter who won’t go to almost 85 percent of what I offer her to see. She’s very specific, and she’s very particular. …Do you feel that somehow that we’ve made these kids feel too entitled… I mean my parents took me to the theatre and it became a passion because of that. …Are we not doing that? …I don’t want to dump this all in the laps of theatermakers.”
“I take kids to see theatre as an educator,” said Lawton. “I don’t think that it has to do with money because people will spend money on what they deeply value, or what they find interesting… [Young people] are going to spend 200 dollars on a Beyoncé concert because that’s interesting, that’s entertaining, that’s the experience they want to walk away with. …The perception is they think they’ll be bored.”
“I don’t know what did this to people,” continued Lawton. “I don’t know why they think they’ll be bored in the theatre, or any other art form, going to the ballet or going to whatever, but it’s about values, and it’s about interest.”
Marks compared two productions he had recently seen: Henry IV at the 800-seat Harman Hall at Shakespeare, which he found sparsely attended by youth; and a Baltimore Rock Opera musical which was packed by eager fans.
“Is there a disconnect between what we’re offering and what they want to see?” asked Marks.
“The Baltimore Rock Opera society, they build community around their work,” said Grossman. “There are many theatres here in D.C. that have that sort of community as well. But it’s not all the same community. …That’s the challenge for the larger companies, is that you have a larger theater, and you have more people, as a business entity, that you need to have in your community. …It’s not just about making the play directing it and putting it in front of people, it is the whole experience, how we build the community… and connect it back through the organization.”
“The NEA also found that the number of African-American and Latino audience as a proportion of the theatre audience is rising,” said Marks. “Are you guys – Robert, Jackie – are you conscious of who you are writing for, an audience who… isn’t sort of being paid enough attention to?”
“I will say absolutely yes,” said Lawton. “I very specifically write for people that are on the margins. …I’m looking at the stories that need to be told.”
Lawton discussed the work of Active Cultures theatre in Maryland, which she said actually polled the audience members and based their next season on what they wanted to watch.
“That’s kind of radical,” said Marks. “I mean, David, would you ask your audience what plays they want to see?” asked Marks.
“No,” said Muse, simply, drawing a laugh.
“Ari, is that the same answer?” asked Marks.
“There are surrogates, there are representatives,” said Roth. “You don’t produce in a vacuum. You have a deep relationship with your audience and everyone who represents your audience.”
Roth went on to address the rise of African-American and Latino audiences that had been brought up. “The major theatres in cities make it a point to try to be more diverse,” he said. “That’s having a really strong impact on the culturally specific theatres that used to be called black theatres, Jewish theatres, gay theatres, what have you. We’re losing those mission-driven, culturally-specific theatres by the droves. …What ever happened to a strong African-American theatre company here?”
“I wouldn’t ask black people what they want to see, and certainly I wouldn’t ask gay people what they want to see,” said O’Hara. “I write for a large spectrum of people, I write for anyone who wants to see something interesting, I guess.”
“Other narrative art forms that you’re competing with… do ask, and they try to be very market driven,” said Marks. “They’re finding out who their audience is and they’re basically selecting what they do based on what’s they think is going to get the most eyes. …I’m wondering why that doesn’t happen more” in the theatre.
“I do think this question of, like, who’s leading, who’s driving the programming – does it come from a desire from the audience or does it come from the spirit of the artists?” said Muse. “I want to hold on to the model where the spirit comes from the arts side. I don’t want to be flip about it, but, like, did Picasso ask people on the street what they wanted him to paint?”
“You mentioned that statistic – and I feel a little more alarmed tonight than I did thirty minutes ago,” Muse continued. “If you take a fifty-year view of what’s happened in America in the theatre realm is extraordinary. The growth of the art theatre movement, the regional theatre movement… I mean it just feels like it’s a huge success story. …It is true that it was animated by a spirit that at its core was about theatre that’s not for profit and theatre that’s for art.”
“I think a theatre company also has a responsibility to educate and to draw its audience forward,” said Allen. “You don’t want to pander… but you do want to educate, you want to build an audience that is then ready for the more challenging things.”
“This issue of diversity seems very very relevant especially since your own community decided a year from now to highlight the work of women,” said Marks, referring to the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. “I did a little statistical analysis, since we learned of this festival, of the announced seasons of ten of the largest companies in Washington, and lo and behold, next season, the percentage of playwrights who are female in the 2014-2015 season is actually slightly less than in the current season. …The number of women playwrights out of 68 productions is 15. There are 15 women,” including collaborations, he said.
“If women are the majority of theatregoers… why are we not aggressively… trying to energize that base even more with work that is going to excite them?” asked Marks.
“You have to ask artistic directors how much, at the end of the day, do they really care about numbers,” said Roth. “A lot of artists-first-artistic-directors-second will say, ‘you know, it’s important numbers, but it’s not as important as the fire in the belly for the art itself.’”
“I know people who really really care about those numbers,” Roth continued. “If the artistic director says those numbers mean something… it will create change. …We’re at a point right now where the numbers matter, and those figures and ratios matter, and the only way you’re going to create change is by wrestling with that as a premium.”
Grossman asked Roth for clarification. “I’m spanking them a little bit,” said Roth. “If you want to change the culture, you’re going to have to change the way the men and women who run theatres think. And they really think that the art is more important than the ratios. ..If you want to have more female directors, you’re going to have to look at your numbers and hire more female directors.”
“The original theatre model follows an artistic visionary,” said Lawton, who is going to “bring forth to the people an amazing artistic experience. …They become the gatekeepers. …And if those artistic directors are not listening to heartbeats of their community and what is happening on a national front, but only focused in on the heartbeat of themselves, which may not reflect what’s going on outside of them,” then diversity won’t happen, she said.
“I don’t think asking your audience what they want is commercial, I think it’s community-based,” Lawton continued. “How do we actually get to diversity and inclusion? Yes, it’s about core, it’s about your core values, and the issues. [Artistic directors need to] say ‘I’m willing to stand in the middle of the street, in the middle of a rainstorm, an ice sleet storm, that this is important and I’m going to go back home and tell my board members that this is fucking important, and I’m not going to leave here until we not only meet gender parity and racial equity, but until we can flip that so that these things are no longer considered, we’ve shaken the core so much that we forgot that that was ever a problem.’ Until we do that it’s never going to change.”
“I think it’s much too easy for many of the white leaders of the organizations, and then particularly when they’re men, to sit back and say yes we need to work on it, and then say here’s all the things I’m going to focus on instead of that,” said Grossman. “It is imperative because I think that’s part of taking responsibility for ourselves as an artistic community, is how do we… really look at the society that we are living in and… how can we effect change to move forward as artists.”
“When gender parity is address, we don’t always address race within that, and that concerns me,” added Lawton.
“We’ve got this issue of community, you know, and this community, and creating something for both, and it really comes to this holistic this question of how much opportunity we’re offering people,” said Marks. “For the playwrights on the panel… How do you get your plays to these guys? Is it personal relationships, is it over long years of submitting these plays? Had you thought along the way of creating your own theatre companies to get your pieces done because it’s so hard?”
“It’s often a combination of all the things you just said,” replied Allen. “I have never had a play produced because I submitted a play through the mail.”
“I think part of it is staying in so they can’t, you know, ignore you anymore. ‘He’s still writing plays?’” said O’Hara. “We interact with people who reject us on a regular basis, you know? So you have to sort of have a good attitude about it. I’ve submitted plays to the same person over and over and I haven’t rewritten it once, and then all of a sudden, ‘We want to do it.’”
“It’s a gruesome process, and no matter what your race, no matter what your gender, as a playwright, trying to find a home for your play and trying to get to hear the word yes from the field is a brutal, gruesome experience,” said Roth. “And the reason I became an artistic director is to stop hearing the word ‘no’ and to start saying the word ‘yes.’ …We need to hear the word ‘yes’ a lot more in the American theatre. …I feel that that’s what’s healthy about Washington D.C. because we’re all pushing each other. …I think there is something so healthy about all of us overproducing just a little bit,” said Roth.
“People often ask what’s the reputation of Washington theatre outside of Washington,” Marks said. He referred to plays such as Bootycandy and Clybourne Park that start in town and go elsewhere as “ambassadors,” and said, “If you don’t give the people here the confidence and the exposure on the stages of seeing their work and understanding of how to interact with an audience here, then” people in other cities will continue to be unaware of there even being any theatre in Washington at all.
The hour long discussion concluded with questions from the audience members, who offered a variety of questions and thoughts that could only be briefly addressed by the panel.
In response to one audience member asking about the pursuit of new play creation being in opposition to audience’s desires to see classics from the canon, O’Hara noted, “At some point O’Neill was a new playwright.”
“You’ve got to keep growing the canon,” added Lawton.
“We’re not doing all that much new plays,” said Marks, offering context. “Another statistic… out of 7 [major Washington] companies… there are 15 world premieres next year,” of which 5 are at Arena.
“The Washington Theatre scene is one of the reasons I have not moved away from Washington,” another audience member said, drawing applause. She then brought up the fact that playwrights and actors with disabilities have been left out of the conversation about gender and racial parity, while cheering such efforts as Studio Theatre’s recent Tribes.
“My real thing with all this is if you don’t educate kids, if you don’t make theatre exciting to them, you won’t have a theatre,” said another attendee. “You guys really have to get young people,” she said, and related how, in New York, she saw so many young people at the cheap tickets booth in Times Square.
“What creates excitement is the rub here, and it goes back to the question… about what’s missing here,” said Roth, who then attributed the lines at the New York TKTS booth to “celebrity-itis.”
“Yes, we’re doing more and more stunt and celebrity casting down here,” Roth continued, “but what we’re missing here is interdisciplinary fusions… …If we built up a little bit healthier independent filmmaking scene down here, it would create a lot more buzz in the theatre scene… If there were more collaborations going on with indie film and indie music and theatre.”
The next attendee pointed out the age gap between the under-30 audience who had been previously discussed and the “average age” of the people in the room.
“What is it that we the theatre community are not offering the 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings that are not getting them into the theater?”
“I think the main reason people don’t come to the theatre is because they’re are at home with their kids,” offered another attendee. “It seems like if you combine two problems here, you want to have more kids in theatre and you want to have more parents in the theatre…”
“As a longtime theatregoer,” said the next audience members, “I am boggled by the idea that you can’t get more than 400 people to a play now… Is this a matter of marketing?”
“I was at four plays over the weekend that were all sort of unveiling themselves,” said Marks. “It’s a hot market and a lot of companies are in competition for your butt.”
“We’ve spoken a lot about younger audiences… When I talk to my friends,” said a young woman in the audience, “they are shocked and have no idea that you can get into a play for 20 bucks.”
The final speaker from the audience offered positive thoughts to close out the evening’s discussion: “You all have written such wonderful stories. You’ve changed my mind and you’ve changed my point of view you’ve made me laugh and you’ve made me cry. So I say hats off to what you are doing.”
Hats off should be given, as well, to Marks, his three panels, and Molly Smith and the others at Arena Stage for bringing these issues to the forefront. The brevity of these talks, and the breadth of topics they have covered, suggest that they have been more useful as entryways into broader awareness than as any real attempts to solve the problems in question. For one, in the theatre community, real conversation around making change took place on after the first event, in online discussion.
Yet despite that fallout amongst the professionals, many of the people working in theatre, as it seems, have been already aware of the issues brought up in the Summits. The information and arguments were frequently new to the live audiences – as was repeatedly demonstrated at all three occasions, whenever a disheartening statistic or shocking anecdote was brought up and the attendees (mostly Arena subscribers, I would guess) would gasp while the professionals onstage would merely nod in recognition.
If these Summits became places where the internal debates in the local theatre were laid out before the public, then perhaps the best thing that can come out of them is that the public carry that awareness forward into their own theatergoing habits and conversations, and make themselves part of the effort to find a better way forward.