What Show Must Go On?


“The theater of one period will never suit the next if a major revolution has changed mores and laws in between.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Sketch of the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center
Sketch of the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center

I recently met with David Lan and Lucy Sexton, the formidable impresarios helming the artistic side of the effort to build a new performing arts space at the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York City. By most measures, the WTC PAC is one of the more bonkers cultural ventures in American history: all at once architecting an arts facility on some of the most contested real estate in the country, and, in doing so, reinvent the category of “the state of the art.”

Lan and Sexton are building a theater to ask and answer the question: What is the point of live performance now that there’s an Internet?

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Producers are understandably preoccupied with the “What” of live performance, but few individuals are nearly as preoccupied with the “Why” as Lan and Sexton. The “What,” logistically, has been the same for centuries: one goes to some place at some time for some thing. But the “Why” people attend live performance has wildly shifted throughout history. Audience rationales vary, but they are specific and historically bound. Given rapidly changing audience mores, I’ve found Clayton Christensen’s 1997 classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, provides various useful frames to help us understand shifts in consumer behavior over time. For example, Christensen outlines Disruption Theory in terms of “jobs to be done,” wherein products are “hired” by a customer to accomplish a “job.” One doesn’t buy a Coke because a commercial during Dance Moms showed attractive people drinking one or because they’re between the age of 25 and 34 and have masters degrees in Computer Science and drive Subarus. One buys a Coke because it’s loaded with sugar and caffeine, which release endorphins and constricts blood vessels, momentarily augmenting one’s sense of alertness. You don’t hire a Coke to taste good. You hire a Coke to boost your self-esteem.

Live performance, in contrast to sugar water, represents the broadest possible swath of consumer experience. The increasing demographic, psychographic and technologic diversity of performing arts audiences makes for decreasing predictable behavior. Attending one show doesn’t necessarily correlate with attending future ones, but a media environment of unprecedented complexity does lead to chaotic customer behavior. The difficulty of having an infinite number of niche audiences — the marketing problem you get by the sheer plurality of the anywhere-anytime-anydevice availability of entertainment experiences — is embodied in, for just one example, the algorithmic contortions of the Netflix homepage. “You enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Here are 70 gritty Swedish movies based on novels based on movies that feature rape, tattooed women who beat up men, and more rape, that we think you’ll enjoy.”

These algorithms are an attempt to create predictive models of audience intention. And they’re good at some things: enabling binge-watching of Swedish movies based on books. But they inevitably fail to predict new categories of experience that users will enjoy. All prognostication is predicated on history — which is why Netflix’s suggestions are always so hilariously wrong. It’s also why New York City wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on the bunk Snowmageddon forecast for winter storm Juno, and why nonprofit boards of directors are intrinsically conservative.

Historical lenses cause their own myopias. Jennifer Homans, acclaimed scholar in residence at NYU and leader of the bonkers huge Mellon Foundation think tank on the contemporary role of “Ballet and the Arts,” famously predicted the imminent death of ballet in her authoritative history Apollo’s Angels. The book was written between 2000 and 2010 — the same timeframe during which Facebook went from a limited release platform to the single largest media repository on the planet. Yet Homans mentions the word “Internet” exactly zero times in her 672-page tome. So focused on the history of form, Homans was unable or uninterested in commenting on how the Internet remade the fabric of the cultural sector, literally, as she wrote. History can make a poor map of the future.

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Unsurprisingly, Homans showers much vitriol on contemporary performance work. She situates today’s quasi-deconstructive, pomo-normativity as a latter-day flavor of art-for-art’s-sake, fundamentally unhinged from concern for its viewers. The suggestion that performance should accomplish something for an audience — that it should be “hired” for a specific “job” — clearly seems anachronistic. Which, of course, it is. Live performance, including ballet, has always had its functionality tied to its time. In the 17th century, ballet was the sum of its numerological and symbolic representations, a form that didactically propagandizes monarchic morality. In the 18th century, ballet was an institutional frame for state-sponsored sex work. (The management of the Paris Opera used to keep a formal registry listing all affiliated female dancers as well as their “protectors” — the men who paid to have sex with them.) In the 19th century, ballet was frequently (and ironically) tasked with the moral improvement of its audience, with pedagogic responsibility proportional to its growing expressive power. Because these “jobs” for which ballet was “hired” through the centuries are so diverse and mutually exclusive over time, they make for an awkward Kremlinology for anyone looking to its future.

Yet this is what Lan and Sexton are attempting to do with the WTC PAC. They have spoken with innumerable experts to understand the contemporary role of live performance in a world saturated by online media, and it is clear that theaters cannot rely on audience patronage merely because of historical precedent. It seems to me that Lan and Sexton recognize that the historical parameters, rationales and understandings of Western performance are less and less in play, and thus the best way to predict the future of performance is, in fact, to build it for themselves.