Is It Time to Accept Theater’s Obscurity?

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Luna Gale advertised with a new poster

A few weeks ago I decided to conduct a very unscientific study in Chicago’s Loop and ask random people a basic theater question: Can you name a living playwright? I didn’t have high expectations for the results, but I wanted to hear their responses. Most people were unwilling to stop to speak with me, but of the twenty willing to entertain my question, who were diverse in age and ethnicity, any guesses on how many could name at least one living playwright?

One. A white man in his fifties who tentatively guessed “Neil Simon?” and wanted confirmation that he was still alive.

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As for the other answers, one younger man did say, “Book of Mormon.” When I asked if he knew who wrote it (I was willing to count book writers for musicals), he answered “The South Park guys!” Even if he didn’t know them by name, he was at least aware of the creators behind the show. Among the rest, I was intrigued by how several of them genuinely thought about the question for awhile before admitting they could not name a living playwright — with a level of apology and mild embarrassment. They seemed convinced that it was something they should know — that theater was a worthy entity about which having some knowledge was a part of being properly informed — and it was somehow a personal failing not to know any such names. They shouldn’t have been embarrassed, but watching their guilty expressions was a strange testament to the level of respect people continue to hold for theater, even if they don’t attend it themselves.

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A script for one of Tina Fey’s early plays developed at Chicago Dramatists. Like many comedians, she started out writing sketches for live theater. (via Chicago Dramatists)

The reality is that the question “Can you name a living playwright?” is much easier than many of these people probably realized. If I anticipated a slightly higher rate than one in 20, it was only because I thought more people would just throw out a famous writerly person as a guess and be right by accident. Numerous well-known celebrities are playwrights, with resumes of varying lengths: Aaron Sorkin, Woody Allen, Larry David, Amanda Peet, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels. Even Tina Fey used to write plays, and was a network playwright at Chicago Dramatists in her early days writing live sketch comedy for Second City.  And Neil Simon is someone whose ubiquity should qualify him as a familiar name, especially since The Odd Couple was recently adapted, yet again, as a sitcom currently running on CBS.

This isn’t one of those “Is American theater dying?” articles. The general populace often struggles with seemingly obvious name recognitions, like knowing who the vice president is, and name recognition is not necessarily tied to relevance. (People not being able to name a living cardiac surgeon would not suggest the irrelevance of heart surgery.) And Broadway attendance in 2014 was the highest it’s ever been, even if that is no great indicator of regional theater attendance. But it is the case that relatively few people are seeing any theater at all, and, apparently, theater is having such little lasting impact on audiences that its creators are all but unknown, even to the people who may be attending it. So what’s the point in restating this reality? Don’t we know it already? Well, I’m not sure we really do.

Despite the fact that we seemingly know that theater has marginal impact on the general population, and that few people follow the careers of living playwrights, the industry is strangely unwilling to acknowledge that it is more of a niche art form than a popular one. In the mission statements of Chicago’s small storefront theaters — venues pulling audiences of a few hundred to a few thousand people a year — it’s not uncommon to find overwrought manifestos on how they are “changing the world” or their “global impact” through “intimate theater” that brings the audience up close to the action. While I sincerely admire the ambition inherent in these mission statements, there reaches a point where these statements simply aren’t true and they start to seem either delusional or naïve. There seems to be this assumption that if a theater’s work is of high quality (or at least intended to be), however modest in scope, then it is equally impacting. Artists often draw similar conclusions. In an email conversation with a playwright I was working with recently, I asked what the industry might do to get more of the population interested in theater. His answer was that artists must create work good enough for people to want to come and see it. In the case of both theaters and individual artists, the assumption is made that quality automatically equals scope. If you build it, they will come.

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Respectfully, I disagree. If quality automatically equaled scope, the current level of “obscurity” — by which I mean its role as an valuable but presently niche art form rather than a popular one — would suggest that the vast majority of theater is unwatchable, and that even our most successful playwrights regularly churn out subpar work unfit for any audience. Now, I don’t love every play I see, but I rarely have a bad experience at the theater either.  Regardless of your taste, I don’t think anyone really believes that low cultural interest in theater is tied to movies, television, and other more popular art forms outpacing it in quality. The real reason I think most non-industry people don’t see plays is not because the work isn’t good enough — it’s because they simply don’t know or don’t care about theater.  It’s because the bubble that many theater artists naturally find themselves in often blinds them to the indifference or lack of awareness of those outside the bubble. It’s because, despite the clichés we all know about how few people go to theater, many of these artists still simply refuse to accept what this really means — that they’re hardly changing the world, because people aren’t responding to their work, because people aren’t seeing their work, because little incentive is created for them to see it. Romanticizing the act of playwriting is all right, but romanticizing one’s impact cannot be.

Are there are solutions to all this? Of course, but they should begin with theaters accepting that most people will not naturally gravitate to their plays, and that most people must be convinced to attend a play by more than the mere fact that the play exists. If the general populace is willing to do something as normal as sit down in a theater for two hours and watch a movie, there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t hypothetically do the same for a play. But they have to be persuaded that it’s a worthwhile use of their time. So let’s present plays as similarly worthwhile. To start, why not market them the same way as films?

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The poster for San Andreas makes the content of the film vivid and clear. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Following in the tradition I have described of how the industry tends not to realize how much people don’t care about their work, regional theater posters often provide too little information about the play they’re advertising. These posters seem designed on the assumption that all people need to feel encouraged to see a play is a lively or ambiguous image and the words “World Premiere.” Consider the art used for the Goodman Theatre’s excellent 2014 production of Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman. Luna Gale is an absorbingly intelligent play about a social worker navigating a difficult custody case; it won this year’s prestigious Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. But the image used to advertise the play was an oddly sparse image of a baby’s face emerging from the shadows against a black background. It wasn’t without a certain foreboding, mysterious quality, but it conveyed nothing about the show other than that it was a mostly serious play about a baby. Compare that to the poster for San Andreas, the current popular Hollywood disaster movie that led the box office during its opening weekend last month. Without even seeing San Andreas, I can easily discern the answers to the two basic questions people generally ask before seeing any kind of narrative art or media: “What’s it about?” and “Who’s in it?” I can’t say the same for Luna Gale.

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The Luna Gale poster is eye-catching, but conveys little to those unfamiliar with the show or theater. (via Goodman Theatre)

The San Andreas poster wants the onlooker to see the movie, enticing them with a dramatic image, a tagline that foreshadows the events of the film, and credit for one of its leading actors. The Luna Gale poster only represents the play — to tell people that it exists — and presumes that the mere idea of a mysterious new play at the Goodman is enough to lure people inside. But what if the Goodman had advertised the play the same way we advertise leading content in other art forms? What if it provided more information for those not already following the Goodman’s season? What if, if you’ll excuse my amateur Photoshop skills, it looked more like this:

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A revised version of the Luna Gale poster for those unfamiliar with the show.

I of course don’t claim to be a better graphic artist than whoever designed the original poster, but at least this version communicates more about this great play to the average onlooker.  And rethinking theater posters is just one example of how we could respond to the comparative obscurity of theater. There could also be previews of some kind for other local plays during the opening announcements before a performance. There could be expanded outreach events, a more thorough and creative use of social media and more distribution of theater through digital channels.  And I’m sure there are many more possibilities we could brainstorm.

Going back to my unscientific study on the streets of Chicago, my favorite of all the answers I received came from a white man, about 70, who insisted on walking with me as he thought about his answer. He said he was quite well read and asked if Mike Nichols were still alive. I said no, not bothering to clarify that Nichols was a director and not a playwright, and the man continued to think. Eventually he gave up and explained that if I’d asked him about playwrights from 20 or 30 years ago. he’d have an answer, but he wasn’t really into today’s “theater-Lady Gaga-type thing.”

When even bookish seniors who can identify Mike Nichols by name have no concept of what the word theater refers to nowadays, there is obviously a recognition problem. Without diminishing the wonderful impact that theater has, it’s time to accept the medium’s relative cultural obscurity — and be honest about it. Only then can we have an open conversation about how to make this art form, one we value so deeply and work so hard for, more relevant to our communities.