Theater’s Online Community Is Dying. Can We Save It?

Let's not lament the decline of theater blogs. We can get the conversation back.

Critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís with actor and singer Lena Hall, in a photo from Token Theatre Friends. Photo: Twitter

Following the release of The New York Times’ list of its 25 best plays of the last 25 years, Rob Weinert-Kendt, Editor-in-Chief of American Theatre, wrote a piece about the list’s quiet reception, wondering why it hadn’t inspired more conversation or spirited debate. “Where’s the argument?” he asked, offering a few possible answers: perhaps critics did their jobs too well; perhaps this was another side effect of fading outlets, in print and online, for critics. On Twitter, he further elaborated:

It’s a good reflection, with a lot to unpack about the shrinking chorus of theater critics, bloggers and general fan commentary. (From what I saw, Weinert-Kendt’s tweet generated more conversation than the Times article it commented on.) But I also wasn’t clear why this silence was surprising; I’m not sure who he might have expected to respond. I didn’t follow the online theater blogs of the early 2000s (one of which was CFR), so I know I’m generationally out of the loop on this, but it’s been quite a while since they were people’s primary outlet for expressing themselves online. Looking at the culture now, online theater criticism isn’t something that anyone but the most diehard theater fans would weigh into — and those fans are a visibly shrinking demographic.

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I know this isn’t a new conversation: When it comes to how many people in the US attend live theater, we can consider it around one in 10. A recent National Endowment for the Arts study found about 15% of people attend a musical over the course of a year, with play attendance somewhat lower — an average of about 10%-ish, six years out from the study, seems fair. I’ve also found in the past (through an admittedly very unscientific survey) that only about one in 20 people can name a living playwright. So when it comes to the number of people who can look back at several decades of theater, with a working vocabulary of plays and playwrights, who also feel like writing up their own lists or counter-essays to the Times, it’s … not a lot. (Broadway is, fortunately, booming — but a large portion of those audiences are tourists or very casual theater fans.)

This isn’t a disaster — it is what it is, and at least we know theater is still reaching a few million people a year. It’s still valuable, and we’ve long known that the theater audience is in decline. Yet if we’re going to talk about where theater criticism has gone, we have to talk about that shrinking audience, because that seems like a more influential factor to me than voices of the past being splintered across social media or silenced by papers discontinuing their arts coverage (although those are certainly factors, too). People just aren’t as into theater as they used to be. And that’s in part because the art form has struggled to adapt to the way that content reaches people, and is consumed by them, in this decade.

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Weinert-Kendt points to two welcome efforts of American Theatre’s to stimulate more conversation about theater: their podcast Three on the Aisle and their web series Token Theatre Friends. But these examples seem designed for a small pool of theater insiders rather than a new audience invited into the fold. Three on the Aisle is a well-produced show. It puts three veteran critics (Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Terry Teachout) in the same room as a reliable recipe for good conversation. But it also lacks a voice that isn’t from the well-worn, older, white, NYC-centered perspective. I listen to it sometimes, but it would probably seem dry or foreign to anyone not already a theater wonk.

Token Theatre Friends
American Theatre: don’t leave your theater friends in the dark!

More head-scratching for me is Token Theatre Friends, starring critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís. Tran and Solís are great critics, and it’s refreshing to see American Theatre giving a platform to two younger critics of color, but — and I mean no disrespect, as they’re clearly doing the best they can with the resources they have — the show has consistent technical issues with lighting, editing, sound or camera focus. Sometimes Tran and Solís seem a little sheepish about being on camera, as if they’re not quite sure yet about the show, either.

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I fully acknowledge how hard it is to create a good web series. The CFR tried videos in the past before deciding they weren’t something we had the budget to pull off as well as we wanted to. (You’re all welcome to go back and make fun of how stiff I am in my very first playwright interviews.) But Theater Communications Group, the nonprofit organization that publishes American Theatre, operates on an annual budget of around $12 million. When someone can go on YouTube and find homemade fan-reviews of Broadway shows that are more cleanly produced than what American theater is putting out, it could be time to try a different approach. We want to hear from Tran and Solís, but the bar for video quality on YouTube is quite high, so would Token Theatre Friends instead be better with just the podcast version? Would they want to try some new filming strategies (there are some excellent tutorials from Wistia on how to record high quality video on an iPhone here and here)? Could a professional shoot the show? Additionally, for Three on the Aisle, could something be done to add energy and diversity to their format? Could we find some fun, charismatic folks from outside NYC who could represent regional theater with a show aimed at getting the rest of America excited about the theater playing around them? (While I’m brainstorming, what about a Food Network-style road show, where the host checks out theater hotspots across the country?)

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I know, of course, that answers to these questions are not simple, and any new projects will take work. It’s also not only TCG’s challenge to address declining theater attendance, but one that all of us in the industry have to solve. I asked on Twitter recently for people who aren’t active theatergoers (counted as two or fewer shows a year) to say why that is. Predictably, most said it was either the cost or they had no idea what was playing around them. I think those answers actually say the same thing. As my favorite response put it:

People can’t attend plays that they don’t know exist, especially when the only shows they do know exist are expensive ones that get magnitudes more publicity than anything else. So if we’re talking about theater’s presence online in 2018, one way to improve this is to allocate more resources to social media advertising. I realize that’s a kind of dopey answer, but honestly, it’s the closest thing I think we have as a shortcut for getting content directly in front of people. And it works. Running an ad to promote a page on Facebook, targeted at people whose interests match the brand, can net about one new page like for a bit under every dollar spent. You can add 1,000 new followers to a theater’s page for around $1,000 — something even smaller theaters should be able to afford to some degree. For larger theaters, I’d love to see what would happen if they really doubled down on creating a truly massive social media following. Big regional theaters tend to have follow numbers in the tens of thousands. For a fraction of a percent of their annual budgets, they could double (triple? more?) these numbers.

What would happen if a regional theater invested in a truly massive social media following?

I realize theaters already advertise on Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram, too — though Facebook still has the best rate, in my opinion. I realize many theaters have thought long and hard about their marketing budgets. But I think there’s room to be more ambitious with these online communities if they really want to be. Think of what theater could do with an overall online reach that’s double or triple what it currently is. It’s no magic wand, but I think it’s genuinely worth the investment. And it’s not hard to promote one’s mailing list on Facebook — to make sure page likes translate into the regular stock of patron information.

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In a time when so few people go to theater, I think we have to accept that the former critic and blogger landscape is gone, because there just isn’t enough interest to sustain it. While I appreciate American Theatre’s efforts to get the conversation going again, without more content aimed at younger, more diverse theater newcomers or those outside NYC, the audience will continue to shrink. While many blogs may be gone, the social media that has replaced them can be a far more powerful tool for reaching people than what we’ve ever had before. Let’s not lament the migration to social media and theaters-as-content-distributors. Let’s embrace it.