Monday, October 27, 2008

Looking Ahead to 2009

I've become pretty much obsessed with the election; I'm trying to be proactive and use that obsession to think clearly about what will happen after the election. Specifically, what kind of job am I going to have here at in 2009? What is the New York theatre scene going to look like?

There will be changes, and the most significant catalyst for those changes will not be the election--it will be the economy. The commercial sector of theatre is already taking hits: several long-running Broadway shows have closed or posted closing notices, and I suspect others will join them in the near future. More ominously, several of the new shows announced for this Broadway season failed to materialize due to funding shortfalls. And I'm hearing about fewer new projects aiming for Broadway.

Tourism is likely to become a less lucrative industry in New York City in the near-term. The high-end local market may be in danger of drying up as well, what with upcoming Wall Street layoffs predicted to be in the hundreds of thousands. There are simply going to be fewer dollars available for EVERYTHING, and luxuries like Broadway shows are going to be cut out of people's personal budgets as a result.

Similarly, because entertainment and service industries (and financial industries!) provide daytime employment to many of the folks who make theatre at every level in New York City--and those jobs may become more scarce--there's a risk that we are going to lose artists to other locations. We are all--the Culture Wars notwithstanding--inextricably interconnected.

All that said, the theatre isn't going to croak this time around, any more than it did during the Great Depression. There's a real opportunity for savvy producers to promote commercial theatre so that it's again affordable for mainstream audiences; and there's a real opportunity for smart indie theater producers to offer their lower-priced shows as a viable alternative to mainstream audiences in search of excellent, interesting, provocative entertainment. Readers of and already know that there's lots of wonderful theatre in NYC that costs $20 instead of $120. Awareness of that information needs to spread, because there's going to be an increasing market for good theatre at a reasonable price.

The new economic realities mean that if NEA still exists in 2010 and 2011 (for example) there will be less money available to grantees; government funding is certain to be smaller across the board in the next few years. What will we fund? I am hopeful that funders and nonprofit theatres alike will place their focus on development of local American artists (as opposed to importing successful productions from established companies, either from overseas or elsewhere in the USA). The indie theater sector in New York is the largest concentration of theatre talent in this country, and the work they create continues a long tradition of standards-setting and ground-breaking that goes back to the 1920s. Indie theater is one of America's most important cultural laboratories. We must not lose sight of that when funding becomes scarce, as it will.

Turning back to the election, now: in eight days, we will (hopefully) know who the next president of the United States is going to be. What will that choice mean to the kind of work that American playwrights create in 2009?

It is my hope that a new direction in this country's government will lead to a new direction in our theatre--new inclusiveness, more attention to diversity, and a greater willingness to hear many new voices different from our own. Exploration of forms and genres that challenge the status quo--development, for example, of an American physical theatre aesthetic that rivals the kind of work being created in Europe and Asia, so that instead of booking a martial arts comedy from Korea, an off-Broadway theatre could plausibly book a home-grown Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company production instead.

It is my hope that a renewed emphasis on innovation will find application in the theatre, so that the many new enabling technologies won't just be available to well-funded groups but to the full spectrum of indie theater companies who have ideas about how to use them to make their art more accessible, more meaningful, and more exciting.

No matter who wins the White House, the Culture Wars in this country are not going to disappear, and we need to think about what that means for theatre. It is my hope that a renewal of vigor in this country will be felt in our theatres, where serious and intellectually rigorous work that challenges audience's assumptions about a variety of social and political issues will once again take root and blossom. Artists may be hard-pressed to keep on fighting the good fight if Obama loses this election. But they must!

I want to conclude with a final point about the media. A fundamental shift in how people acquire information about their world has been occuring during the past decade, thanks to the Internet and all the new forms it has engendered. The economic situation is going to affect this in further, important ways: some mainstream outlets will cease to exist; others will cut back their coverage of theatre, an art form they view as marginalized. We need to ensure that responsible and articulate forums thrive, to provide support for theatre, at all levels. That's certainly one of the main things I think about as I ponder--as I mentioned at the beginning of this post--what my job is going to look like in 2009.


Blair Singer said...


I was very sad not to be able to meet you tonight. I have been reading your blog as well as your reviews in preparation to meet you and really admire your passion and intellect for the theater.

I look forward to meeting you in the future.


Blair said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! I hope all is okay with you--very sorry you were unable to do our podcast. We'll definitely get you on another one down the road.

Zack said...

I've been thinking a lot about this situation as well. Many of the companies on and Off Broadway that have depended on large grants and corporate sponsorship in the past will be feeling the crunch in six to eight months as well. I fear these closings of shows in the commercial sector may only be the beginning. I hope that with the absence of commercial theater, audiences will look to indie theater more frequently.

Artists in the indie theater community will have more of a responsibility than ever like their predecessors in the WPA did during the Depression to keep pushing the envelope and telling the stories that need to be told.