Monday, December 15, 2008

The state of the stage

The National Endowment for the Arts has released its first report on nonprofit theatre in the United States and the findings are sobering, although they're hardly a revelation to anyone who's spent any time in a theatre audience.
  • The percentage of the U.S. adult population attending non-musical theater has declined from 13.5 percent (25 million people) in 1992 to 9.4 percent (21 million people) in 2008. The absolute size of the audience has declined by 16 percent since 1992.
  • The number of adults who have attended musical theater has grown since 1992, but remains largely constant as a percentage of the population.
  • Attendance trends do not seem primarily related to ticket prices. Statistical models predict that a 20 percent price hike in low-end subscription or single tickets will reduce total attendance by only 2 percent. These data suggest that other facts are likely affecting the demand for theater.
  • The number of nonprofit theaters in the United States has doubled over a 15-year period. In 2005, there were 1,982 nonprofit theaters with annual budgets of at least $75,000, up 100 percent from 991 in 1990.
  • Among the top ten states with the highest per capita concentration of theaters are Vermont, Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Connecticut, and Minnesota.
  • Although theaters continue to cluster in high-population states, the number of theaters in small and mid-sized population states has grown substantially. From 1990 to 2005, the sharpest growth rate occurred in Nevada, Arkansas, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Mississippi.
Even though there are more theatres today than there were 15 years ago, they apparently haven't had much success in attracting an audience, especially for plays. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans went to see nonmusical theatre this year. And the problem doesn't seem related solely to ticket prices.

Even if we weren't in a recession, I do think cost is a factor. I saw a play yesterday for $15 but I think even that's too much for people who are used to spending much less on a movie or are already paying for plenty of drama on television through their cable bill. And you'd have to spend far more to attend a touring production of a Broadway musical.

But a bigger factor is that we're simply not a culture of theatergoers anymore. I hardly know anyone, outside of my blogger friends, who goes to the theatre. Maybe, if I think of all of my friends, there's one or two couples who go semi-regularly and a few who might go to see a special musical if it comes on tour. As for the rest well, honestly, I don't know if they could be enticed at any price.

Can anything be done? Would better plays help or more marketing? Is American drama a lost art form or has it simply migrated over the past half-century to movies and television? Think about it - how many people can even name an American play written over the past 25 years? (Unless it was turned into a movie, of course.)

This is kind of like the discussion about soccer - plenty of kids grow up playing it in the United States but it's never translated into a big audience for the professional game. Plenty of kids get involved in theatre in high school or college, but it's never again going to be a form of mass entertainment in this country.

So while the NEA report is interesting, it's just a story we've all heard before. Maybe we should simply resign ourselves to being a niche and leave it at that.


Amanda said...

I grew up around musical theatre, regular theatre, symphony performances, operas, and choral performances. My dad was a trumpet player in the symphony, and my sister was a ballet dancer, so we were surrounded in classical and musical stuff.

That having been said, I never was a big fan of musicals. I like regular theatre, but the musicals always struck me as slightly off. I never got into them. Maybe it's just because so many of them get performed with super-happy songs for miserable plots and the singers smile the whole time, and I can't deal with the contrast in emotion. Maybe it's because I tend not to like the type of music used in musicals. I don't know. Either way, since leaving home in '97, I haven't been to a musical. I've been to a couple other types of performances, though not nearly as often as when I was growing up (tickets aren't free anymore, haha).

Esther said...

Hey Amanda,

Thanks so much for your comment. I certainly understand that with three young children, cost is going to be a big factor.

In terms of musical theatre, there have been some shows recently with more of a rock 'n' roll based score, like Spring Awakening and Passing Strange. You could always try getting the CDs from the library and see whether you like them!