A Response to “Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves”

TheStranger.com (a Seattle news source) recently published an article by Brendan Kiley that’s been making the social media rounds. Here’s the link:

Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves

I, too, want to save theatre! And thank you to Mr. Kiley for working for that. But there’s a lot wrong with what he’s proposing, and I’m seeing a lot of support from actors, so I wanted to speak up. Here are my responses:

“Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.”
Sorry, but no way. Shakespeare is one of the few remaining strong draws left to theatre. Audiences love Shakespeare, actors and other theatre artists love Shakespeare. Many audience members and artists fell in love with Shakespeare at a young age and would never have stepped foot in a theatre without him. We love it because it’s brilliant. Should we do new plays? Yes, of course! But please, don’t sacrifice Shakesepeare. I mean, really? You’re advocating for less Shakespeare???

“Tell us something we don’t know.”
I agree with the main point of this argument — do new plays. Yes, of course that’s good. But his notion that we should weaken the unions by allowing union members to perform in non-union houses? Dead wrong. The reason this rule is in place is to force producers to hire union actors and pay them decent wages if they want professional work done. Just like any other union. Actors are, perhaps, the most easily exploited of all the professions. For one thing, anyone can call himself an actor. And actors are so full of passion that they are willing to work long, hard hours for no pay. Show me an electrician, autoworker or Teamster that would work for free. If you’re an actor, chances are you’re already struggling to make a living. Want to guarantee a life of poverty? Then weaken the unions.

(I would make the argument that the actors’ unions are too difficult to enter. This weakens them, too, since there are plenty of talented, non-union actors to be found, and producers can easily cast non-union actors. But let’s strengthen, not weaken the unions.)

“Produce fast, dirty and often.”
I agree that theatre doesn’t need to be big-budget to be good and draw audiences. But it does need to be GOOD. You don’t need million dollar hydraulic lifts and giant, automated lighting grids for good theatre. But so much of what is out there in the off-off Broadway world is just thrown together and amateurish. In fact, if it’s not on Broadway or making big news, people kind of expect a play to suck, that most theatre is probably going to be bad. So, yes, make theatre and make lots of it, but take care! Work hard! Be thorough and thoughtful in your work. Really evaluate what you’re doing, and when you see where it’s lacking, make it better! If you want an example of excellent theatre done without a lot of production cost, go see Bedlam’s repertory performances of “St. Joan” and “Hamlet” off-Broadway.

“Get them young.”
Yes, I do agree with educational programs to bring kids in to theatre early. On the other hand, see my point above about making sure your theatre is GOOD. Sadly, American society tends to see most theatre as a kind of “after school activity.” If it’s not on Broadway, TV or in a movie theatre, most people think of theatre as a good, healthy hobby that will help kids be more outgoing and creative. But when you present it as something to be done for it’s own sake, most folks turn their nose up at that. So, yes, education is good, but only if you’re simultaneously making GOOD theatre for adults, kids, everyone.

“Offer Child Care.”
Sure, a good idea, but see my point above. Also, sounds great if you’ve got the budget, but who’s got the budget?

“Fight for Real Estate.”
Yes, I agree completely. An ongoing problem, and a worthy fight.

“Build Bars.”
Yep, I have no problem with that. Most theatres do, at least, sell beer and wine (even if it’s through a “donation” to get around liquor laws). But by all means, if you can get away with it, make room for the bar, keep it open well before and well after the performance, make it a place where people can just hang out and have a few drinks, if you can. Again, laws make this difficult, but a little creativity can go a long way.

“Boors’ night out.”
Um, no. Look, I’m all for audience participation. But unless you’re working on a specific piece of theatre that works for this idea, the notion of inviting an audience in just to mock and abuse the actors is ridiculous. Grow up. No, I do not want to be in the midst of watching “Streetcar” and have an audience member shout “Stella!” No. Just, no. You know when this works? When your theatre is BAD, not GOOD.

“Expect poverty.”
What? NO, NO, NO! Is this author trying to single-handedly destroy theatre? Yes, you will probably have to struggle for a long time, and no, odds are you’ll never get rich. But nobody wants a life of poverty. Instead, SUPPORT the unions, insist on being paid — something, at least — for what you’re doing. The tradition of exploiting actors and artists runs deep. But we need art in our world, and if called to the carpet, people will pay for it. Stand up! Be strong! Do a production of “Waiting for Lefty” and fight!

“Drop Out of Graduate School.”
Well, I do recognize that many people go to grad school to avoid the real world. So don’t do that. But get your training wherever it’s best. If not grad school, then a conservatory program. Or find some good teachers and study with them in an ongoing way. Again, most theatre below a certain level is packed with people who decided one day, “I’m an actor!” The theatre that results tends to be pretty hard to watch. Learn from people who have learned from people. That’s how to get good. And when you do that, you’ll eventually find that audiences find what you do to be compelling. They’ll actually want to watch, instead of just going to the theatre to “support.”

Look, the way to save theatre is not to water it down with sheer volume and rowdiness. The way to save theatre is to work hard and make theatre good, give audiences good experiences that they will walk away from feeling changed. Practice your craft, get better all the time, and work hard.

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