An interesting post from Don Hall this morning--I'll address a few things:
"Mike Daisey thinks the problem lies in the regional theater model (and given his career track, that seems to be in context);"
This is somewhat true, though what's also true is that I talk about the regional theater movement because I'm interested in seeing it reformed, and I believe it's approaching a crisis point which will make real change within it possible for individual theaters that take the leap. I also know there's a lot of power and cultural investment in those institutions, and I believe that convincing (or coercing) them to return to their original missions would raise the level for artists across the country, as that could re-calibrate the bar for what is and is not acceptable for artists.
This doesn't mean that "fixing" the regional theaters is so straight-forward, and the issue of audiences shrinking year after year and diminishing cultural relevance is the largest pressure point that makes the American theater so unlivable. I also suspect that were I given free reign to work for change, what I would personally envision a "regional theater" turning into to survive and thrive would not look very much like regional theaters today.
"One area that it seems we in the theatrospheriums seem to want to avoid talking about is that for most people in the United States, theater is either an esoteric anachronistic past-time for Other People, a once-a-year amusement park ride, or a thing their kids do in school. The handful of us that feel theater is an important cultural contributor is smaller than the number of people who attend Comic Book Conventions across the nation. In essence, for most Americans, theater does not matter in any way whatsoever."
"All the talk of creating a new model to get actors in tribes and thus get paid or shifting the priorities of regional administrators to focus more on the actors than the buildings or how to fucking market your show or build an effective Board is literally whistling at the apocalypse. The source of the fire is a systematic apathy for the art form and we aren't discussing that at all."
This I would partially disagree with—I can't speak for the tribes model too much, but I make the argument in HTFA that it's the lack of investment and faith in artists on a local level that prevents real communities from growing and thriving at regional theaters. One of the reasons I'm so adamant about treating and supporting artists better is the knowledge that informed artists who work within a space are the best people to fight for change in the status quo—and they would then be empowered to be on the ground and create works that engage with their community directly and excitingly, to look for real innovations that get asses in the seats.
One of the reasons American theater has stultified and failed to live up to its potential to be a vibrant art form that has strong cultural resonance is the gelding of its artists. My hope is that by putting power back in the hands of those artists this existing infrastructure can start real innovating again.
So...does theater actually matter? Mike Daisey comments that a major difference between a gambler and an artist is that a gambler contributes nothing to society at large and that art does. Really? What exactly does art contribute if most people (and by "most" I mean Almost Fucking Everyone in America) don't give two shits about it?
Don, you've transposed "art" and "theater". People everywhere are still listening to music, television is better than ever, there are wonderful movies coming out every year and the disruptive power of the internet allows people to seek out and find art that they specifically respond to. Just because theater is failing to be relevant in people's lives doesn't mean we can hide behind the belief that the problem is "all art"—as theater artists the onus is on us to make work that matters, and to reform ourselves to be relevant and engaged. If we can't rise to that challenge, we sink, and we'll deserve to sink.
From my limited vantage point, I'd say that the turning point in the 20th century for live theater was when people no longer had to go out of their homes to see stories told. Live theater had it's Golden Age in the 1930's and 1940's and had been declining in attendance ever since. It ain't so much a fire as a slow leak of interest.
Actually, the biggest drop in theatrical attendance was with the advent of moving pictures about twenty years earlier—within ten years theater attendance had dropped ninety percent. Ninety percent!
This is a good example of a drop that is more than it first appears--because we don't remember the great theater of the very early part of the twentieth century, before this die-off, because most of it was pretty bad. Other than the very best practitioners of vaudeville, most of the plays were hammered shit, and as soon as people had ANY alternative to the live theater, they left in droves.
Contributing to the leak is the insistence that theater is IMPORTANT and CULTURAL but without any quantitative examples of how or why it is important or culturally significant and as theater's reach has slowly been amputated, it has become less and less important or culturally significant.
Agreed, with an emphasis that the issue isn't so much that it isn't quantified, but that the stereotype is that THEATER IS IMPORTANT, which is the opposite of real drama, catharsis, or comedy--it's obligation, and it sucks.
Perhaps it isn't important to put out the fire. I'm a proponent of the "burn it all down and rebuild it from the ground up." On the other hand, I'm more often drawn to Nick's thesis that the very act of producing theater outside the norm - alternative to the models we all know are fucked - is revolutionary in itself - a revolution of one show at a time. And given that my personal yardstick of success (unlike the Prof or Mike Daisey apparently) has absolutely fuckall to do with money or monetary value, I suppose that's revolution enough.
I'm a little chagrined to find my goal of treating artists with respect, empowering them within real communities, and taking support that went toward building funds and using them to make more art happen on stage and beyond has been reduced to a desire for "money".
I think apocalyptic visions always suffer from a persecution or infantalism complex, and sometimes both. There will be no "burning down"--if we don't engage with institutions they will remain, eating up huge resources, doing by and large mediocre work and not fermenting change. Some will fail, but most will find ways to continue, because that's what corporations do—they endure.
I think it's valuable to work outside the existing systems, and many are, but if you're waiting for a wiping of the slate clean it will never come.
I could not live without poetry, which has helped me to live my existence more concretely, more deeply. It has shaped my thinking. It has enlivened my spirit. It has offered me ways to endure my life (I'm rephrasing Dr. Johnson here), even to enjoy it. -- Jay Parini
What a great answer to your own question as to why art matters!