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The Cultural Recession: Live Theater on Life Support

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The recession has gone legit: Broadway theater is having trouble finding backers, seats are empty, shows are closing early, and straight shows are in more trouble than musicals are.
Is it natural selection? The faithful theatergoer skews older, and right now that dependable demographic is fairly obsessed with its shrinking nest egg, reluctant to invest over a hundred dollars in an orchestra seat when the retirement account is much smaller than it used to be.

And the iPod generation generally considers the supposed virtues of live theater to be pretty old-school. Pay a lot of money to watch actors deliver lines in a universe where a big special effect is a bunch of people shaking tall branches ever so slightly, as though they were trees twisting in the wind? It hardly seems like value, in a world where they can download 'Mad Men' onto a screen so tiny that makes a postcard seem like a vista.

Nobody has any money, and many of us have come to define a valuable life experience as something that involves a battery. Not exactly a nurturing environment for the theater.
Broadway has tried for years to snare the next generation by showcasing television actors in classic plays, but these days even celebrity isn't a sufficient draw: A twenty-something who either just lost a job or has one that pays so little it's hard to tell the difference is not going to be seduced by face time with a star, not when there's high-definition TV. Jeremy Pivens in 'Speed the Plow' or Jeremy Pivens in 'Entourage,' playing variations on the same theme? 'Entourage' means money left over for lattes.

Disney made a dent this season with a kids-go-free promotion, a formula that cuts the cost in half for a parent who wants to take a child to see one of the Disney shows that have colonized Times Square theaters - and trains the next generation of theatergoers in the process. Of course, they may grow up wanting to see nothing but Disney musicals, which spells a different kind of trouble for the theatrical arts, but what if other shows followed their lead with a policy that embraces the non-reproductive, post-pubescent theatergoer as well?

A bargain basement scramble a half-hour before showtime, with prices even lower than the TKTS booth in Times Square, might convince consumers to buy up some of what the New York Times referred to as "swaths of empty seats." Two-for-one for grown-ups, discount night on whichever night is traditionally the leanest, promotions, contests, anything that turns a serious investment into an impulse buy - there are all sorts of ways to keep the faithful faithful and convert the financially-strapped younger generation.

Hard times require radical solutions, and wouldn't it be nice to be able to go to a play without debating, "'August: Osage County' or the gas bill, 'August: Osage County' or the gas bill, what shall it be?" I mean, all that's at stake is the future of American theater. Shouldn't we be willing to go out of our way, on both sides of the box office, for that?

The gleeful websters who are busily singing, "Ding, dong, print is dead" will likely sneer, because isn't theater really what people did until they figured out technology? Theirs may be the prevailing wisdom, but I loved those imaginary trees, and I worry about the rush to conflate progress and technology. I love my cell phone and my laptop and the iPod I inherited from my daughter, too, but imagine the future as we hurry to discard the past: No newspapers, few books, barely any legitimate theater, all of it replaced by screens of various sizes and portability. It feels a little thin.

Maybe we ought to take a moment - a moment, that's longer than the nanosecond that is the national attention span - and reflect - that's a silent moment when we think things over with all of our electronic accessories turned off - on what vestiges of the good old days we might want to keep.