There's been much hubbub reacting to National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman's comments about the supply and demand of American theatre. He said that, based on imbalanced growth of arts participation compared to arts events, perhaps there is too much theatre for too little interest in America.
Many of my colleagues, including Mr. Landesman, are doing a fabulous job of continuing this conversation (follow at #SupplyDemand). So I will only add a potentially impossible but nonetheless relevant element.
We don't need less theatre, but could we benefit from fewer buildings? Abundant but concentrated theatrical events would focus and share audiences while focusing and sharing resources for artists. Many theatre companies, but fewer disparate locations for theatre to take place. This would also help with the frustration some artists feel when they can't get a decent paycheck but the floors and brass handles of many institutions are consummately attended to.
If we had fewer and shared spaces -- could we spend more time and money on the art and less on the maintenance? More attention spent gathering theatre audiences as a larger whole and less on the redundant scrambling for individual subscribers? We don't want to combine companies (which could snuff out the wild and wonderfully unique) or reduce programming. But what about investing in theatre hubs that could streamline the administration of theatre, not theatre itself.
In places like ZSpace in San Francisco, Theatre Row in New York City and 7Stages in Atlanta, this already happens. Theatre blend. Many companies/events share a house and inherently share interest. People come for one show, see ten other shows advertised in the lobby, and notice ten other companies. Now audiences know what's going on and where it will be going on in the future. It's always easier to come back to a place you know than to find a new one.
This digitalized, hyper-informed country where convenience and easy navigation are key, teaches the Performing Arts that it's never about less content but less confusion. Not less choice, but easier access to every choice. We should be investing in communal strategies to make access to the arts as easy, understandable, and attractive as possible. Which does not mean less money for art. It means investing in those elements that can be shared among us all so that the truly provocative, profound, and innovative can shine as brightly as the expectedly well-funded.
We may not be able to have major houses throw open the doors to nomadic companies just yet. And young, nomadic companies may not want this either. But perhaps we can have more discussion about partnership, sharing, growing as a community, maximizing space and resources, encouraging innovation in every aspect of theatre-making, and augmenting theatre's natural ability to gather people of like minds and different minds into the same room.
Money is always a problem. Being relevant requires a constant attention. But when money is bestowed on the few, it seems dangerously close to choosing what's relevant for us.
Without fresh vision and the shock of new ideas (happening most frequently outside or on the edges of hallowed institutions), the center will not hold. The audiences will die off, abandon hope, or feel that theatre is not "for people like me."
We need as many writers, actors, directors, mission statements, mailing lists, arts advocates, producers of new plays, arts classes, badass productions, and avenues for fresh ideas as we can get. What if all that fit in three easy centers in your city, not 30?