According to a survey on public participation scheduled to be released on Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts, one out of every three Americans, or about 78 million people, visited an art exhibition or attended a performing arts event in 2012. That figure represents a drop across the board since the last survey in 2008, but the slide was steepest for musicals and plays. For musicals, the 9 percent drop in the attendance rate between 2008 and 2012 was the first statistically significant change in that category in more than 25 years. Straight plays fared even worse, with a 12 percent drop over the same period, a figure that has contributed to a whopping 33 percent rate of decline over the past decade.
The percentage of adults attending opera stayed the same (2.1 percent), and jazz participation went up from 7.8 to 8.1 Ballet sank from 2.9 to 2.7 but dance overall rose from from 5.2 to 5.6. Art museums are also seeing their numbers sink, but those are insignificant differences compared to the drop in theater.
How has theater leadership responded? By trotting out the same old, plaintive we-don't-know-what's-happening-but-we're-pretty-sure-we're-indispensable line that's probably been in circulation since movie theaters began to replace vaudeville palaces.
“At the end of the day, I’m not troubled by it,” said Heather A. Hitchens, executive director of the American Theater Wing. “I believe that all this technology is fantastic, but nothing is going to replace the live experience.”
The problem is, I don't think most non-theatergoers see it that way—watching a movie is a live experience. (What's the alternative to a live experience? A dead experience?) I think she means to say "nothing is going to replace the unmediated experience," but the difference between different kinds of mediation (screen vs. stage) is, again, not that dramatic for most people (for them, acting is acting is acting). And many people, obviously, prefer the mediation of the screen over the mediation of the stage.
But Hitchens is right—some people will always want to see live performances. There just aren't as many of them as there used to be.
I suspect much of that has to do with the twilight of the regional-theater model. For a generation and a half, Americans were largely told that to go to The Theatre meant going to a place like the Seattle Rep or Intiman and fringe theater was just that—on the fringes.
But as regional-theater audiences age and vanish faster than young audiences can replace them, regional theaters themselves are either shrinking, dying, or trying to reinvent themselves. (Over the years, I've heard several artistic directors wonder privately whether it would be better to chop up the resources of their regional theaters into tiny little pieces to hand out to smaller companies.)
Regional theater is just an experiment, one that's not even a century old. And, as Andre Gregory said in the early 1960s, just a few years after the experiment started: "I'm scared that the regional theater, by the time it is mature, will have bored the shit out of millions of people all over the country."
So it makes complete sense that "theater," in terms of the received idea most of us grew up with, is falling away. The question is whether and how "fringe" companies—attic theater, barroom theater, trespassing-in-some-abandoned-warehouse theater—can reinvent what the word "theater" means.
After all, "dance" has unhitched itself from "ballet"—and the survey says that dance is up while ballet is down.