“In the beginning there was the Word.”
The state of the arts is frighteningly dismal. Theatre companies across the country face countless challenges every day as they struggle to keep their doors open. More and more companies are folding under the weight of this struggle. Four Bay Area theatre companies closed their doors this summer, two of which – California Conservatory Theatre and the Willows Theatre Company – had been forces in the community for over thirty years. Other small professional theatres are having to make tough choices in order to optimize their capital gain and patron satisfaction. How do you cut payroll expenses and increase cashflow? Some companies are electing to run shorter seasons, choosing two or three shows that are sure to sell, and throwing all of their resources into making them outstanding productions. Diablo Theatre Company and Contra Costa Musical Theatre (both housed in Walnut’s Creek Lesher Center for the Arts) are producing My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra and Singin’ In the Rain; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music respectively. These company’s ticket prices range from $35-$53. The Bay Area’s larger production houses, such as American Conservatory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre offer broader seasons filled with New York Actors. Their ticket prices, however, start to soar up toward $90 for orchestra seats.
When I go to the theatre, I do my best to acquire an industry comp, or take advantage of any available discounts for ticket buyers under the age of 30. I don’t mind going to the theatre alone. In fact, this is sometimes the only way to get squeezed into one of those last remaining seats for a popular performance. I wouldn’t love the arts as I do today had it not been for family outings to the theatre that began when I was a very young child. I’d like to think that if I had been born in 2005 instead of 1985 my parents would have been able to provide me with the same formative theatre going experiences, but with today’s staggering ticket prices, I’m just not sure. An outing to the theatre for a family of four can easily exceed $400 when you factor in ticket prices, “convenience fees,” and parking. If we are not exposing young audiences to theatre, how are we ever going to change the world?
Modern Physics largely embraces something called String Theory. String Theory proposes that “everything in the universe is composed of tiny vibrating strings of energy. In this view, every particle in your body, every speck of light that lets you read these words, and every packet of gravity that pushes you into your chair is just a variant of this one fundamental entity” (Kaku, 2005). The world and everything in it is made up of infinitesimal vibrations of energy. Ages before the development of String Theory, physicists had already determined that sound travels in waves. Sound travels in vibrating waves. And the universe is simply an enormous set of vibrations. So, one could argue that each sound can change the world.
John 1:1 tells us “In the beginning, there was the Word.” A single word has the ability to set the wheels of change in motion. We see this every day in modern politics. Think of the great orators of history – Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama. They all influenced enormous change through the power of their words. Could it be said that this was not brought on merely by the the text they were delivering, but by the sound of their voices? A powerful, resonant, vibrating voice can be extremely influential. During World War II, the world was gripped by Adolph Hitler’s terrifying speeches. Families from Chicago to Liverpoole would huddle around the radio to listen. Whether or not they understood German, Hitler’s message and intent was made abundantly clear simply through the tone of his voice. A more positive example would be listening to opera. With or without translations, it is impossible not to be moved when listening to Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni sing the finale to the first act of La Boheme. The conclusion is clear. Connect a powerful sound with comprehensible words, and the speaker will hold immense power.
The need for theatre arts has never been greater. Young people today are growing up in an extremely enabling digital age. Everything is instantaneous. There is no drive to work or – horror of horrors! – WAIT for anything. Everything can be accomplished with a tap on a screen of the click of a mouse. Interpersonal communications are floundering as well. Most of my students these days don’t ever pick up the phone to make an actual call. Are we really comfortable with the idea that within the next thirty years some of the most important decisions in the world might be made via text message? We have a duty to teach our young people how to SPEAK. It is not just about finding ways to make the arts accessible to youth. Yes, the high ticket prices and diminishing theatre community are certainly going to make arts access more challenging to families and youth. But before we can even talk about how to make theatre and art financially and geographically accessible to young people, we have to figure out how to make young people WANT the theatre. I haven’t given up on human beings’ innate need to gather together and share stories just yet, but it will be a quickly dying flame unless we find ways to make art more exciting and enlightening. A word is so powerful, yet there are so many uninspired words being produced. If I had my way, I would take every student to see last year’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park. But how do I convince a twelve-year-old to see “This wickedly funny and fiercely provocative play about race, real estate, and the volatile values of each.” when she could go see Bring It On: The Musical “With a colorful crew of characters, an exciting fresh sound and explosive dance with aerial stunts”? There must be a way to combine the two.
Now the appeal must go out to writers, producers, directors, actors, and teachers. In order to see our beloved art form thrive, we must do something to make it viable AND important. It is not enough to simply produce commercially successful spectacle. It must be commercially successful spectacle that has a heartbeat. Otherwise, parents will not shell out $100 a ticket when they could go see commercially successful spectacle at the local AMC for $18.50 a ticket. Flash-in-the pan bubble gum shows are a quick fix, but they won’t make the art form endure. Writers have the create new work that is sexy, relevant, and important. Producers must be willing to take greater risks on new work or new concepts of old work. Directors must find a way to revitalize classics, while also injecting truth and beauty into new works. Actors must approach every project with the reverence they would pay to Shakespeare. Teachers must advocate for their students and help them find their voices. Above all, we must all agree to work together, rather than forever being at odds.
“In the beginning there was the word.”
Let’s make some noise to carry us toward the future.