How can we change the theatre industry?

Everyone seems to agree that serious changes need to be made in the theater industry. Recently the New York Times printed a series of three articles about some problematic practices in the industry that are coming to light, and in response, a call for some serious changes from many in the theater community. The forced hiatus of the COVID lockdown, while being extremely problematic financially for theatre professionals, also enabled a time of reflection about the negative effects the lifestyle and culture of professional theatre is having on many of its participants. What are the pros, what are the cons, and what is one Christian perspective on all of this?


When I first read the articles written by NY Times chief theatre critic Jesse Green: When Paying Dues Doesn’t Pay the Rent, How Does the Theater Survive?; Shutting the Door on the Hard-Knock Life; and Is it Finally Twilight for Theater’s Sacred Monsters?; my first response was a sense of relief that we were finally allowed to talk about these things rather than take for granted that it’s just the way it is in show-business. I could relate to some of the stories myself, having depleted my life repeatedly to work with certain Industry people I wanted to get in with, or even just to make ends meet at times, the price I was paying typically being assumed to be part of the job. The over-arching theme that needs addressing to me is, why do we take for granted that we should sacrifice so much for our craft? Especially in an industry that doesn’t always pay so well. Green focused mainly on the price paid by actors, but it is true of every theatrical vocation - directors, writers, music directors, stage managers, music copyists, designers - everyone pays a high price, losing sleep, not seeing spouses and children for weeks on end, and regularly sacrificing some mental and emotional health.


Original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.


While the culture of suffering for one’s art was taken-for-granted in the golden era of musical theater, its charm seems to be wearing thin in the post-millennial, and especially the post-pandemic era. The main overall reason given by the Green is more or less that having been away from theater for a year and a half, people are realizing they’re tired of the lack of work-life balance. I have no doubt that this is true. Especially for parents who finally had time with their children during the lockdowns, and people who had been used to the constant hamster wheel of work being forced to jump off for a minute and smell the roses, not to mention, perhaps actually get eight hours of sleep per night. The dream of getting paid to do what one loves simply seems to have lost its drive.


 

What I’m interested in exploring is why - why has it lost its drive? And why were we willing to give up so much before but not now?


 

I have a theory which is still in the hypothesis stage, so feel free to explore and test it out with me. As a child of the ’80’s and ’90’s, musical theater served a greater purpose in my life than just mere entertainment. In my early years It filled my imagination with stories of hope (Annie and The Sound of Music were my perennial favorites as a child), and as I got older and fancied myself as sophisticated and intellectual, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim shaped my worldview, for better or for worse. The same could not be said for the popular music of the day, though I devoured that genre with almost equal fervency. The music of Michael Jackson and Madonna was exciting, but their lyrics were not so probing. Then comes the all-too-common experience I shared with all musical theater nerds - I found my place socially in the musical theater crowd at school, both in high school and college, topping it off with graduate school at NYU for musical theater writing. So of course this, for me, was an industry worth the personal sacrifices.

Age is definitely a factor, as we are far more impressionable in our youth, and now being older, an hopefully wiser, art and entertainment doesn’t play as critical a role in my spiritual and emotional well-being. (Although for me, that is also because my faith in Jesus, found in my adulthood, is the only thing that satisfies my heart now, filling the void I used to try to fill with musical theater.)

But personally, I don’t find many of today’s musicals having content as stirring as the

shows I grew up with--no offense to any current writers or artists out there. Disney and the internet have made it a much more popular form of art/entertainment than it was in the latter decades of the 20th Century. Now it feels less like a treasure trove of creative expression filled with nuanced truths for one to discover, and more like a diversion (with some noteworthy exceptions - yes, Hamilton).

Even the mega-musicals of the 1980’s that were theme-park-like spectacles were original and surprising for their time. Say what you will about Cats, but when I first walked into the Winter Garden theater which looked like an oversized junk yard filled with what appeared to be real human-sized cats, there was a sense of wonder I have not yet seen replicated. Going to the theater used to feel like a life-changing experience. I used to have that expectation every time I’d attend a Broadway show. But I haven’t had that expectation now for many years. So why would I give so much of myself for something that isn’t changing anyone’s life?


I believe there are two sides to this coin - a positive side, and a negative side. The positive side is that there is an idol that is toppling that needs to fall. Theater people tend to idolize theater. Our hearts cry out for it, for whatever reason, and even Christian theater professionals often face the challenge of keeping their faith front and center while putting their heart and soul into whatever show they are working on. It’s part of the difficulty of being called to an industry that requires intense emotional engagement. So in a way, being unwilling to give up one’s work-life balance is a healthy sign that we are no longer looking at the Industry as the source of our self-identity, with the theater community itself replacing our family, and the whole practice replacing our faith.


The flip side of the coin raises the following questions: are we no longer creating work that we feel passionate about and are willing to make great sacrifices for? Can musical theater (or the arts/entertainment industry in general) really change lives? Can it change the world? Some powerful examples of groundbreaking musicals of America’s past prove to me that it can, such as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and yes, Annie. I

would even argue that these shows profoundly affected the psyche of American society. Show Boat, opening in 1927, was the first portrayal in a musical of Black Americans as human beings who suffer on the musical stage; South Pacific (1954) dared to challenge racism before the Civil Rights era; and Fiddler (1964) was considered the first sympathetic portrayal of Jewish culture in a musical, even though the theater industry had been built on the backs of many Jewish men and women. I even have a theory that without the uplifting shows and music of George M. Cohan at the dawn of the 20th Century, we may not have had the spirit and courage, as a nation, to win World War I (“…and we won’t come back ‘till it’s over Over There!”). Do I think musical theater can change the world? Absolutely!


So why isn’t it? You might argue that it still does, that your favorite Disney princess gave you dreams and visions for your future. I loved Ariel in my day, I get it. However, when the working out of every plot requires magical intervention, that doesn’t bring a deep world-view change, it only breeds escapism. There’s no real hope in it. There’s also the danger of the art of musical storytelling being reduced to a platform to express a singular political or social agenda. Tempting though this is, it is also not as potentially transformative as the shared human experience that brings us together rather than polarizes us as a culture. It is not nearly as deep and penetrating to the soul as sharing in the joy of a couple overcoming racism and the perils of war to be together; or the excitement of a young couple overcoming their fears to find love just as an American territory matures into a state; or an orphan being picked out of a crowd to find a home. These are things that can really happen in life, and thus which can produce real hope and real faith.


So I invite us all to wonder at the challenge of what theater really has the potential to be. Maybe it’s time to reflect on how to create great works of theater without idolizing them or the industry we work in. We also need to recapture the vision of what inspired us to love it in the first place. My prayer is that we will find the passion and drive to create works that bring us together as a culture again—one infused with hope and faith, not because we want to escape into a fantasy world, but because there is real truth in what we are beholding.


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