January 28, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 3
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Jeffrey S. Miller
Earlier this month (January 2009), thirteen Broadway shows-including hits like Hairspray, Young Frankenstein, Spamalot, Gypsy, Spring Awakening and All My Sons-turned off their lights and closed their doors. They're not alone: major theatre companies across the U.S. are shutting down or drastically reducing the number of shows they produce. In our area just outside of Boston, the 50-plus year old North Shore Music Theatre says it needs nearly half a million dollars by the end of January and an additional 4 million by April to stay in operation.
Though Broadway is not the only measure of theatrical achievement in our culture (some cynically say it is more an economic than artistic measure), it represents what many think of as the pinnacle of the theatre industry, and I choose that word carefully. Taken as a whole, 2008 seemed like another successful year for Broadway with gross income up from 2007. But when so many hit shows closed so early at the beginning of this year, it revealed a more realistic and sobering sign of what is ahead.
Theatre, like so many other industries, is in trouble. And as budgets are cut, the arts will suffer, ironically at a time when we all need them the most.
In his book, The Necessity of Theatre, Paul Woodruff argues the need to defend theater "against the idea that it is irrelevant." He suggests that theater is the art that helps us makes sense out of human activity, gives it meaning and emphatically reminds us "we are all in this together," words which sound vaguely similar to those chosen by our new president in support of his economic stimulus package.
So if the auto, banking and mortgage industries can receive some hefty help from the government, what would the impact be if even a small fraction of the bailout offered to other sectors were invested in the arts? How about an artistic stimulus package?
Imagine what could happen if a sizeable amount of financial support went to mid- to small-level theatres, where the company artists worked to tell and preserve the compelling stories of the people in their communities and address the social issues they are facing. Or if the very best of those works were showcased in various regions around the country at affordable prices-or free-for all.
What if innovative productions were given adequate support to perform in schools everywhere? And what might happen if funding was provided for some of our very best artists to work, say, a year in another region, with a new company, college or community group?
Perhaps we would find new and creative answers to some of the problems facing our nation and communities. Perhaps we'd come out of our video-screen techno isolation and talk to each other more. In the process, we might begin to see what art can teach us about life; we might even begin to value community over commerce.
After all, as theologian Walter Brueggemann noted, "People are not changed by moral exhortation but by transformed imagination."
Granted, some might think that an artistic stimulus package is out of reach, that other needs are greater. But during tough economic times, incredible opportunities for creative solutions often emerge.
Now more than ever theatre artists (and all other artists) need to provoke the laughter of common experience, challenge the failings of materialistic indulgence and celebrate the imaginative possibilities of renewed spiritual awakening, finding innovative ways to make art available to all who wish to participate. We-and those who support us-need to gather together and create work that will speak to the unique needs of our communities. Nothing could be more urgent or valuable. Yes, resources might be slim, but audience hunger for truth-and joy in shared experiences-is ravenous.
More than ever, creative, perceptive and committed theatre artists of faith must produce new works, no matter how difficult it may be. If we don't, I'm afraid Broadway won't be the only place where the lights go off.
Jeffrey S. Miller is an award-winning director and professor and chair of theatre arts at Gordon College. He and his wife, Mary, live in Wenham, MA.