In the coming year, dozens of productions will run in the Boston area. What I find particularly exciting this year is the number of new companies that have debuted or formed this past year. Ours is a scene on the rise, and more young artists are choosing to remain and work in Boston.
Early this past year, I had a disheartening experience that has influenced me and my call to arms in the months since. I sat in the audience of a farce produced by a prestigious regional theatre in the Boston area. I sat with a few friends, all in their early 20’s, all having a wonderful time. This production was stellar, the actors were world class, and the writing…well, my laughs spoke for themselves. I have often been complimented for my laughter. Sometimes, total strangers have approached me to appreciate my unashamed expression. I never feel the need to restrain my emotion during a performance, as I believe we are all part of the experience of seeing live theatre.
That evening, however, I encountered judgment for the first time. An older woman in the row ahead of us repeatedly turned around and glared at me. This perturbed me, but I continued to enjoy myself. She was seated about three seats to my right, one row closer. Later, one of my friends informed me that she overheard the woman complain about me. Evidently, I was “laughing rudely. Can’t he keep it down?”
We often discuss our concerns about the future of the American theatre. Maintaining audiences is a difficult feat, particularly when you consider the lack of a “theatre going” culture among younger generations. We grow up going to the movies or out for dinner as part of our social engineering, and as we become older these traditions are passed on and become habitual. What happens when our current young generations grow up without fond theatrical experience?
Imagine how a young man or woman without an already established love of the theatre would’ve felt that day? Perhaps he or she attended this production on a date, or perhaps because they were invited last minute by a friend with tickets? Whatever the reason, this new potential audience member is now immersed the world of live theatre. They witness world-class actors, and have an experience they did not know was possible. They are on the verge of discovering a new passion, a passion for attending live theatre. They will bring friends, grow older and instill this tradition in their children.
Now instead imagine, in the midst of this experience, he or she receives judgmental eyes from people who don’t share his background. An entire audience of older, caucasian and mostly affluent individuals glares at a young man or woman. Without a previous love of the theatre, without a sense of belonging, how would that individual feel? Were I not a theatre artist myself, I could’ve been that man. There exists a myth that theatre is an art form of the elite. This is not true, and we cannot let it be true. Since this experience, I’ve talked to others with similar stories. We all assume these are isolated incidents, but I worry that they are more common than we realize. We need to cultivate a welcoming culture for our potential audiences. We can’t judge those who wish to express themselves freely. That is the death of the American theatre.
But I have nothing but optimism. These incidents are few when compared to the sheer number of good, welcoming experiences I’ve had attending theatre of all scales and sizes. The best method to prevent the decay of our theatre is to remain vigilant and constantly welcome new artists and audience. Think proactively, towards the future. Not just one year, but ten years into the future. And as young artists, the best work we can do for the future is to create our own theatre in addition to the theatre created by those who came before us. When the young artists lose their ingenuity, the art will die. But luckily for us, young artists will always strive for more.
As we begin the New Year, I look to my friends, my collaborators and to the people I haven’t met yet with the knowledge that we get it. We’re all in this together and will work to reinvigorate the theatrical culture of our communities. I look to another year of collaboration between fringe and professional, community and regional, and theatre of all kinds.
Happy New Year!