Is the Curtain Closing on Live Theater in America?

The more I think about it, the more cheesed off I get that the 2009 Aspen Ideas festival is going to host a roundtable called “Is the Curtain Closing on Live Theater in America?”

The discussion is with Michael Eisner, founder, The Tornante Company; former chairman and CEO, the Walt Disney Company; trustee, the Aspen Institute, David Ives, playwright, All in the Timing: Six One-Act ComediesAnna Deavere Smith, Pulitzer Prize-Nominated playwright and actress; professor, New York University; trustee, The Aspen Institute, and moderated by Dana Gioia, director, Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts, the Aspen Institute; former chairman, National Endowment for the Arts.

First off, it’s the wrong question to be asking. Secondly, these are not the best people to be answering the question anyway. The question isn’t whether live theater in America is over -which cannot be answered through a simple yes or no- but rather, how is live theater changing (or ought to be changing) to attract new audiences and stay relevant in these changing times? And then they should be inviting the people who are changing the theater – or live performance in general –  to talk about what they’re doing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Ives or Smith, but they’re pretty conventional theater-makers. And I’m not sure what Eisner’s background in live theater is, outside of The Lion King and the rest of the Disney Theatricals properties.

I guess I would just expect more from Aspen Ideas than a recapitulation of the discussions being had at most traditional theater conferences these days. I would expect more talk of innovation, more attention paid to the cutting edge, the forward thinking and adventurous.  Playwright-focused theater-making in the regional theater model is so hopelessly outdated that it is hard to imagine any other answer than, “Yes, the curtain is closing on Live Theater.”  But live performance – that’s a different story entirely.

Not to mention that whether something is dying or not – the real question is whether it should be allowed to die or not. There is something inherently important in people gathering together, in groups, live, to engage with ideas and issues of consequence. Merely being a member of a throng at a Monster Truck Rally or a Corporate Sporting Event is h ardly sufficient. Live performance is a vital component of civic life and must be maintained. If it is not “theater” that’s not the worst thing in the world. But why start with such a negatively phrased question? And why limit your discussion to the narrowest possible understanding of theater? Even the whole “curtain” metaphor is hoary and creaky and outmoded.

Let’s hope the discussion rises above the quality of the question.

Or they could just hire CULTUREBOT to curate and moderate the panel!


3 Responses to “Is the Curtain Closing on Live Theater in America?”
  1. Emily Harney says:

    What’s particularly strange is that they refer to the participants as the “edgiest” of the field– if they were more self aware I wouldn’t be so skeptical of the content of the discussion. I’m with you in being interested to see if the conversation stays within what seems like a rigid definition of theater or if cross/multi-disciplinary, contemporary work that functions differently in the market and engages public culture not just in the theater but in multiple ways gets a mention. Surprise me, Aspen Institute!

  2. Kent says:

    This is typical of a society which doesn’t understand the arts. As philosophical and cutting edge as the Aspen conferance may be, theater is considered irrelevant enough to our cultural identity that most people pay it no attention. I trust that Smith will talk passionately about the “live” experience (and by the way, I wouldn’t call her process traditional), but the others?

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  1. […] Is the Curtain Closing on Live Theater in America? The more I think about it, the more cheesed off I get that the 2009 Aspen Ideas festival is going to host a roundtable called “Is the Curtain Closing on Live Theater in America?” […]

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