The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Breakthrough Play

by D.W. Gregory

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Breakthrough Play

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute. We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

When we talk about innovation in theatre, we cannot get far away from this reality. For no matter how soaring your artistic ambitions, we all know that it takes dollars to keep the doors open. Marry that statistic—that 9.7 percent—with the fact that the arts in general have witnessed a dismaying collapse in corporate funding since 2007, and it should come as no surprise that many artistic directors are more preoccupied with finding the next hot, hip, hit play—preferably a three-actor comedy, unit set, thanks—than with loftier notions of where their theatre companies fit within the cultural conversation. It is hard to have any conversation when you cannot keep the lights on.

But when fear is the driving force in decision-making, it is also difficult to talk about innovation of any kind, or pause to consider whether there might be a correlation between eroding audiences and the consistently safe nature of programming choices.

So we find ourselves at a strange place, makers of theatre for shrinking audiences, who by a lot of measures are not so eager for innovation either. Until they see it. And they realize they are seeing something revolutionary. The problem is that if you rely on the audience to tell you what they want to see, the chances are they will tell you about things they have seen before. It’s up to the makers of theatre to envision what no one has seen before—and put it forward with courage.

When I think of innovation in theatre, I think of a man whose playwriting was so strange to its time that it required the creation of an entirely new approach to acting to realize it on stage. That man was Anton Chekhov, and the production was an outright disaster. Why? Because the actors and directors who tried to stage The Seagull were working from a 19th century paradigm. And Chekhov had leapt ahead of them into the 20th century.

The theatre that Chekhov knew was a theatre of popular appeal and recycled plots, in which actors played stock roles over and over. Under that model, it was possible to stage a new play effectively with only four rehearsals—one play was not all that different from the other, anyway. See Boucicault, Dion, for details. This method did not work with The Seagull, however, because the real concerns of the play weren’t taking place in the dialogue but in the sub-text, a term completely foreign to the stock actors of the day. In the world of 19th century melodrama, characters said what they meant and meant what they said, with a series of standard gestures for emphasis. It was an acting style invented for huge houses—2,000 or 3,000 seats—to which the masses flocked for familiar and comfortable comedies and romances filled with spectacle and passion.

Chekhov rejected all of that. Where the melodrama delivered unthinking emotionalism, naturalism and its progeny served up social critique. Instead of grand gestures, naturalism offered internal transformations. Pre-occupied with the mundane business of ordinary lives, lived out in quiet desperation, Chekhov aspired to the kind of social confrontation that most people never seek—audiences went to the theatre for escape, not a reflection on the follies of the ruling class. And yet, within a few years, this approach to playwriting, bolstered by Stanislavskii’s reinvention of acting, became the new paradigm for Western theatre.

It is hard for us, today, to fully appreciate how radically this work shifted the Western stage, not just aesthetically, but in its very business model. For when melodrama left the theatre, so did the mass audience. And the rise of the small theatre movement meant that the nonprofit theatre by definition could never be self-sustaining—there simply are not enough bodies in the seats to offset the fixed costs. This in turn created a reliance on donations to bolster ticket prices and put the theatre in a position of indebtedness to wealthy individuals, foundations and corporate sponsors.

The result of all of this has been a remarkable lack of nerve in carrying out the once brave mission of social critique. What is produced on mainstream stages, by and large, affirms the assumptions and sensibilities of the audiences—and more to the point, of the patron underwriting the production.

Now we are living in a time of great upheaval—a great reordering of the American economy and with it, our sense of ourselves. We are in turmoil because the future seems so uncertain. As we lose audiences we blame ourselves; we cry out for new ways of telling stories, a new theatrical language to speak to a new generation. And the cry is infused with a bit of panic. But there are other reasons why we are losing audiences and they have nothing to do with theatrical language. The bitter fact is that average wages have been declining for more than a generation. The rise of the two earner household hid this trend for many years, but the Great Recession accelerated it, knocking a huge hole in the gut of the American middle class. This has had a profound impact on the arts, and it is not just theatrical attendance that is suffering. The art museum, the symphony, the movies, the opera—even popular music has taken a hit. Is it because Americans are no longer interested in the arts? Or is it that too many Americans now have to choose between a theatre ticket and a meal ticket.

So when we talk about innovation in theatre, we need to consider the cultural shifts around us. Realism took hold as it did because it arrived at a moment when the Western world had begun to radically rethink the assumptions of previous generations. Melodrama was written to affirm the satisfied; naturalism came to inflict doubt. This new approach went mainstream because it met the audience at its cultural crossroads, when an old social order was dying and a new one was rising to take its place. Rather than being mired in the past, realism reflected the new way that audiences had begun to perceive and process their world.

Now we wait for another transformation, one that will reflect more closely what it is to live and struggle in a post-9/11 America. The old assumptions about American dominance and power have fallen away, but we are still working towards a new position on the world stage. What new way of telling stories will reflect the new assumptions of our age? And when this new form arises, will the theatrical establishment embrace it—or declare it unproducible because it requires approaches to acting and staging and design that have yet to be invented? If history is any guide, this ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting innovation in playmaking will not be the next big hit.

It will be a colossal failure.

Let us pray that it fails big—and that the splash is heard around the world.


A resident playwright at New Jersey Rep, D.W. Gregory writes in a variety of styles and genres, from historical drama to screwball comedy. Her most produced play is RADIUM GIRLS, about the dialpainters poisoned on the job in the 1920s. Other works include THE GOOD DAUGHTER, OCTOBER 1962, and MOLUMBY’S MILLION, nominated for Philadelphia’s Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play in 2011. She is currently working on a new drama, A GRAND DESIGN, to be presented as part of The Locally Grown Festival at Theatre J in Washington, D.C., in June.

  • Jeff McMahon

    “Melodrama was written to affirm the satisfied; naturalism came to inflict doubt.” Great paragraph and summation of a lot of theatre history in a short space. Thanks!