The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century

by Kevin Brown

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

In a keynote speech addressed to the Association of Theatre in Higher Education in 1992, performance studies scholar Richard Schechner (in)famously declared: “Theatre as we have known and practiced it – the staging of written dramas – will be the string quartet of the 21st century”. We are now more than two decades removed from this provocation. What, if anything, has changed about the state of theatre in the twenty-first century? Is theatre dead, as Schechner predicted, or is it still very much alive and breathing?  In the spirit of retiring “Late Show” host David Letterman’s famous “Top Ten” lists, I submit the following reasons why theatre is still important today:

#10 Human Beings
The performance of theatre is a universal cultural phenomenon that exists in every society around the world. Human beings are the only animal species that creates theatre. Understanding theatre helps us understand what it means to be human.

#9 Self-Expression
Theatre teaches us how to express ourselves more effectively. It develops our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others, improving our relationships and improving the world around us.

#8 Self-Knowledge
Theatre teaches us about ourselves. It helps us understand how our minds and the minds of others work. It helps us to see how the environments in which we live affect who we are and who we will become.

#7 History
Theatre is a great way to lean about history. Rather than learning history from reading it in a dusty textbook, theatre makes history come alive right before our eyes. Theatre makes learning about history fun.

#6 The Body
Theatre reminds us that, even in this ever-changing digital age, there is a human body at the center of every digital transaction. Accounting for the body in the design of the future will help us make technology that works for us rather than us working for technology.

#5 Globalization
Theatre helps us understand people from cultures other than our own. We can learn a lot about people from cultures all around the world by studying their performance traditions. In doing so, we can learn to be less ethnocentric, and more accepting of others.

#4 Self-Empowerment
Performance permeates every aspect of our everyday lives. Power relationships are constructed through performances. Understanding how performances unfold around us can help us to recognize and take control of the power dynamics that affect us.

#3 Social Change
Theatre is a cultural space where society examines itself in a mirror. Theatre has long been looked at as a laboratory in which we can study the problems that confront society and attempt to solve those problems.

#2 Education
Theatre is a great way to learn. Going to the theatre teaches us about people, places, and ideas to which we would not otherwise be exposed. Learning in a theatrical setting makes learning fun.

#1 Creativity
Theatre helps us to develop our creativity. As our education system increasingly puts an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math, we cannot forget the importance of art. Let’s put the “STE(A)M” back in “STEM!”


Dr. Kevin Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has published in Theatre Journal, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, Popular Entertainment Studies, Journal of Religion and Theatre, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Puppetry International, and Kajian Malaysia.

  • MiMi Zannino

    Practical, relevant and right-on target. Every topic and academic discipline can be taught through or with elements of theatre. My one-woman show “Time Travel with Emily Dickinson” contains current scholarly insights that bring 19th century American history and literature to life. Audiences of all ages engage with knowledge through a post-play Q-and-A. People of all ability levels enthusiastically connect with the subject with the guidance of the theatre professionals who have researched and created living history performances. Thank you for the clarity of your awareness. I hope people share your sharp Top 10 points.

  • http://www.juhapekkamikkola.net Juha-Pekka Mikkola

    Very good and precise points, I totally agree. But I still don’t think you totally answered to Schecher questioning (already 20 years ago!) “the staging of WRITTEN dramas. I mean I love the classics and old plays, and truly think they’re under threat not to be performed in the future.
    The things on the list apply to “unwritten” & new theatre as well, even the history bits, so how could we defend the “the canon” of classical repertory?

  • Ihimodu Babajide Charles

    Great to come to terms with the current trappings of our noble profession which many painfully have left for greener pastures. Nothing can kill theatre and performing arts as long as there are human beings, theatre will always be there. THE SHOW MUST GO ON! CHOBOI!

  • JeromeWeeks

    Nitpicky, to be sure, your very first assertion threw me: Theater exists in every society in the world. Really? There’s a wonderful short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Averroes’ Search,” in which the great Spanish Arab translator of Aristotle does not understand two particular terms the Greek philosopher uses. He knows no way to translate them. So Borges gives him a dream in which people in a room watch other people in a room eat without eating, die but then get up and live again. We recognize that what Averroes is dreaming of is a theater, although he doesn’t know that because there was no theater in the Arab world. The terms he was trying to translate but had no word for were ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy.’ In fact, there was no theater in the Arab world until the 19th century. Given this history, I suspect there may well be out-of-the-way societies — New Guinea? the Amazon tribe that was first contacted by us moderns in 2011? — that have not imported or developed this particular art form.

  • http://www.georgehunka.com George Hunka

    Not to rain on the parade, but a little defense of the poor string quartet: http://www.georgehunka.com/drama/out-of-tune/

  • Ken

    The opening paragraph misinterperates Richard Schechner’s comment to mean that theatre of all kinds will be a dead form by the 21st century. What I believe he meant was that “authored” dramas with a strict codified text would go by the wayside, while collectively arranged pieces that are essentially a combination of improvisation and a magpie-like blending of several pre-existing sources would emerge as the norm for performance. What Dr. Brown failed to mention was that Richard Schechner, while an acclaimed performance studies scholar, is also a practicing theatre director, and is perhaps best known in most circles as the founder of the Performance Group, the ensemble that eventually morphed into Wooster Group (after Schechner’s departure)–a company whose stock in trade is the assemblage constructed from various pieces, both high-literary and, pop-cultural.

  • Eric S. Kildow

    These kind of lists just strike me as a mouthful of mush. Seriously, what is the real value of the live theatre? Every item on this list can be fulfilled by other means, many of which are likely more efficient. There are a lot of things that can “make learning fun.” But why should anyone hand us a large space and a few hours of their time? Because we certainly don’t seem to be saying anything substantive.

  • Kser

    Being alive with the actors is an awesome feeling, living in the moment with them. You can read a book by yourself, but why do we still have story telling?

    But i do feel theatre is losing this quality, with all the commercial works and politics. Right now I rather watch an online video of theatre than being there.

  • Chris

    Ever seen the movie Idiocracy? Without art, that’s where we are headed.

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  • Becky Plant

    I love this!

  • gewaite

    Theatre is about as “diverse” as mainline protestantism or Martha’s Vinyard; it’s another thing that white middle/upper middle class, middle aged people like. They think of it like church-they’re usually bored by it but they think it makes them look moral and “caring”, so they go for pretty much the same reasons their great-grandparents went to church 110 years ago.

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  • rogplan

    You must not see much theatre, if this is your actual opinion.

  • gewaite

    I see who’s in the audience and who composes the donor base. The token self-flagellating and self-congratulating that goes on onstage isn’t the whole story.

  • Art

    sad

  • gewaite

    No, but more than a little pathetic for non-believers to have to watch.

  • Aria

    I’m so happy to see an article like this! I only live for theatre, so seeing an article in why it’s important makes me so happy! I have had to try to tell people who say that I’m the only person who cares about theatre anymore that a lot of people like theatre and say that musicals and performing arts are dead why musicals are so important, and this article will help get my point across! Thank you for making this, from an aspiring Broadway actress.

  • Roo

    Ten reasons that could be condensed to seven. However if we accept ten as our working bass we’re still faced with a very expensive low spectator sport and in many instances the cinema does it better.

    In addition to these points, I feel , particularly recently, that I am being, or rather an attempt is being made, to manipulate me into a certain form of social conscience that I am not at one with. When I go to see Edward 11 I do not , and never will, appreciate a woman playing Edward, we’re not talking pantomime here, likewise I will not patronise a play that depicts Shakespeare as a Caribbean female with mobility problems, or ”The Snow Queen as an obvious man” These are all attempts to impress me with a liberal, intellectual, Metropolitan elite view point and I don’t want it in my own leisure time and certainly not at current prices.

    I have been caught out more times than I care to admit with this ” Now sit down children and listen while I teach you how to behave” night-school type approach.If I am forced to particularise I would say, take away the subsidies, including the buildings, sell those, and let the privileged few see how well they can earn a living without considering popular demand. Anyway, I’ve stop going to the theatre, largely because I’ve lost interest in it.Instead I have diverted to classical music and the concert hall, that way I can be far more certain what I’m going to get and I feel I am amidst like minded people.

  • Roo

    You wouldn’t have to watch any of it if I had my way. They’d all close.

  • Roo

    Music is the only art I’m interested in.

  • Roo

    Not to me it doesn’t

  • Roo

    I’d say the string quartet was more worthy.

  • Ifeoma Onyeka

    I believe that people in this day and age may want to go to the theatre is because of the inclusivity of being at a theatre. The audience recieves a different feeling compared to going to a movie theatre. They have a feeling of human interaction and involvement. I also believe this helps others to gain inspiration. Seeing a play at a theatre can spark several creative ideas making one motivated to put those ideas into a great work of art.

  • Trever

    Theatre vaguely exists in some form in nearly every culture, particularly in religious demonstrations and rituals. Performance and theatre are pretty intertwined.

  • Yoshi Maeshiro

    Except for # 6, I cannot see why this reasons wouldn’t apply in a much more significant manner for film or tv dramas, and even the physical body is becoming more and more disconnected from identity as digital media continues to engulf every aspect of human life.

  • Hannah Bingham

    Don’t let anyone trod down on your awesome points! Being an active participant in theater for many years now, I can completely vouch for these points, especially the interpersonal connection not only with yourself but those in the audience and onstage with you. Precise and beautifully written!

  • Sangeeta Kakoty

    This is really funny…..many cultures may not have used the term theatre or drama or tragedy or comedy….but that does not mean these things were not there….every culture has had relegious cults,rituals,choral singing,music in some form etc etc ….what is all that if not theatre???

  • JeromeWeeks

    It’s not theater because it’s choral singing or music. These are generally forms of performance. Of course, a culture may have ‘theater’ without having terms for ‘theater’ or ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy.’

    But it’s really quite simple. Choral singing is not theater, music is not theater, rituals are not theater — UNLESS they involve the basic activity that defines theater: The performance of at least one person IN THE ROLE of another, consciously pretending to be someone else, and the audience recognizes this character as distinctly separate from the performer’s ordinary self. That’s the point of Borges’ story – people in Averroes’ dream are PRETENDING to die, PRETENDING to eat and Averroes can’t understand why anyone would do such things.

    A priest in a religion or cult frequently SPEAKS FOR a god, STANDS IN for a god, but rational, modern and early modern people generally do not believe HE IS THE GOD. Hence, the significance of the Greek myth (or history) of the singer Thespis. He sang and performed on stage but actors today are known as ‘thespians’ because at some point, Thespis became the first stage performer who spoke and sang, not as himself, but as a created character (ultimately, several characters – by changing masks).

    Similarly, street performers all around the world juggle, tell jokes, do pratfalls and magic tricks, etc. And if they’ve painted on a clownish ‘character’ or dressed up as a ‘wizardy trickster’ to do these things, then those are kinds of theater. Otherwise, it’s just juggling or pulling rabbits from hats — they’re kinds of performance. Personally, I’d also argue all theater involves some sort of story (it’s impossible to ‘play’ a character and not, in establishing that character, not deliver a narrative of some kind, even the simplest ‘I’m just a guy sitting in this chair.’)

  • Tanisha Kelly

    A person would go to the theatre to enhance their observation skills, and learn more about themselves as mentioned in the article above, “The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the 21st Century”,meaning to learn how to read art through the use of theatre an. People also tend to go to theatre in order to expand their knowledge in different cultures, people, and/or language. In an age of digital permeation, some reasons that may propel someone to seek out the performance of live theatre to expose themselves to aspects or try new traditions that they aren’t familiar with. I think there may be an inherent value of respect of each and everyone’s culture and views. To add to the inherent value, I do not believe that theatre has any limitations as far as what theatre can present. I believe theatre allows people to express themselves and can become creative or gain some skills in varies ways through ways some may even think is inappropriate to display like nudity. One thing I really believe theatre offer to the 21st Century is more awareness. I believe the 21st Century lacks awareness in all aspects due to the extreme dependency and use of technology. People can pretend to be people online that are totally different, so they don’t have to learn to know themselves truly.

  • Tanisha Kelly

    I totally agree with you on the fact that many topics and academics can be taught through or with elements of theatre. However, I will have to disagree with you on the fact that mostly everyone enthusiastically, or “readily”, connect with the subject of theatre. I believe in order to willing or naturally connect with live performances through theatre, a person has to have a passion for or have at least a liking of theatre or live performances in general. When a person connects with someone or something, that person or thing have to relate to them in someway or help them flourish mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. A person cannot just connect with theatre especially when maybe theatre is not interesting to them or they disagree with some values or doings of theatre.

  • Tanisha Kelly

    I agree with you to the extent the values listed can be taught or exposed to people In many other ways besides theatre, but theatre a performing art that includes, teaches, or show things that people in the 21st century have not been expose to or taught. Theatre is where all playing fields are open, and there are no limitations to what can be said or shown in some cultures that have theatre that may can’t be shown in the movie theatre or that can’t televised. The 21st century mainly display products that sells; in other words, they sometimes choose quantity over quality and show “the people” what’s popular at the time increase sales. The few people that recognizes that may turn to theatre sometimes to get that “unfiltered reality” because they know theatre is one of the forms of historical art that values truthfulness and actuality.

  • Fangzi You

    The first time I came across theater was when I was 16 years old. I went to the theater with my relatives to see the Kun Opera. It was performed by a great number of actors and all of equipment is delicate and pretty. I can tell every actor is full of emotions and the story they showed was so moving that I couldn’t help crying. Everyone in the theater was quiet and concentrated on the plots happening on the stage. For the first time, I felt how magical theater and the opera could be. In such a closed environment, how the actors make the story alive and deliver their emotions to the deepest part of your heart impressed me. Every actor on the stage has a new identity. They do not simply act it, but also live it. In this way, they are digging deeply into themselves and understanding who they truly are. For us audience, when we are watching their performance, we put on the character’s shoes, too. We impose creativity to the roles by what we have been through and what we are looking for. Then a new side of the character is born. All of these are the charms of theater.

  • Marissa

    Hi Tanisha!
    I’m not sure if you’ll see this or not, but I’m using this comment as a source for a research paper, and I need to annotate my bibliography. I was wondering if we could email? I just need to write proof on how you’re a credible source. thanks!