Sunday, January 14, 2007
The Fabulous Invalid and Robust Alternatives
It's been well over a week since I last posted; those pesky classes have been keeping me busy, believe it or not (we just finished the first week back in classes at Queen's University). Anyway, by way of making amends, here're a few observations I discussed at some length in my first class of the new year.
Naturally, the theatre changed a great deal over the last century, and it can be interesting to look at some of the specific ways in which this change has occurred and to consider the reasons for and implications of the changes. Consider the example of Broadway, "the fabulous invalid":
In the 1927-28 season, there were 264 new productions that opened on Broadway.
In 1930-31, only four years later, it was down to 187 new productions.
By 1940-41, it was down to 60 new productions.
In 1967-68, it had not dropped much further, for there were 58 new productions.
But by 1989-90, there were only 35 new productions.
Now, this may look like a straightforward if disheartening tale of decline. But we need to look further past those simple numbers and think about the explanations. We can interpret some of those numbers fairly plausibly by saying, for example, that in 1927 the “Talkies” had come along and in 1929 the Great Depression, and that these had taken a bite out of the audiences. In the 1930’s when the Great Depression was in full swing, radio had become the central medium. Yet, by that token, it seems odd that after television took off in the 1950s, Broadway should still be doing so well near the end of the 1960s. To be sure, one might answer that this was also a time of great prosperity, and increasing leisure time and tourism, but still, the subsequent decline through the 1970s then becomes a little confusing at first glance.
But one Broadway show is not exactly the same as another, and it's interesting to see what happens to the breakdown of the genres of Broadway entertainment. Those 58 new shows of 1967-68 comprised 14 musicals and 44 non-musicals. But those 35 new shows of 1989-90 comprised 12 musicals (of which 6 were revivals) and 21 non-musicals (plus 2 “special attractions” which fit into neither category). So while the number of musicals was relatively undiminished at that point, the non-musical shows were still in decline. But a glance at the theatre listings of last week's Sunday Times (7 January 2007) showed that there were 35 shows currently playing on Broadway (four of the thirty-nine theatres were dark while they were in turn-over). Of these, 27 were musicals (a full 23 of which were either revivals or at least two seasons old), and only 8 were non-musicals (4 of which were revivals). Now that is a very significant change in the character of Broadway.
Now, one of the related stories to this transformation of Broadway lies in the demographic shift which has occurred in the audiences---whether this is cause or effect is, I am sure, impossible to say for sure. It was reported in the New York Times last month (and thanks to Michael Murphy for pointing this out to me) that "The latest demographic report from the League of American Theaters and Producers, the marketing umbrella agency for Broadway, shows that during the 2005-6 season, 19 percent of Broadway theatergoers were from New York City, down from 31 percent in 1980-81" ("The Great White-Bread Way," NYT, 10 Dec 2006). So Broadway has really become mainly a tourist attraction. It is no longer "New Yorkers' theatre" to which others visit. It is now a theatre principally for others.
Meanwhile, the traditional (and by traditional, I am thinking back as far as Classical Greece) use of theatre as a unifying and defining event for a specific community has been displaced from Broadway to the outlying regions of North America. Consider the example of Canada, where, prior to that watershed 1967-68 Broadway season, we had a handful of really important theatres: those that had been established in the 1950’s, including the Stratford Festival and Theatre du nouveau monde; and a few others that had been added in the 1960’s, including Shaw Festival, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Vancouver Playhouse and so on. But none of these produced much Canadian drama to speak of. The theatre in this country was, largely, a foreign theatre.
But 1967-68 was a watershed season in Canada for other reasons, for it closed off the national centennial celebrations and left the country with a strong interest in nationalism to fuel theatrical aspirations. And it was in the years following, we saw founded in Canada an immense number of important theatres which made a huge contribution to the national drama, such as: Confederation Arts Centre, National Arts Centre, Great Canadian Theatre Company, St Lawrence Centre, Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto Free Theatre, Blyth Festival, Thousand Islands Playhouse, Alberta Theatre Projects, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Globe Theatre, Theatre Calgary, Persephone Theatre, Belfry Theatre, and so on.
And it is here, in these smaller regional theatres---not just in Canada, but in the United States too, of course; though that is somewhat outside my expertise---that the traditional functions of theatre are being upheld.
I've got more thoughts about this, but no more spare time to explore them at the moment, so I'll have to leave off there.