The view from out there

Ben Cameron is executive director of Theatre Communications Group in New York City, which represents 350 theaters across the country that have a combined annual attendance of more than 18 million people. We asked him about people's changing relationship to live theater in an age of digital entertainment.

The advent of such innovations as home video and the Sony Walkman means the artistic experience can be more private now than the performing arts ever used to be. I can watch a movie alone, which I couldn't do 20 years ago. But one impact of technology is that it is heightening our desire for communal and live experience.

The contract between a live-audience member in a space with a live actor is about the exchange. Any actor can tell you that a theater performance can be wildly different from one night to the next. At the same time, we want a forum for responding not only to the artist but to each other, to have a conversation with the people who've been in the same space at the same time and seen the same thing.

For example, almost every theater that has staged the play Wit, about a woman who has cancer, has launched a series of "talk backs" after the performance. Some theaters have reported that 150 people in an audience of 350 stayed for the discussion. The audience's hunger for sharing the experience is profound. They get to talk with the artist about where the work took them -- and that's different from watching a film on a VCR or having an anonymous chat on the Internet.

So our mission in theater is changing. Instead of being in the business of producing plays, we are moving into the business of orchestrating social interactions. The production is but one piece of the work we're called to do. Even theater architecture is beginning to change. It used to be that theater lobbies were about trying to get you as quickly as possible from the front door into the performance space. Now a theater lobby is being seen as a sort of public meeting space. Theaters are starting to install cybercafÉs in their lobbies. One of our leading managing directors said, "I've realized that my lobby demands the same degree of programming as my three official stages do."

The whole new generation of theaters that cater to Generation X have a very different dynamic with their audiences. I just saw a play in Houston, a contemporary version of The Scarlet Letter. The audience was hipper. Members were encouraged to take Coke or beer into the theater with them. They had to pass through an art gallery with an exhibit of paintings by young artists. So seeing that play was actually a multisensory experience.

The sense of possibility in theater is growing, not diminishing. Another group in Austin that caters to Gen Xers, called Salvage Vanguard, has its own bumper sticker that says, "I hate theater." The Gertrude Stein Theater in New York is exploring how virtual technology can be used in the creative product. Actors in cities around the world are using virtual technology to collaborate on a single performance. For example, an actor playing King Lear can be in Tokyo while the actor playing Cordelia is in Munich. Audiences in both places -- and a third audience on the Web -- can watch the whole thing together. There seems to be an explosion of these groups, although some of the artists would be likely to define themselves simply as artists, not merely as theater artists.

It's interesting that we're getting more and more performance artists than ever before working from an autobiographical place. We're in an age where we're interested in biography and individual experience. People want to find their own place in history. There's a real interest in engaging with the past.

With the flush economy has come a resurgence of interest in epic works and classics, including Shakespeare. In an odd way, the speed at which our lives move makes us treasure and hold even more precious the great works of the past. -- From an interview with Susan Greco

For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.

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