“There seems to be a wide divergence of opinion today as to what the theatre really is. Some say it is a temple, some say it is a brothel, some say it is a laboratory, or a workshop, or it may be an art, or a plaything, or a corporation. But whatever it is, one thing is true about it. There is not enough fine workmanship in it.”

Robert Edmond Jones
The Dramatic Imagination, 1941
There is a very sad truth that most people who work in the theater will speak of scanty, or not at all and that is the fact that most of the people in America and perhaps the entire western world think that theater is extremely boring. We can speak all we like about suspension of disbelief and “people in a room together to tell a story” but this will not change the fact that most people would rather watch the evening news than go to their cities’ theater.

Some say that the theater of today is far inferior to theaters of the past, because then the theatre did not have to compleat with television and movies and received the bulk of the publics entertainment dollars and (perhaps more importunately attendance.) This argument loses some strength because large sums of money don’t always make for the best artworks. In fact, it seems that a diverse and open market is the best way to spawn artistic innovation. For example the low cost of printing CDs and new distribution methods such as MP3s have infused local bands with new vitality. If you speak to any two young people you will find that they rarely have anything in common in terms of musical taste. Is the music better? No necessary, the critic might say, but to the individual the opportunity to find a personal musical nook is greater than ever. The choice of what to listen to isn’t just a matter of relieve boredom it become a means for free expression. So perhaps rather than being too small the market for theater may not be diverse enough.

But size is related to diversity. So, perhaps the diversification the entertainment market has left theater with a smaller share, and this has lead to a less diverse selection of theatrical style; and thus a cycle of decreasing interest from audiences.

Some people say our culture has changed in such a way that a modern audience is now unable to understand the value of the theater and the age of theater as a popular artform, for better or for worse, is over. This last idea becomes more appealing if you consider that cultural evolution is not necessarily equivalent to positive progress. The loss of theater may have been more of a mutation spurred on by increasing returns than result of general advancement in the arts.

But to speak of theatre as dead is to be perhaps a little too hasty. Theatre exists quite healthy as a entertainment and validation for the richest americans. Theatres never do well when there is a slump in the economy, as the most frivolous of least fragile of extraneous pleasures is frequently the first to go. And so the argument goes that we simply can’t afford theatre for everyone. Theatre some would argue is meant for the elevate and to expect the masses to appreciate it is to ask to far to much of a mind educated by television. Though this argument seems a little unconvincing when you consider that for most americans their first experience with theatre come not from a broadway playhouse but from a church or school play. community productions may lack professional polish but at least all of the creators tend to care about the product they’re creating.

This leads to the argument that theatre was never meant to be a business. That the moment theatre became a product like a bar of soap or a car it lost some intangible quality that made it relevant to its audiences on a community level. So perhaps this relative irrelevance is the source of the popular disinterest in our work. The lack of serious social commentary in the arts may be a tragedy but it is not the reason theatre isn’t popular anymore.

Perhaps theater lovers overestimate the value of live performance over spectacle and the ability if the television to show us anything is of far greater importance to audiences than being in the room with the people who are telling a story or watching a live event unfold. Though people seem too seek shared experiences no matter how realistic the spectacle static mediums becomes. The sudden explosion in the Gaming market in recent years may be linked to the fact that many games are design for two more people, frequently gamers watch each other play, in fact game designers are spending more and more time thinking about the experience of the people who watch the game. So human intimacy is still at soothing of a premium. Perhaps the theater has failed exploit it’s most unique characteristic more fully.

Problems of this kind are rarely reducible to a single cause so it seems most likely that the real reason people no longer like theatre is some combination of poor productions, poor use of the unique qualities of the theater and cultural change.
Rebuttal from a struggling playwright (me):

Theater is not boring. Bad theater is boring. Good theater does bring a level of intimacy to the performance that cannot be translated on a screen or t.v. It brings one in closest contact with the storytellers without (hopefully) spoiling the story. There is little or no distance in theater--not the kind of distance found in film or television. You are right there as it happens. Each performance is slightly different; each has its own idiosyncracies.

Theater need not be expensive. I often go to the theater in Philadelphia, and unless I'm seeing a large-budget production, I can go for less than $15. Sure, it's more expensive than a movie (not by much), but what extra I pay is worth it for the experience. I have no interest in the ridiculous Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacles, or Broadway revivals. I can easily go see competent, exciting productions in smaller theaters in my own city, and get much more out of them.

Is there a lot of bad theater? Yes. Are there a lot of bad movies? YES. Is there worse television? Do I even have to answer that? People's attention spans are shorter; they crave car chases and bad sex (i.e. there is little that is erotic, but much which is pornographic). Theater tends to shy away from this, and try to tell a story (good theater does, anyway).

Theater isn't boring; it's the audiences that got boring, which you even allude to, pastcat.

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