Right Reverend Host: "I'm afraid you've got a bad Egg, Mr Jones!"; The Curate: "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!" True Humility by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 9 November 1895.

Theater and the Curate’s Egg

In trying to understand the barriers that the privilege pipeline in theater creates systemically, it is important to acknowledge that it is not all bad. It is like the Curate’s egg. Since I personally believe that art itself is class blind and so belongs to all of us, it stands to reason that the privilege pipeline has produced some wonderful theater by the privileged class. That is the good part of the egg.

It is, however, a fact that the barriers created by the privilege pipeline, suppresses the voices of the ‘lower’ classes. It has also had a profound effect on audience development and the slow bleeding out of theater audiences. This is undeniably the bad part of the egg. 

To those wondering what I mean by the privilege pipeline, in part it is the predominant historical ‘whiteness’ of theater. This has been changing gradually, but it is still effectively apartheid. White theaters ‘include’ by color-blind casting. Black theater emerges to create a platform but still struggles to find a broader audience (and I would posit that no one needs to see black actors telling black stories more than white people).

The privileged pipeline has, however inadvertently, built a walled garden for the privileged class and their progeny. A case in point: In NYC in the 70’s an Actor could work part time to support themself while attending classes and auditions and sometimes working onstage – they might have been living in a crumbling building but they could, for the most part, eke out a living while they struggled. Today? That is no longer possible. The story of the aspiring actor from the midwest who moves to NYC to make it big is no longer a dream, it is a fantasy.

This affects young artists who may have talent – they may even be accepted into prestigious theater programs, but unless they have generational wealth or make really good connections while at school to generational wealth and power, they have very slim chances of breaking thru and more often than not, end up back in their communities trying to live, pay loans and end up volunteering so they can make art.

Sadly, this is true of almost all industries who offer internships. The only graduates looking to intern in NYC, or DC for example, are from generational wealth. The privilege pipeline can be seen at work most painfully in the field of journalism.

I read an article recently about how audiences haven’t changed. I disagree wholeheartedly with that assertion. Raise your hand if you have ever served on a board of a theater discussing dwindling audience attendance BEFORE the pandemic. The theater audience we seem to be hopelessly tied to cultivating is aging and has been all along. We lost many of our most enthusiastic supporters during the pandemic. For decades, they were the audience we could count on to buy season tickets – which led us down the path of tailoring our seasons for them. Supply and demand model. Post pandemic, the survivors are understandably cautious about mixing in public places again – so many lost friends and family and that is a very real concern for the most vulnerable among us. They do come out to see their favorites but not with the same level of enthusiasm. 

In an ironic twist, most theater companies have come to depend almost entirely on social media for promoting their work but they have not figured out how to effectively manage engagement or ‘listening’ skills. In this useful guide, Ethar El-Katatney, a news product strategist at Bloomberg, created a guide to one of the more coveted audiences: Gen Z. “Attracting Young(er) Audiences: A Guide for Small(ish) Legacy Organizations”.

It is my belief that we simply kicked the can down the road and ignored the impact of having the world in your pocket. The younger generations who we should have been working to grow for decades, now can watch anything they want, whenever and wherever they want. The good news is that there is still time to make changes that attract them but we have to offer them something beyond passive entertainment.

The Walled Garden

The cost of making theater: 

  • To get into the industry as a writer, producer, administrator, business manager, etc. (anything other than performer), you are at a significant, nearly insurmountable disadvantage if you do not “network” by taking low-paying jobs and internships, or even unpaid internships, early in your career. Who can afford these? Those with means already. That self-selects out a lot of non-elite voices from the start, and excludes those people from the path of becoming a decision-maker.
  • To become a performer, you have to have the financial means to support yourself while being “out of work” or working a low-income, flexible-hours job to hustle, promote yourself, go on auditions, etc. Who can do that? Those with means already.
  • Even for schooling, many theatre BFAs require a high level of experience and skill already, plus expensive application fees, possibly flying out for live auditions, etc. Who has the money for years of classes and fees?
  • Who has the money to produce a show? It takes a lot of money to back a show, and investors have to fit certain wealth and risk criteria because of how high-risk the investment is. So whose preferences are disproportionately represented? The wealthy elite (and the demographics that intersect with it).
  • To rent a venue in most cases requires an insurance policy that includes liability coverage. The average policy is 1k.
  • You have to spend money to find and apply for grants. If you need to hire a grantwriter, this is an additional expense.

A recent study of the cost of volunteering for a single production in CT, shows that the value of volunteers per production comes in around $12000 per person when mileage is considered (and this does not include hours that producers log for a show).

Ego is also a very costly expense. If everyone creates their own theater to suit themselves in a vacuum, there is massive duplication of set building and subsequent waste or storage, costumes, props, etc. and while some individual companies are better at sharing resources than others, it isn’t enough to offset the waste in the system.

The cost of attending theater regularly is a barrier. The average price of a Broadway ticket is now $300+. New reporting finds that technology has created new barriers to the traditional audience. Most web based ticketing software is difficult to navigate and leaves many feeling that their personal information is at risk. 

Building a new Brick and Mortar theater? This can only be accomplished anymore with significant donor commitment in the millions of dollars.

As a group of theater makers, we are evaluating and opening up a dialog in the community to find solutions in our communities, to find partners and collaborators and make doing theater more accessible to a more diverse population and to increase the success of all of the individuals and companies in the state. Please like and follow us on Facebook: https://facebook.com/theatermakerslab and IG: @theatermakerslab and join us at our next Social Hour for the opportunity to talk to fellow theater makers about how to make theater more sustainable for us all.