By Dudley Cocke
American Theatre magazine, March 2000
With the year 2000 just arrived, who can resist the invitation to prognosticate? After all, it is the only new millennium any of us have experienced for a thousand years. What will the arts look like in the new century? The answer is not blowing in the wind but coming through the wire.
Global communication technology is rocking our world. Here’s a proposition: In the next decade, participation and access in the performing arts will increase as people compensate for the passive nature of most forms of electronic entertainment.
Art production and presentation will be transformed as the public longs — and then demands — to participate and to connect as a community. There is, of course, a long, deep art-making and presenting tradition based on access, participation, and communing. However, since the death of the Federal Theatre Project, this tradition has been contested and marginalized. The corporations that now dominate our economy have increasingly valued efficiency more than participation, mobility more than attachment to place, short-term gain more than sustainability — and, for the most part, nonprofit corporations, including arts organizations, have subscribed to these same values.
For example, the standard production model in the nonprofit theater industry is the assembly line: the various parts (mostly people in the case of the performing arts) are brought to a central location (the theater) where they are assembled over a three-to-four-week period into a final product, which is then marketed to arts consumers. The play’s director interprets the production blueprint; the resident artistic director is quality control. Increasingly, this cog-in-the-wheel process is proving unsatisfactory to audiences and artists alike. This dissatisfaction is a result of our social need to build and live in real neighborhoods, and the new omnipresence in our lives of cyber media only feeds this need. After all, Homo sapiens is by instinct a social animal, and virtual reality alone will not satisfy our nature.
The theater field probably can already sense this new zeitgeist, although few of us appear to be revising our programs accordingly. This lack of response to rapid change by managers, artists, presenters, and funders should concern us, because as any Darwinian will tell you, when challenged by change, the fatal response is denial. At this very time when we should be innovating and experimenting broadly (not just in some narrow, avant garde manner), we have become uptight, hesitant to take risks. Let’s hope this soon changes. Each of us should immediately consider strategies to prompt experimentation, rational innovation, and cumulative learning in all aspects of the arts in our communities. There’s a role for TCG here.
Based on my theory of cyber-compensation, here is a sampling of what we are likely to see very soon in the arts.
- Arts participation, especially amateur participation, will increase, and in the arts the word "amateur" will reclaim its positive connotation. Notice that the word has held onto its positive meaning in the ever-popular sports world. (Remember how irked we became when the former Soviet Union sent professionals to compete in the Olympics?) Cyber will give us our fill of watching; more and more of us will want to participate — as singers, costume designers, storytellers, dancers, stage managers and so on.
- Performance spaces will become more intimate, their architecture more sensual and less controlling. Theaters will be smaller, and new public spaces will be claimed by artists and communities. For example, in the past five years, an increasing number of touring performances by my company, the Roadside Theater of Whitesburg, Kentucky, have occurred in churches.
- Local life will increasingly become more aware of itself as participation increases and amateur artists see that there is real grass (history, drama, viable artistic tradition, etc.) right in their own backyards. I fantasize about this realization’s coming en masse, in a convulsive moment, as millions of us, gathered and mute in front of the tube, its electronic colors flickering on our faces, watch just one-too-many TV nature shows.
- Word-of-mouth and word on the Net will replace our flagging marketing strategies. No problem to download at home a brief performance scene of the current production, an interview with its leading actor or the comments of last night’s audience members as we decide whether or not to key in our online reservation for the evening performance.
- There will be a new eclecticism as many of the old either/orarts arguments of the mechanical age — for example highbrow vs. lowbrow art — are mothballed in the new digital age. On Saturday night, one might gleefully attend a choral concert, and Sunday afternoon we may think nothing of participating in a three-hour shape-note sing. Each event will be appreciated on its own terms: shape-note singing for the beauty and truth of young and old, adept and novice, singing together in a structured way that supports the quality of the performance — which, unlike the choral concert, blurs the line between performance and rehearsal because of the inherently participatory nature of the event.
- Finally, the astounding capacity of cyberspace to provide information will continue to increase the demand for meaning — the metier of the arts.
Well, you think, is this not a brave new world this fellow prognosticates? Not really. The essential human struggles will remain the same: to live in peace with our neighbor, who is now a global one; to seek justice for all; to woo beauty and truth; and to live in ecological harmony with our precious planet.
© 1999 Dudley Cocke