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article imageOp-Ed: The future of theatre: Is this the final curtain call?

By Elizabeth Grey     Dec 18, 2014 in Entertainment
London - In 2014, just how relevant is theatre? In London audiences have been falling gradually for the past few years, but away from the capital the decline is even more marked. So what's causing these slumps? And is this really the end of theatre as we know it?
Away from the capital the decline is even more marked: total audiences have fallen by more than 10 percent over a two-year period. It gets even worse for non-national theatre companies, who have reported an audience decline of 13 percent.
While the decline in attendance was initially blamed on the recession, in truth most theatres have been struggling for years to maintain their numbers. A report by think-tank The Policy Studies Institute in 2001 found that despite record levels of public funding, the percentage of adults attending arts events were either stagnant or decreasing — and the evolution of digital media is often held as a culprit for this decline.
However, all is not lost in the theatre world just yet. While general attendance throughout the UK has fallen, London isn’t faring so badly and has lost only 4 percent of its general audience. Nearly 15 million people watched West End performances last year, which is very reasonable considering the current economic climate. In addition, national companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have actually seen their audiences increase by around 400,000 people over the past two years.
Arts Council England's Head of Theatre Neil Darlison said: "I think the encouraging thing is that known or paid attendance has stayed about level. If you look at the national companies, their attendance has risen – especially because of London transfers. In the capital, it would appear as buoyant as ever. Not only are attendances holding up, but cultural opportunities generally are growing in London."
While performance studies scholar Richard Schechner famously predicted the death of theatre, asserting that “theatre as we have known and practiced it – the staging of written dramas – will be the string quartet of the 21st century,” others feel it is only the traditional form of theatre that may be becoming obsolete. Many others in the industry reject the idea that theatre is dying, instead subscribing to the belief that it is rather experiencing a metamorphosis.
Tom Loughlin, the Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the State University of New York agrees with this notion: "Theatre over the next 25 years will become smaller, less consequential and highly undervalued by society at large. But this will give it the time it needs to formulate and nurture itself and get ready for what the following 25 years will bring."
So what will the next 25 years bring? The influence of digital technology within theatre productions certainly cannot be overstated. The dawn of multimedia-enriched performances by popular theatre companies such as Complicité and The Blue Man Group have set the standard for what is now expected of a theatre — and often that is the inclusion of interactive media.
While the burgeoning affiliation between technology and theatre has unsurprisingly proved to be the source of much disagreement within the industry, the success of these productions also can’t be ignored. Research has shown that the addition of digital multimedia helps entice younger audiences who previously may not have thought theatre was for them — like in the case of Ghost Stories.
In their efforts to communicate the power of theatre to a new, younger audience, producers decided to create a viral “cinema style” film that felt similar to a horror trailer. The viral was an unprecedented success and received 50,000 views— a staggering figure when compared to an earlier show which drew 5,500 over a much longer period of time – and Ghost Stories went on to break all box office records.
It seems that the digital revolution is creating a new strain of consumers who are expecting more from theatre performances, and the industry will inevitably adapt to that demand. While it is undeniably evolving with the times, theatre exists in every society around the world and, despite the naysayers, behind each digital communication is a human being. As long as we can relate to the fundamental message within theatre production, surely anything that heightens an audience’s sensory experience can only be a positive?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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