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critic’s notebook

Rethinking theater, and ways to make it, in the digital age

From left: At the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Mike Daisey, Nilaja Sun, Emily Mann, Ping Chong, KJ Sanchez, and Steve Cosson participated in a panel discussion as part of the Theatre Communications Group conference.Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the era of Facebook, we’ve thrown open the doors, emotionally speaking. We’ve become needy. We beseech everyone to like us, or, rather, “Like’’ us.

Theater people want to be liked, too. And yet the unofficial theme of a recent theater confab in Boston could have been lifted from the lyrics to a Broadway meta-musical: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth-favorite thing.’’

That defiant and wishful sentiment, from “[title of show],” captures the spirit of the Theatre Communications Group conference, which drew 1,000 drama professionals from around the country to Boston. The aim of their three-day gathering: to consider new models of making theater.


The question that no conference could resolve and that still lacks a ready answer is how far theaters can go in embracing new methods without jeopardizing their own values, tastes, and mission. As anyone who works in the newspaper, publishing, or music industries could tell them, there’s really no script to follow when you’re utterly transforming your business model while simultaneously running for your life.

To an extent, of course, theater’s state of perpetual crisis is nothing new. Yet audiences have become more elusive than ever, to judge by the chatter at the conference. One much-cited reason: the ever-expanding popularity of digital entertainment.

That means theater has to find a path to relevance in a highly networked cultural landscape whose inhabitants spend their tablet-toting, smartphone-wielding days plugged in to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Yelp, Tumblr, and much, much more. “Most people relate today to the recorded image rather than the live whatever-it-is,’’ multimedia artist DJ Spooky (real name: Paul D. Miller) noted during his speech-cum-performance at a plenary session on day two of the conference.

In response, one survival strategy that sparked interest revolved around this possibly counterintuitive notion: Instead of casting a wide net and sending a message of come-one, come-all, individual theaters should intensify their focus on narrower niche audiences that are in tune with their aesthetic approach, while finding ways to invite those audiences more fully into the theatrical experience by social media and other means.


Rather than looking to television or film, mediums that command a mass audience that theater cannot approach, some speakers cited the Slow Food movement as a model to emulate, especially in the way it has developed a passionate following by instilling a sense of belonging, along with an emphasis on locally produced, high-quality products.

As a case in point that illustrates the upside of that sense of belonging — of being part of the kind of event that theater is uniquely equipped to deliver — Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, pointed to “Sleep No More,’’ a site-specific, mostly wordless reworking of “Macbeth’’ by the British theater company Punchdrunk.

When she proposed that the ART should present “Sleep No More’’ at a former school building in Brookline in 2009, Paulus said, it was “probably the most crazy, whacked-out thing I could have done early on’’ in her tenure. But, she said, “Sleep No More’’ became so hugely popular that fully one-third of the audience ended up seeing the show more than once. “You discover it, you own it, you tell your friends about it: That is what happened in Boston,’’ Paulus said. She noted that “Sleep No More,’’ now playing at the McKittrick Hotel in New York, relies primarily on “viral, underground’’ word-of-mouth rather than traditional advertising. In Brookline, she said, the majority of the audience was male, a relative rarity in the theater.


The monologuist Mike Daisey managed to make an off-Broadway hit out of a show about technology: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’’ which described working conditions at a factory in China where Apple products were made. But offstage drama engulfed him earlier this year when the public radio program “This American Life” revealed that he had fabricated parts of the piece. In the final plenary session of the conference, a panel discussion moderated by director Emily Mann, Daisey addressed the controversy. Initially, he was a bit defensive. “Did I get in trouble with my audience, or did I get in trouble with cultural arbiters?’’ he asked. But he went on to say that what he did was “stupid,’’ and added that he worries that he “did a disservice’’ to the field of documentary theater.

Given the conference’s focus on identifying, attracting, and solidifying audiences, it was heartening that diversity was the subject of another day-three session titled “Ensuring the Sustainability of Our Field.’’ Roche Schulfer, the longtime executive director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, said that “inclusivity is now the identity of the Goodman,’’ adding pointedly that plays with diverse casts by minority playwrights have performed strongly at the box office. Adam Thurman, director of marketing at Chicago’s Court Theatre, said that three of the highest-grossing shows in the theater’s history featured predominantly minority casts.


However, Chicago and other big cities have large minority populations. Nationwide, the diversity picture is not as encouraging, according to Ralph Peña, artistic director of the Ma-Yi Theater Company in New York, who said that Asian-American, Latino, and African-American actors are still underrepresented on American stages. In particular, Peña called for more plays about the Asian-American experience that are not “exoticized’’ versions of that experience.

The eternal, uneasy dance of art, money, and politics was another preoccupation of the conference, often pushing its way to the surface.

Theater finances, precarious in the best of times, were severely battered by the Great Recession, and there were indications during the conference that the current economic turmoil in Europe has the leadership of American theaters bracing for the possibility of another downturn.

In that somber context, everyone’s antennae were alert for talk about any sources of reliable funding. At one session, the entire room snapped to attention when a San Diego theater executive mentioned that in his city, a portion of the hotel occupancy tax is earmarked for the arts. You could almost hear a collective sigh of longing.

Amid all the what-if scenarios and inside-baseball theater talk came some blunt advice from Capitol Hill about coalition-building at the grass-roots level. US Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the former mayor of Providence, told his presumably liberal audience that theaters and other cultural organizations should cultivate relationships with mayors — especially Republican mayors — who are more likely to gain a sympathetic ear from GOP members of Congress when arts funding cutbacks are being considered.


Again and again, a variation on this message was heard at the conference: The future is coming, so get ready. But that gave a sense of déjà vu to some theater professionals, who wondered what everyone is waiting for. In private hallway conversations between sessions, they expressed an edgy impatience with the hand-wringing, the strategic plans, and the sometimes-stilted jargon that filled the air at the conference. Listening to the talk about the need for theaters to stage more new plays, for large companies to share resources with small companies, for the industry to place a higher premium on diversity in casting and programming, their response could be summed up by the Nike slogan: “Just Do It.’’

Another audacious line could also provide some guidance to the industry, trying to build an audience while redefining itself in a multimedia era. Elaine May said it to Mike Nichols a half-century ago: “The only safe thing is to take a chance.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin