The Local Theatre Movement

Artists and administrators fear that theatre is no longer relevant to American audiences. Signs point to the demise of the Regional Theaters as attendance and funding decrease. What’s the next evolution in the American theatre scene?

After Vaudeville and the touring circuits in the US, Broadway established itself as the commercial theatre hub of the country. Soon there were destinations for Broadway shows to tour. The alternative was the amateur community theatre group. Called community theatre because that’s what it was, theatre for and by the community. Not a production shipped in from New York. Bubbling up from community theatres and in response to Broadway in the 60s and 70s was the Regional Theatre movement. These organizations sprang up to provide a professional home for artists for less commercial pursuits, serving a region of the country.

Not just a city, a region. Because in the 60s and 70s, before traffic was invented, people could drive for 2 hours and wind up over 100 miles away.

Today audiences as a whole are dwindling, money is drying up, and the Regional Theatres are relying on the latest plays from Broadway and other commercially viable productions to keep butts in seats… the very things that they sought to avoid when founded. Traffic is now a major deterrent from going very far. Los Angeles residents no longer drive to San Diego to go to the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse as they once did decades ago.

In response, theatre is becoming localized. In a 50 mile radius, there are now somewhere around 250 theatre spaces which range from the smallest of storefronts to the largest of Broadway touring spaces. People now look to be entertained in their own backyards instead of braving the infamous SoCal traffic at rush hour.

These newer theatre companies must now find their niche in order to survive in what might otherwise seem like an over-saturated market. They must reinvent the theatre business model that are making the regional theatres face becoming obsolete.

That, I am calling (unless I find a better title) the Local Theatre Movement: an escape from the box office pressures and commercial material that the Regional Theatres once sought to avoid. A business model that takes advantage of their location and does not attempt to serve too large an area. An artistic team that caters to local, cultural, or aesthetic interests in their immediate community. I see several companies in the region who are finding very specific audiences based on these, especially cultural or identity-based; including African American, Jewish, Women’s, Asian, Latino, and others.

The Local Theatre Movement is theatre from the ground up. Grassroots theatre. I think we’ll start to see organizations become more focused, more flexible, and more relevant. By keeping in mind their specific audience they won’t need to rely on selling a whole season of Broadway’s best to help stay afloat. They will find support because of their mission, their focus — and will have the flexibility to respond to and program for current events that interest their audience. Theatre will be relevant again.

Isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for? Isn’t that why we fear audiences are dwindling? The world is changing and what’s relevant one day might not be the next. A model that was relevant 50 years ago is not today. 50 years from now we may need to reinvent ourselves again.

Let’s forget what worked back then and let go of what may be in the future. Now, right now, we’ve got work to do.