By Bill Hirschman
In this season of election hype, politicians are forever warning ominously, “We’re at a crossroad.” But in our case, South Florida theater is, indeed, at a tipping point. We are at a crucial watershed when local professional theater can either commit to evolving into an even more creative and economically-stable art form, or it will deteriorate into an art-as-a-glorified hobby model.
Stagnation and status quo are not viable long-term scenarios, because the mortality of this region’s “core audience” will inevitably erode the economic base until professionals can no longer afford to stay, or even visit the region. Without that level of quality, audiences will dwindle because there won’t be anything worthwhile that can compete with the other arts, or mass media options. Theater will become even more of a niche.
The actions that need to be taken today are aimed at five and 10 years out. Audience building, finding reliable funding streams, and the other big challenges cannot be overcome quickly. They require concerted, coordinated campaigns by all the players, not skirmishes or even battles.
Words like “concerted,” “coordinated,” and “campaign” are drawn from an alien language for most of the players; they have proven incapable of implementing them in anything but the most perfunctory sense. Sending out email blasts touting someone else’s production is hardly enough.
Further, the long-term strategic planning required is not on most players’ radar screens. They are focused on staying afloat for the next season or two, and maintaining their “slice” of the audience “pie,” rather than attending to the real answer: Joining together to bake a bigger pie.
And that last phrase, right there, is why the dream of South Florida as a thriving regional theater hub is perfectly feasible, not just wishful thinking. It’s already happened. More than a half-dozen theaters have closed, but in the same period more than twice that number have opened.
On the debit side of the ledger are tangible threats: Theater’s invisibility to the public, the fear that financial ruin is not even a season away, miserable pay scales, an unwillingness to join forces, the slow erosion of revenue, and terror at the sight of a vanishing audience. But on the credit side of the ledger are considerable—if less corporeal—assets: Will, imagination, resourcefulness, and passion, plus the blessing that many of the solutions are already known. That might sound too much like naïve cheerleading, but the flurry of startup companies in the midst of this recession, other troupes’ survival through previous economic maelstroms, and a current surge in quality (against all odds) are concrete proofs of those assets’ efficacy.
In a three-part series of essays at FloridaTheaterOnStage.com, we capped three months of inquiry by examining where local theater is, what it can be, what problems block its progress, and what some of the solutions may be. We invite you to take a look and give us your feedback.
Bill Hirschman is the Editor and Chief Critic for FloridaTheaterOnstage.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.