That’s a loaded phrase, for sure, but to be honest, it’s not out of line with the reputation theater has had for a lot of people for a long time. But if that’s still where your head’s at, then you haven’t really been paying attention. At least since “Rent” hit Broadway in 1996, theater has rejoined the cultural mainstream. Need proof? How about hit movie adaptations of musicals like “Chicago” and “Hairspray.” The ongoing mega-popularity of experiences that mix theater with music, dance, and even circus, like Blue Man Group and Cirque de Soleil. And how about one of the most popular cultural experiences of recent history: High School Musical. Tonight when the sequel premieres, tweens, teens, and even older folks (like me!) will be enmeshed in the world of theater. Sure, it’s theater on TV but, hey, it’s still theater. And there’s no way to construe the audience HSM II will draw as high-minded elites.
I could mention the burgeoning hip-hop theater culture that is emerging or the gripping new plays like “Topdog/Underdog” that are starting to be appreciated not just on the fringes but in the mainstream. But Le Synge Bleu has already touched on that. What I’ll point out is that theater will always be an essential and ever-renewing cornerstone of popular culture because it is at the theater that people get the first taste of performance. Whether it’s a part of the kindergarten assembly or a skit done for the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving, people who have a hunger for acting out usually hit the stage first. So even when people grow up to be movie and TV stars, they look back fondly on their days in theater, sometimes heading back for a stint in a high-profile role (Past: Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, etc.; Future: Claire Danes). Sometimes putting loving or satirical nods to theater in their work (ex.: the recent Shrek the Third movie). And, as David Leong's ground-breaking training program that works with lawyers and doctors at VCU shows, theatrical skills can be vital or at least helpful in many other walks of life beyond stage or screen.
I think theater could do more to gain traction with the culture at large but, all things told, I think it’s doing pretty well. Still, Tony, you ask the question, “What can I do?” which I’ll take as an honest request for suggestions. Next post, I’ll try to address it.