Perhaps the reason theater seems irrelevant is that we are comparing it to the wrong art form. The American tendency is to view mass media as the direct competitor, the sibling of live theater. American theater artists like to compare/contrast live theater with television and film. We embrace the economic challenges of these mass produced stories as if we even had a chance. Arthur Miller is brilliant, a voice of his generation, but in terms of immediate fame and fortune, Harrison Ford will always win the notoriety battle. Perhaps theater should be looked at as a conversation - meant to be held in intimate settings and on a smaller scale....It's simple - the more people involved in a conversation, the less appealing it is. Continue to increase the participants of the conversation and it becomes one-sided. It becomes a lecture. Once the audience of the lecture becomes too large for the lecturer to make contact with, it becomes hopelessly, sadly irrelevant.
I think he is right on the money. Yes, there are similarities between theatre and TV/movies: all three tell stories through impersonation. But in reality, theatre is vastly different for all the obvious reasons: presence of the actor and audience in same space, at the same time; not mechanically reproduced (borrowing Walter Benjamin's phrase), and so possessing an unique "aura," etc.
If theatre is seen as a conversation, then the smaller the audience the more vibrant the dialogue. Yes, there are economic issues to be considered, but how would theatre change if it were conceived not in terms of TV and movies, but rather in terms of conversations and poetry readings? What pressures might be lessened? What pressures would arise? How would the relationship with the audience be changed? How might our grantwriting change? Fundraising? Audience development? Might we be able to be more daring if we didn't have to try to fill the house every night?
An alternate view (or is it an alternate view), is persuasively argued by Matt Freeman in his post on The New Audience, which I read just after I finished writing this post, and it has given me pause...