Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov -- Half Hillbilly, Demi-Culture, commented on my Google Map work showing the placement of regional theatres in the US: "Food for thought. Have you compared these maps to the general population density of the US? If memory serves me it looks pretty similar to the maps you've shown. So there may be more to it than it seems." He then provided a link to this map, which does bear a resemblance to the final map with all the theatres on it. I also went to Wikipedia to see what they had on population density in the US and they provided me with the following map, which also seemed to reinforce what I had found. There was California and Illinois and a bunch of the Northeast and Florida...
But then I started looking at the state-by-state breakdown and comparing states with lots to those with little. And sure enough: the bottom of the list looked like this:
45: New Mexico
46: South Dakota
47: North Dakota
But then I looked a bit more. For instance, Oregon was #39, and they had quite a few theatres, and so did #38 Maine. But right above them were Colorado (37), Oklahoma (35), Arkansas (34), who were pretty theatre sparse... And then there was Minnesota, who wracked up a bunch of TCG theatres, at #31, and Missouri, who had one or two, at #27. And we won't even talk about North Carolina, which is #10 as far as population and #17 in population density, and Michigan (#8 in population and #15 in density), who had only a few theatres between them and both of whom got skunked in the NEA distribution. No, it made sense for a while, and then it started to dissolve once you got beyond the extremes.
Nevertheless, the question Slay raises is one that demands examination: why do we think that theatre is a high-density art form? Why have we conceived of it as existing primarily in urban areas? Before we reach mentally for the obvious -- the more people, the more likely an audience can be found -- let's think this through a bit. There are colleges scattered all over this country, and most are not in urban areas, and most of them have theatre departments who do plays, and my impression is that they seem to sell tickets. In fact, my impression is that they benefit from being in places that offer little competition as far as live theatre is concerned. Furthermore, just how many people need to live in a place in order to fill a small or medium sized theatre consistently? I believe North Carolina Stage Company here in Asheville, which is a TCG theatre in the lowest budget category, has a house that seats 99 people -- does that require a thriving metropolis to fill? Even if your theatre was bigger -- say, 499 -- how large does the town need to be?
I think the issue is that we conceive of theatre as appealing to only a small percentage of a population -- say, 1% or less. And so that requires big numbers to keep it going. But is that number carved in stone? Might a theatre raise those odds by locating themselves in a less populated town where the opportunities to see live theatre might be fewer? Might it raise those odds by maintaining a company and a resident playwright and spend time establishing a strong connection to its community? Might it be easier to establish those community connections if it were a smaller community where half the population didn't flee for the suburbs after 5:00?
I think one of the challenges we face as theatre people is to question conventional wisdom, to release ourselves from thinking in grooves that have been deeply ingrained by the past. And we need to broaden our view of the past. For instance, the Little Theatre Movement that was so important in the early part of the 20th century was scattered across this nation, and there were other approaches to theatre (e.g., Robert Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theatre and A. M. Drummond's program at Cornell) that took other forms than the Broadway version. We might look to these for inspiration, for another model that we might adapt for our own circumstances.
But it does require thinking of yourself not as an independent contractor but as an entrepreneur. An anonymous commenter, commenting on the curriculum in most MFA programs, wrote "starting and running a theater is a very different skill set than say - acting or writing or directing even." To which BC-NYC responded: "I don't think you get what this data means. THERE'S NO MORE difference in 'skillsets.' In this day and coming age...you can no longer JUST BE an actor or writer of whatever. THAT'S ONE OF THE CURRENT PROBLEMS OF THINKING....Time to wake up and take responsibility."
I think BC-NYC is right -- it is a new era, and it will require new thinking, and new skill sets, and new approaches. And just possibly, that might also mean new places as well.