Friday, July 18, 2008

Opportunity: The Ignored Part of the US

The following chart uses data from the TCG database of member theatres combined with data from the US Census.

I have identified the size of each county in which TCG member theatre(s) are headquartered. I have then broken them into categories and identified what percentage of the TCG member theatre counties are in each category. For instance, 8.7% of TCG member theatres are headquartered in counties with populations under 100K, 8% are in counties with populations of 100K - 200K, and so on. These percentages have been put in the form of a bar graph and compared to the percentage of U.S. counties overall in each category. The bar graph looks like this:

As you can see, the percentages for TCG member theatres and US counties are almost reversed: there is a much larger percentage of US counties under 100K than over 500K, but there is an overwhelming number of TCG theatres in counties over 500K. This chart would be even more unbalanced if counties with multiple theatres were given proportional weight -- the number clustered in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, all in the over 500K category of course, would grow that blue bar much higher and everything else would be adjusted much lower. But I didn't want to make the data melodramatic, so no matter how many theatres were in a given county, it was only counted once.

While there is nothing particularly surprising about this lack of balance -- we've all known that theatre has long been seen as an urban art form -- I think what is surprising is how much of the US is still made up of small towns, most of whom are not being served by professional theatre at all. Of those that are under 100K that have professional theatres in them, many of them tend to be Shakespeare festivals or  the county is a bedroom community for a larger city.

When I look at this chart, what I see is opportunity. I think of a small factoid from Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: "in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank [in Luxury Fever], "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences." I wonder about why we have come to think that a theatre can only exist in metropolises. I wonder if the same model for creating a viable theatre in a metropolis is functional in a smaller place, or whether the required skills and techniques are different -- I suspect they are. I wonder whether interest in theatre would increase if we could add more blue to the left side of that chart, and I also wonder if support for the NEA would increase as a result. I wonder whether he have created a "trickle-down" model of the theatre economy, where the rich continue to get richer while the poor wait for the benefits to work their way down to them. I wonder, when we are looking to Europe with envy for their subsidy, whether we will notice that England has professional repertory theatres in Sidmouth, Wolverhampton, Burslem and Taunton, not just in London.

We tend to look at the popularity of movies, TV, and music as being the result of a more attractive form, but I think the real reason is that they reach every corner of this country, and theatre has stayed huddled in the metropolises. Yes, it is easier for mass media to send movies, DVD's, CD's, and cable into smaller markets, but it doesn't seem to me that we in theatre are making much of an effort. Instead of recognizing when a market is flooded, we keep pouring our talents into them in the hope that we'll be one of the lucky ones -- that we'll be one of the blackjack winners. Meanwhile, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and any number of small businesses manage to survive in these smaller counties. But we in the theatre think it can't be done -- impossible.

What's the possibility here?
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Hans said...

I see the point you're trying to make, and I agree with it for the most part, but your specific argument doesn't hold much water. You're saying that the more populous counties have more theatres than less populous ones. Well, sure: bigger audience = more support. A more meaningful statistic might down the counties in terms of TCG theatres per capita rather than percentage of all TCG theatres.

Scott Walters said...

I think we need to examine the bigger audience = more support equation. (Actually, I think what you mean is more population = more support. I know that is conventional wisdom, but I'm not certain that it is quite as ironclad as we think. For instance, I think the Paradox of Choice enters the discussion here: along with a larger population comes a larger number of options for entertainment and enrichment, and there is some evidence that more options actually leads people to choose none of the above more frequently. There is also the sense of personal ownership in a smaller town that may be weaker in a metropolis. And so on.