Tom Loughlin provides an "opti-realist" response to the American Theatre magazine's question about theatre 25 years from now. Be sure to have a good, stiff drink to hand when you read it. It is thoughtful, clear-eyed, and honest.
Overall, I agree with his diagnosis. This Broadway-dominated system, whose foundation was initially shaken by the regional theatre movement of the 1960s before it co-opted the movement into serving as a replacement for the pre-Broadway tryout towns of the mid-century (see Moss Hart's wonderful Act One for a vibrant description of that system), will continue its slide into artistic irrelevance, becoming little more than a northeastern Disney World. Regional theatres will become less and less regional, more and more financially untenable, and as artistically bankrupt as Broadway.
While I love Tom's Nebraska analogy of looking down for the spring, rather than up, I would disagree with his belief that "Theatre over the next 25 years will become smaller, less consequential, and highly undervalued by society at large." Smaller, yes, if it knows what is good for it, and as a result artists will rediscover the true magic of theatre, which has nothing to do with opulence and everything to do with imagination. Repeat Peter Brook's first sentence of The Empty Space as a mantra. But it is hard for me to imagine theatre being any less consequential than it already is, or any less valued. I think we have already touched bottom on that one.
Instead, what I believe will happen, once smallness is embraced and magic reclaimed, is that the theatre will rediscover the fact that its lifeblood is not drawn from the mass culture, but from the local culture. Instead of taking its business model from commerce, it will look to local churches as an inspiration for a new relationship to the audience. Back in October 2005, I wrote about this idea. As Tom notes, theatre education will have to change in recognition of the different skills needed to work within such a model. Saying "education" and "change" in the same sentence does funny things to my mouth, but it will happen eventually. Young people will have to be taught to see themselves as facilitators, community members, builders, rememberers, celebrators, healers, and as people who help the community to reclaim its higher angels, embrace its own imaginations, and live up to its potential.
Do I think this will happen, or is this what I hope will happen? Both. I think the collapse of the current paradigm is inevitable and will have to be filled with something new, and that the movement toward local economies described in books like Bill McKibben's Deep Economy and Lyle Estill's Small Is Possible will embrace the theatre as well as the rest of the economy. (I particularly recommend the latter book as incredibly inspirational.)
But the groundwork has to happen now, while the current paradigm maintains its wobbling dominance. Because once the woods are finished burning, we will have to begin to plow anew, and do quickly before the forces of greed and superficiality begin building a theme park on the site.