The performing arts have always been a medium for communication across cultures and society, often as a way to celebrate history, convey political criticism, or sometimes simply offer an escape from the social fabric. However, as cultures evolve in our modern medium, the need for the arts to evolve is dire, and in many ways, influences the way culture changes as well. Simply put, as times change, the way we approach theatre needs to change as well.
The history of how theatre has been performed is rich and dynamic. From the first poetic reciting of Thespis and the Ancient Greeks, to the octagonal arenas for Shakespeare, to the Victorian rise of Opera houses, to the modern film era, the way we perceive acting as an art and craft has been changing. It is a skill and mentality that is alive and lives within actors and actresses that choose a life of storytelling. However, while there is a constant vying for modernization across various fields, theatre tends to appreciate tradition and history, and in many cases, is unwilling to evolve.
There is nothing wrong with appreciating the classics and preferring a more traditional approach in acting, but when the unmoving nature of stagnation manifests within the writing, production, and method of theatre, arises the perception of theatre as a dying art form. The Opera was so successful during the 19th century because it was a novelty that amplified the most powerful aspects of voice and movement, a contrast to what was previous traditional theatre. It was extravagant, boisterous, but most importantly, new. The human complex chases modernity wherever it can find it, including artistic expression. Opera, however, remained largely unchanged throughout its existence, in terms of style, projection, and form of storytelling. There isn’t anything wrong with that, after all, tradition is a vital aspect of history, but all it means is that it slowly died out. Society became bored, and moved onto newer forms of entertainment.
What I fear is that many actors hold onto tradition too tightly, where they champion rhythm and structure, rigid to the boundaries of their own creativity and limits. I believe that in our current social predicament, the greatest threat facing theatre, is the unwillingness to change. It’s been quickly overwhelmed by the film industry, where the rapid evolution of streaming and CGI has expedited screen acting. Live theatre has become more of a “tourist” art, something you experience only a couple of times in your life, while films and movies are a weekly occurrence.
The dwindling art of theater isn’t an issue that can be easily resolved, nor is there one single solution that can be undertaken to revive it. But what is clear is that there needs to be new, exciting concepts within theatre that push the boundaries of our storytelling styles. The current plays and productions that are popular now, were popular decades ago. Characters begin to reflect certain tropes that are similar across a multitude of plays, becoming recycled and predictable.
Lin Miranda Manuel’s Hamilton is a perfect example of a temporary respite within theatre. By combining iconic historical figures with modern hip-hop, Hamilton challenged the norms of theatre. It was something new, it was unique, and it was exactly what was needed for theatre to feel exciting to the public again. What theatre needs these days is the ability to adapt outside its normal confines, taking on projects similar to Hamilton to constantly push the ability and creativity of actors, writers, and directors.
What is even direr, is the need to act swiftly. As theatre begins to lose relevance within our culture and society, it loses traction at the educational stage. Theatre programs are being cut from schools, and negative connotations often surround those pursuing a career in theatre. Parents worry about their children who pursue acting, feeling it be more sound to enter a career in business, law, or something deemed more stable. But what art cannot be is stable. Artists are creative, wild, and imaginative. The moment where we decide stabilization is necessary, where we fall into rhythmic production, we lose all meaning on why we became artists in the first place. We need to find ways to evolve our art, find ways to bring the novelty and excitement back to our craft, and challenge the stabilization dynamic behind traditional theatre itself.