Advertise with us
Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   JOIN
TBA Online: News & Features: July 2014

Executive Director's Note: What's Your Problem?

Monday, July 28, 2014   (0 Comments)
Share |

By Brad Erickson

Here at Theatre Bay Area we are in the middle of a new strategic planning process, one that works differently than any we've done before. The initiative, being led by Jeanne Bell, CEO of the nonprofit consulting firm CompassPoint, starts by having the organization define the central problem it is trying to address. "So," Jeanne said, looking at the group of staff and board members, "What's your problem?"

The group had no trouble thinking of a slew of issues currently addressing the theatre field here in the Bay Area. Pages of flip charts began to cover the walls. As we looked, we saw that the flurry of responses could be boiled down to these three:

Executive Director Brad Erickson 

One: Making theatre is just hard. Especially here. 

Two: Theatre is struggling for relevance. For multiple reasons.

Three: People just don't go to the theatre here. Not like in other cities. Theatregoing is not a cultural norm in the Bay Area.

All true, all serious, but none felt like they really summed up the core issue. Until we lighted on this (still a draft version of the problem, but one that is already resonating strongly): for far too many here in the Bay Area, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized.

What do we mean by the "particular power of theatre"? We asked ourselves this question, answering privately and then comparing notes. Remarkably, our responses, while varying slightly, were essentially the same. When we say the "particular power of theatre," we mean the way that theatre can elicit empathy and understanding (even while it is captivating and entertaining us), act as a catalyst to transform individual lives, and empower and enrich entire communities. We are not saying other art forms don't also change lives and better communities, but theatre, with its focus on human beings, with stories being enacted by live human beings in the same room as other live human beings, does it in a particular and powerful way. 

So we wondered, why is the particular power of theatre not being realized here in the Bay Area? It's a conundrum. As we recently tried to explain to a consulting group, our region is home to hundreds of theatre companies and literally thousands of theatre artists, yet the impact that our art form offers is not being felt by the majority of our neighbors. Why? With an incredibly diverse and constantly changing population, the Bay Area critically needs empathy and social understanding to knit together the social fabric. And while Bay Area residents are demonstrably open to accessing certain cultural offerings (trying exotic food, engaging in new technology, trekking out to the desert to make and see art at Burning Man), they are not connecting in the same way with theatre. 

There are two sides to this equation: theatre-makers and theatregoers (or nongoers, as may be the case). We know that for theatre-makers in the Bay Area, far too much potential is going unrealized. Talent is not being fully developed and expressed. Careers are being held back. Whole classes of individuals—women, people of color—are being overlooked. And theatre companies are being thwarted in their impact and growth. 

For far too many, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized.

And we know that this is true for theatregoers (including nontheatregoers—who are most of our larger community). Last fall, the NEA released a new study that showed that theatre attendance, as a percentage of the population, has declined by 30% in the past 10 years. In 2012, only 15% of Americans attended a musical; even less, 8%, went to a play. So something like 80% of Americans didn't darken our doors at all in 2012. 

For far too many, the particular power of theatre is largely unrealized.

At Theatre Bay Area we're designing our strategies to tackle this perplexing problem, but we know that addressing this challenge is something far too big for one organization to handle on its own. We will need all of the Bay Area theatre community—and our audiences, and our funders and our supporters—to fully tap the potential of theatre in our region to better our lives and our communities. 

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.