Why fund theater? (Especially during a pandemic)

face mask

OK, things suck right now. You’ve probably read about vaccine news, but there are many complex reasons why it will be quite some time before things return back to normal (at least in the U.S., I don’t know about other countries) which you can read about here. (Please note, I don’t know if that article will be updated in the future or how much it’s changed since I first read it.) But the point is, as of this writing, we are still unfortunately living in the Covid 19 pandemic. But pandemic or not, there has always been a disdain for funding theater (and other arts). It’s seen as, if nothing else, fluff. It’s also regarded as something that’s easy. Time and again when I tell people that I have degrees in theater I’m met with remarks like “Why would you want to do that?”, “Why would a person dedicate their time to something like that?”, “Why do we need theater?”, etc. I know that half of it is lighthearted teasing, so I let it go… begrudgingly.

But people still ask: why fund theater—especially during a pandemic? Well, I’d like to give you some answers. 

Theater contributes to the economy, in a big way

First, I’ll just jump in with the practical reasons theater is important. Believe it or not, it creates jobs. And I’m not just talking about the artists. Theater is a business with expenses. Floors need to be mopped, phones need to be answered, toilets get flushed, lights get turned off and on. Who’s going to do your fundraising? Well maybe money will fall from the sky, or maybe trained grant writers need to be hired. Maybe there’s a café in the theater building. Or maybe nearby ones will see an influx of people after a show along with other small businesses that need customers. Many of these companies in the vicinity of theaters would greatly benefit from selling an ad in a play’s program. Think theater is all glamorous? Lemme spoil it for you: it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s worth it, and not just for the art that gets made. What’s more, theater also creates tourist hot spots. The Guthrie Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Globe Theatre, Theater Under the Stars, to name a few, are huge attractions. Live theater can’t be held now, but once the pandemic is over there’s going to be a market for it.

Theater enriches lives.

Just because live, in person theater isn’t possible right now, that’s no reason to forget the impact of it. So get ready for some hippy dippy stuff! There are simply some things you can’t measure in numbers; you just feel it. When audience members experience live theater, they’re taken out of their worries of everyday life and can enjoy the ride actors are giving them. Theater has a few advantages over film/tv. Namely, it’s immersive. For one thing, we feel the actor’s energy resonating off them, because we’re right there in the room. Sometimes you can be close to them or even hear them breathe. Essentially, we have a big sense that we’re in their world. This leaves a mark on audience members, something they can take with them their whole life. (This is not to say that film isn’t high quality art, this is just saying that theater and film both have advantages and disadvantages).

Another way theater enriches life is that it makes people feel validated. If a patron sees an actor portray something they’ve experienced, and hasn’t had that happen before, it’s as if someone reached out to them and said, I see you. Human beings need this. When they don’t have it, they can quickly think they’re worthless and slip between the cracks. And theater doesn’t just have to be about conveying an intense message. Stories about a slice of life, or anything else that can make us laugh and cry are just as important and fulfilling. All of these things bring people happiness. What’s the good of food, shelter, and medicine, if we can’t enjoy life? Never forget, “hearts starve as well as bodies”.

Theater inspires thought provoking conversations and critical thinking.

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At a time where it’s finally becoming more well known that representation matters in the arts, this bares repeating over and over. I encourage you, watch a play from theatrical artists that are of a different race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or are differently abled. When a person learns about experiences that are different from their own, it makes them empathetic to certain issues they were unaware of. This is important for a lot of reasons, and I’m sure I’ll be publishing an article on this topic sooner or later. But for now I’ll say this: when someone’s perception is changed, it has a long term effect. It makes them better able to treat their fellow human beings well. And this helps society as a whole. Does this mean a person will walk out of a theater and say “Wow! You changed my life. I’ll rethink everything now! Thank you for making me see the light!” Well, no. But it plants a seed. And that’s more powerful than you think.

Despite the pandemic, theater is still being created! (Just not live in-person theater).

I can only imagine theatrical artists during Shakespeare’s time, staying safe from the plague, but not being able to put on their shows. But it is said that Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous works during quarantine. How many other playwrights… um… including me, do you think are creating new works? But what Shakespeare didn’t have was performances via Zoom or other virtual platforms.

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I mean, yeah, it’s not the same as live theater, but it’s still something valuable. Plus… well, if you see a virtual play from the safety of your home, you can’t beat that commute! 😀 And you don’t have to wait in line for concessions, just walk to your fridge! Hate public bathrooms? Not a problem! OK, all that aside, the bottom line is virtual shows, among other activities, are keeping theaters afloat during this crisis. Do I miss the rush of being on stage? You bet I do. But everyone doing all these activities during Covid can one day look back and say they, no pun intended, played a role in helping to keep theater alive.

But this can’t be done without help. If you have it within your means to make a donation to a theater company, I encourage you to do so. And don’t forget about the smaller theater companies. Amateur, nonunion theater doesn’t mean low quality! Also, Steppenwolf and Woolly Mammoth started out small and now they’re two of the most thriving and respected organizations in the county. And they’re not alone. If you can’t help out monetarily, there are other ways to help. For example, tune into a virtual show, share a company’s facebook page, etc. Regular theater will be back, but in the meantime, don’t forget it’s value.

I know it’s only rock n roll, but I like it!

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