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A Few Thoughts On How To Save The Theatre

A dramatic monologue

John DeVore
11 min readJun 12, 2024

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II have a few thoughts — rough ideas, really— on how to save the American theatre, but first, a recent memory: I visited London last summer, my first trip overseas as an adult.

I’d spent most of my life working in offices, clocking in and out, and whenever I had any vacation time, I’d use it to visit family in Texas. But my girlfriend, now my fiancée, thought I should see more of the world. I was unemployed, which meant I had the time, and thanks to a little clever budgeting and scheduling on her part, she booked flights across the pond.

This was a dream trip — a gauzy, disorienting, vivid dream. The plan: eat meat pies and go to the theatre. And that’s precisely what happened.

A few hours after checking in, an old friend of hers appeared outside our modest rental in Bermondsey and whisked us off to the Royal National Theatre. Theatre was important to her friend, and she knew it was important to us. She’s an actor—a Londoner—sardonic, poised, generous. Every other word was “brilliant.” This was how she welcomed us: a quick bite, and away we went.

I was jet-lagged, which was a new experience for me. I felt like ice cream melting on summer-baked concrete. But she led us into the National’s massive, brutalist South Bank complex and through crowds of people milling about, having a drink, and getting ready to see a play on a weeknight on one of the three stages.

The buzz in the lobby was intense; it felt like a Friday night, but we had arrived in London on a Tuesday morning. We saw a stylish, kinetic melodrama that explored relationships, ethics, and capitalism. Intense and cerebral, the production’s grip was firm and cold once the stage's blinding lights revealed the minimalist set.

The English didn’t invent the theatre, but they’re awfully good at it. I’m inclined to let them think it’s theirs, with profuse apologies to the Greeks.

The theatre in America struggles but in Blighty? The theatre was roaring. Or, at least, that was what I thought I saw. The Promised Land. After all, this sceptered isle gave us William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Caryl Churchill, to name a few—my favorites. Pinter, too. Orton. I am romantic about the United Kingdom thanks to Hollywood’s portrayal of our cousins as charming rogues and butlers with feelings, but I know their empire was brutal and oppressive. I know their history — our history — and yet, the Brits agree on a few things that would baffle many Yanks, like affordable healthcare and plentiful theater.

They’re proud of the art their culture produces. Yes, that’s what I chose to believe — there is an island in the ocean populated by wizards who cherish the theatre.

The audience at the National was engaged. They laughed at all the witty moments and leaned in to listen. I fought to keep my bleary eyes open — the show crackled, but my body wanted to dream. My brain had been most thoroughly wrung of sleep. Afterward, we floated past young and old and then homeward, chatting the whole way—ancient streets like cobblestone snakes.

The next morning, I awoke as a tourist and ate a meat pie for breakfast.

I think about that night, though. Often. Here’s what I remember: energy, life, fire, hundreds of humans gathering, talking and gesticulating, finding their seats, leafing through programs, and watching other people fill a space with words and tears and bones. I remember thinking, “Theatre is not dead.”

Not yet.

Maybe it didn’t happen this way. I don’t know. Maybe I’m projecting? Maybe the National wasn’t as packed as I recalled, maybe there were empty seats, and maybe the audience wasn’t as enthralled. Maybe I napped, and maybe others did too. Maybe the play wasn’t as daring as I thought. Maybe everyone in London is couch-ridden, scrolling, streaming, hiding from their neighbors. Maybe theatre struggles there, too.

The American theatre has seen better days, and those better days were a long time ago. This isn’t breaking news — the industry's situation is dire, and it feels grandiose to refer to live theatre as an industry. It’s a business, sure, and a craft and a calling. It’s a loose confederation of massive arts institutions and scrappy black boxes and festivals, children's theaters and improv spaces, and dinner theaters; it’s thousands of creative professionals and radiant amateurs all hustling to either make a living or to continue getting away with making something they all love deeply.

Broadway fights for its life every year, but all across the country, theaters big and small, nonprofit and commercial, are in financial trouble. Funding is drying up, and audiences are staying home. Budgets are getting slashed, leading to punishing layoffs and once vibrant performance spaces closing. Those who remain are asked to do more with less. The artists suffer, and so do their communities.

Is the problem expensive tickets? Should they be cheaper? Is Shakespeare produced too much? Not enough? More musicals? Is theatre boring? Should plays be ninety minutes long? Should they sell blueberry muffins in the lobby next to the espresso machine? What if we let ticket buyers eat blueberry muffins in their seats? These questions were being asked before the pandemic-inspired lockdowns, but in the years following that national nightmare, the state of the theatre has only gotten worse. There are more questions and fewer answers.

Besides, has anything gotten better? Movie theaters are desperate for hits, and screenings are full of inconsiderate zombies staring at their phones in the darkness. Restaurants? Bookstores? Museums? Are people going out? Do they want to? Are they waiting for a new mysterious infectious disease? Or a surge of the current one? Have we replaced entertainment with distraction? Are we satisfied with endless streams of cheap, disposable, minute-long videos?

There are so many excuses not to go to the theatre, such as, “I don’t want to put on pants.” I know there’s this stereotype that theatre is an overpriced two-hour nap, and, you know, sometimes it is, but more often than not, the theatre is restorative, thrilling, and deeply moving. It is one of the most effective ways to teach empathy. The theatre is the original safe space, the fire at night. Every hairless ape is embraced.

Sure, theatre can be a snooze. That’s life. If I were a marketing guru, I’d suggest the slogan: Theatre isn’t boring; you’re boring. For the record, I am not a marketing guru for apparent reasons. I’m just a guy who thinks theatre rocks.

I’m spitballing here.

There are so many very smart, very passionate people with solutions to theatre’s woes, from increased government support to innovative ideas embracing new technologies and audiences. One suggestion I’ve read is to reconsider how much money should go to administrators and how much should go to artists. We’re not talking about a lot of money here, but some money can be a lot to someone without money.

All of these are good ideas, of course.

And these questions they’re asking are intense and urgent—how do playwrights, directors, and producers appeal to younger audiences? How do they keep loyal subscribers happy? And more importantly, how do they lure people who haven’t been to a play in years back to the theatre… or those who have never been?

But something is missing. There’s a bigger question to ask—a daunting one. It's existential. Simple. Everything else is blocking and tackling. What do we value? No one really asks this. Usually, the rich and powerful tell them what they value. Politics is often described as theatre, and, like, yeah. It is. Fully-subsidized.

The small questions can be ignored until further notice.

This is no time for modest proposals. We need big ideas. I don’t think politics is the answer, either. What is needed is a happening, man—a conference of the birds. A constitutional convention, only instead of debating a constitution, we debate the whole point of living because working for a paycheck can’t be God’s plan for His children. We know he wants us to love each other, yet look at us. Ugh.

The only way to save the theatre — and, in turn, the national soul because the stakes are high — is to reevaluate our cultural values. Oh yeah. Conservatives are going to hate it. We will need to take over all the baseball stadiums and megachurches to do this right. It has to be IRL. I propose not inviting the tech guys, but we should because every voice is blah blah blah. But this needs to happen in person, like Model UN, Galactus-sized.

It would be a massive project, a long and perilous journey fraught with danger but worth it, especially if the country could dedicate a minute — thirty seconds — no time at all — to ever so briefly look into their hearts and consider what’s truly important to us as a society, with all due respect to anarchists whose combative and fanatical belief in radical individualism is the reason they aren’t invited to parties.

I’m no radical. I love the theatre. I am a capitalist, in fact. I don’t really have a choice in the matter. I have to pay my rent. But that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize our national religion. Capitalism is a big boy and can take the mockery. One thing that America has lost over the last few years is any sense of who is Goliath and who is David. Capitalism will never be the underdog. Ever.

The capitalists are usually unmoved by the theatre’s plight. Sure, a few “support the arts,” which is how the rich have traditionally displayed wealth—that and yachts and horses. Once upon a time, you could identify an aristocrat by the size and splendor of their hat. I miss that.

The capitalist, when pressed, always suggests, smugly, that theatre should be able to thrive in the marketplace, which is to place way too much faith in the marketplace. Capitalism isn’t a force of nature; it’s an economic system that was invented by men, and therefore, it is inherently flawed. Flawed and diverse: capitalism isn’t a monolithic social and political apparatus, you know. It can be tweaked.

American-style capitalism is different from China’s or Denmark’s. There are a few fundamentals underpinning all of these systems, like the fairytale-like belief that some men, and it’s always men, are inherently more awesome than others and that profits are the only morality. But I’m pretty certain everything else is negotiable. Economic systems are expressions of values.

Some countries choose to pay for college, for instance or insist that companies give their employees generous benefits. Other countries pour small amounts of money into the arts. Those are not America’s values. That is not our capitalism. I would like that to change. In America, shareholder value is venerated at the expense of everything else: the environment, the children, the old. The marginalized and vulnerable. We despise weakness. American-style capitalism is dog-eat-dog, and then the final dog is eaten by a CEO with an MBA from Harvard who never shows his teeth when he smiles.

America worships the boss, landlord, and owner, whether they inherited their property or fortunes or fought tooth and nail for it. These are our values: ceaseless toil, greed, victory. The capitalist will tell you greed is self-interest, but self-interest is subjective. I think a healthy, stable, robust American theatre is in my self-interest — binging dimly lit true crime docs on McTV or Jeff Bezos’ Home Shopping Network is broiling my brain. It is in my self-interest to demand that my tax dollars go to domestic arts education programs instead of hellfire missile manufacturers.

I know the capitalists will roll their eyes at those sentiments. But greed isn’t ambition or hunger. Greed is cruelty wearing an “all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet” bib. Greed values one thing: more.

What is it that we value? I’m genuinely asking—you and me—us and them.

One answer is we value whatever sells. Whatever is cheap and fast and highly addictive. Ah, yes, American-style capitalism. The internet — the greatest mass communication invention in human history — sells you; your likes and dislikes, your late-night porn searches, and your every single purchase online, from prescription drugs to foot creams and meat snacks. Is that the total of our collective identity? Who we are?

I think it would be nice to take a break and sort some shit out. What are our shared values? Do we have any? One, maybe? We all value nachos, right? There has to be common ground, and if there isn’t, at least at first, I know an art form that excels at exploring the human condition.

The only way to save the theatre is to engage the entire country in a single conversation, and that’s impossible, of course, because the American imagination has been obliterated by commerce, the way miners use dynamite to blow open mountains and then sift through the rubble — the bits and pieces — for valuable elements. Oh, look, a fragment of information. A splinter of someone’s brain. A want, a fear, a hope. Scavengers.

We’re all simultaneously special snowflakes and statistics in a spreadsheet, each of us beautiful and different and constantly being reduced to our most basic impulses by marketers and spin doctors.

But if it were possible to command the attention of our fellow citizens, I’d ask: What is important? In life? I genuinely want to know. Is it making money? Hoarding wealth? Slurping oysters in luxury bunkers while millions worry about hospital bills? Is that really what is important in life? What do we value? Is it gold? Ambition? Do we admire the prince? The backstabber? The lottery winner? The weasel? The nobody who became somebody?

I ask you, what do you value? What is important? I am smitten with the fantasy that Americans can agree on anything, but this question should be asked anyway, over coffee and pastries, or during a stroll in the park, or in the parking lot of the theater after the show. The theatre kid in me imagines big, dramatic scenarios where I stand before a great throng like regal Ceasar or a flamboyant post-apocalyptic warlord and bellow truths — but real life isn’t changed by speeches. Sorry, Hamlet. Or overlong internet essays. Sorry, John. The question “What is important?” is intimate and requires eye contact. Change only happens one heart at a time, starting with your own.

One of my greatest weaknesses is a naive belief in the power of sonorous and noble calls to action. I suppose that’s the easy way and Americans love the easy way. So, I will speak for myself then—cue spotlight.

Theatre is important—to me, at least. Musicals, one-person shows, farces, gutting dramas, avant-garde head trips—all are important to me. I need to spend time away from screens and awkwardly fidget in folding chairs or cushy seats with dozens/hundreds of others, mmhmming along to actors transforming into kings and queens, lovers and angels, monsters and everyday folks. I want stories, all kinds of different stories. I want to hear voices, especially those who are not like me. I promise we’ll all miss the theatre if it's allowed to disappear. We’ll miss it terribly.

What’s important to me? Family. Friends. Listening to and showing up for those who love and see me. Those who accept me for who I am. It’s important to eat, laugh, and tell each other everything will work out, even if it does not. It’s important to tell stories and to do the work, especially the work that never ends. The work will never be finished, and there is joy in that knowledge. The fight was fought before you were born, and it will continue. Patience and spine are important—compassion, kindness, and creativity, the kind that glows in the darkness like fireflies at midnight. All important. Those are my values. It’s important to step out onto the stage and open yourself up. It’s important to share dreams, even those that feel like memories.

Grief. Friendship. Jazz hands.

My debut memoir, ‘Theatre Kids,’ comes out June 18th.

You can preorder it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or support your local independent bookstore.

Look how happy I am (don’t worry, I’m dead inside.)

Photo: Ryan Selzer

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John DeVore

I created Humungus, a blog about pop culture, politics, and feelings. Support the madness: https://johndevore.medium.com/subscribe