Toronto theatre artist Julie Tepperman tells this story about an attempt at conversion. At a musical performance at SummerWorks, she once met a man who didn't even realize he had wandered into a theatre festival. He didn't like attending theatre. So she quizzed him on his taste in movies, got him complimentary tickets for a show she thought he would enjoy, and he loved it.
Next, she put his name on her company's mailing list (she and her husband Aaron Willis run Convergence Theatre) hoping the man would come and see a production they were mounting the following summer. He didn't show up. Then, organizing a panel of non-theatregoers for another festival, she pressed him repeatedly by e-mail to participate. He finally responded and agreed, so she had her chance to ask him why he hadn't come out to the theatre again. Hadn't he seen her theatre's messages? No, he explained, he automatically junked anything that included the word "theatre."
Tepperman tells this story in a new book of essays and interviews published by the University of Toronto Press titled In Defence of Theatre – and it's that kind of anecdote that explains the title. In the 21st century, the performing arts are having difficulties drawing audiences: Willis reports that granting bodies suggest theatres budget for 30 per cent attendance! Not surprisingly, theatre practitioners feel defensive, as though they must justify live performance in an era where the digital, the virtual and the global rule.
Other contributors to this volume, edited by University of Toronto drama profs Kathleen Gallagher and Barry Freeman, often make a virtue of the reverse, describing a brand of theatre that is intensely live, intensely engaged and intensely local. Freeman, for example, writes about the Debajehmujig Storytellers on Ontario's Manitoulin Island and their recent attempts to incorporate the "four axes" of survival identified in Anishinaabeg teaching – building, planting, hunting and harvesting – directly into their performances.
Director and community arts worker Andrew Kushnir describes audience reactions to a work of verbatim theatre – in which the script is based on interviews with real people – about street youth. "Successful theatrical experiences," Kushnir writes, "have the potential to provide a therapeutic cocktail that is in short supply: stillness, a singular focus, and something that could be referred to as 'slow time.' " Similarly, playwright Catherine Banks describes theatre as the slow-food movement of the "information highway."
But not everyone included here sets theatre in opposition to the online world. York University theatre professor Laura Levin, who wants to see performance studies given more space in university drama programs, points out that everyone is performing these days: on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you junked all the e-mails about that kind of theatre, you might wind up feeling pretty lonely. So now that we can all be actors in our own little shows, maybe we don't feel the same need to watch professionals perform.
That's not just a metaphorical observation. Lethbridge-based director Nicholas Hanson argues loudly here that theatre companies aren't using the right tools to draw younger audiences. He points out that "audience engagement" is stuck in the marketing department, that social media campaigns are merely promotional and that discounted tickets (for seats that otherwise wouldn't have sold) treat young theatregoers as a commodity. "Companies have clearly demarcated theatre as something that is delivered to, not shared with, audiences," he writes.
And yet, Hanson believes that theatre potentially offers its audiences "a buffer for narcissism and a catalyst for [empathy]." He is not the only one: This book is filled with reminders of the social power of theatre, the way in which attendance fosters a certain kind of belonging.
Why, Kushnir wonders, is it heaven to catch a movie in a near-empty cinema, but hell to attend a play where there's only an audience of six? Watching a movie, something we can do at home as easily as in a cinema, offers the largely private pleasure of submerging oneself in a well-established alternate reality, but theatre demands group participation so that a more tenuous illusion can take hold. "People need to 'show up' to the theatre, both literally and figuratively. It's a demanding form," Kushnir writes.
It's a bit like Margaret Atwood's notion that the plane only stays up if all the passengers believe it can fly. Skepticism is fatal to the project.
So, theatre takes flight on the wings of belief. Finding enough acolytes to fill the seats may be challenging, but there will always be true believers who are creating new shows. Tepperman and Convergence Theatre will be performing at the Toronto Fringe Festival next month.