Now Plus 50

What comes next for Off-Broadway? The last 50 years may offer a few clues.

This doesn't mean repudiating technology in our daily lives: We can hardly communicate now without computers, and how much music would any of us know without recordings? But the value of the theater lies far from its electronic gadgetry and spectacle, all the flying cars on Broadway notwithstanding. Our "virtual," illusionized society longs for reality—so much so that they now manufacture a special brand of it just for TV. The theater's superiority to all the mechanical arts lies in its obstinately non-virtual three-dimensionality: It is made by humans for humans, with the one group in the same room as the other. Let this be our motto: all human all the time. No movie can ever claim as much.

With working and shopping by computer, music downloads, and movies on demand, Americans live in increasing isolation from each other. Not by coincidence, movies are facing a decline in attendance, as they did when TV came in in the '50s. Yet theater, a craft limited in the numbers it can reach, shows no signs of shrinkage. Why? Because it is a lifeline, an unexampled method for bringing people together—an act that is political in itself, even when the substance involved is unpolitical. The theater is a civilizing force, and ours is a time that increasingly lacks civility, let alone civilization.

We could go further: For the theater to civilize others, it has to be civilized itself. By which I emphatically don't mean that it should strike the elitist attitude of "Art is good for you." Waving Culture around like a castor-oil spoon is the worst way to bring people together. That a piece of theater appeals to a limited audience may be a fact, but should not in itself be a point of pride, and there is no lack of downtown theater today that prides itself on its "edge" and its off-putting distance from audience comprehension and feeling. Civilization, on the contrary, is a welcoming and egalitarian place, never attempting to compel admiration for its loftiness nor to pander for the sake of easy praise. The dignity of the profession is, or should be, part of its sacred mystery. The religious extremists who would ban all but anodyne art aren't the only Americans who think our society should be in closer touch with the sacred.

illustration: Jason Carreiro

Some of downtown's elitist streak comes from its confusion—the understandable confusion of a media-bred generation—between the mass and the main-stream. But mass taste is not any kind of mainstream: It's the hot air that fouls the water when a main stream is dammed. Salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have been learning what grim results that can bring. For the theater to survive the next half-century, it needs to rediscover its own mainstream, its simple gift for telling stories, for displaying characters in action. Pushed to society's margins, it is all the better positioned to be observant, instantly alert to what goes on in the world around it. In the coming persecutions, the coming collapse, it needs to travel light. Which is exactly what it did in the late 1950s, when people began doing coffeehouse theater Off-Off-Broadway. Space is tighter in New York; the coffeehouses have been supplanted by Starbucks, but the theater will not die. The big corporate chains that have squeezed us out of so many spaces are likely to vanish first. Around the corner from my apartment, there is a big empty store, unrented since one such chain went bust around five years ago. I keep thinking what a good Off-Off theater it would make.

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