Examining the State of American Theater through the NAPAAL Collection

The latest blog post from Maria Bastos-Stanek (Art History and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, '17), this year's National Arts Policy Archive and Library (NAPAAL) Intern at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).

As an intern at the NEA (see image below of interns), I get to attend special meetings with the directors of different artistic disciplines. During these meetings each director introduces themselves, talks about their career paths, and about their positions at the NEA. So far I’ve had the privilege to meet and speak to the directors of Arts Education, Theater and Musical Theater, Folk and Traditional Arts, and I even got to attend a special lunch meeting with the NEA Chairman, Jane Chu.

One of my favorite meetings so far has been with Greg Reiner (see second image below). Reiner joined the NEA in September of 2015. He has an impressive background in theater management, and was most recently the executive director of Classic Stage Company in New York City. I had a chance to sit down with Reiner for a second meeting to ask him questions pertaining to my next research paper, which I will write about using publications from the NAPAAL collection as part of my internship.

While doing research for my papers, one report about nonprofit theaters in the United States particularly stuck out to me: All America’s A Stage from 2008. What surprised me was the overall favorable data. For example, the number of nonprofit theaters doubled over a 15 year period from 1990-2005. Similarly, although theaters continue to concentrate in high-population states and metropolitan areas, the number of theaters in small and mid-sized population states has grown substantially as well.

A lot has changed since 2008, the great recession had a significant impact on the arts. It was my goal going into our conversation to develop some type of understanding of how to approach data-driven information that may be out of date yet still contains important information, which is the case for many of the publications in the NAPAAL collection. I came out, though, with an increased appreciation for the discipline of theater and a critical perspective on why theater, in particular, will never lose its relevance as an art form - like data about it might.

Reiner started our conversation by stating an undeniable fact: theater has been around for thousands of years and, for approximately that same amount of time, people have bemoaned its impending death. Another undeniable fact about theater is: for it to work, to perform a play, a group of people must agree to be in the same communal space at the same time, taking part in the same collective experience of watching or performing together. The communal quality of being in the same place at the same time is the essence of theater, and watching a play online or through live streaming cannot replicate that experience, therefore there will always be a demand and interest in theatrical forms of entertainment.

Reiner was quick to comment, though, that theaters are taking steps to ensure their longevity in the era of social media and on-demand entertainment that’s revolutionizing how we interact with one another and consume the arts. Theaters, in particular, are moving into non-traditional spaces such as in public community places, while retaining the crucial element of small, intimate communal spaces intact. Nonprofits theaters are now more likely than ever to make theaters more public and accessible, are more likely to meet community needs and preferences, and incorporate diversity in all aspects of theater productions.

Rest assured, there is no crisis in the survival of theater, despite what the data may ominously predict. Indeed, certain parts of the theater universe are expanding. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, which features a cast made up of primarily people of color, has done extremely well on Broadway, unexpectedly resonating with large sectors of the U.S. population, and has received rave reviews and won multiple Tony awards. Similarly, the NEA just released a 2016 roundtable on theater opportunities for deaf artists, of which Reiner described deaf artists as having a “moment” right now.

Reiner’s insightful comments and references will form the foundation for my next paper, which you can check out on the NAPPAL collection online archive later this summer.

The NAPAAL internship is a funded internship that provides a career-building experience for a UMass Amherst or Five College student interested in a career in arts management or arts policy. The internship was made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Women for UMass Amherst Fund, the UMass Department of History of Art and Architecture's Ann Mochon's Summer Internship Award, and the Thomas F. Parker Arts Fund for Student Initiatives.