The Future of Theatre

It all started with Greek and Roman theatrics. Actors wore masks to portray different characters and played out parts of their mythologies and tragedies. It was a form of expression that allowed an intriguing way to share the stories of their culture. Theatre then evolved during the Renaissance period with Shakespeare writing many classics that would change the way theatre was performed entirely. Shows would sometimes last for days as the length of the drama continuously elongated as play writing became more sophisticated. Theatre had evolved with the times yet kept the same cultural impact, if not greater. While theatre has survived for thousands of years, the 21st century has seen drastic and dramatic changes towards the future of the art form as technology becomes more sophisticated, theaters readapt to COVID health standards, cancel culture divides artistry, and as the art turns away from traditional theatrical methods into a more contemporary drama.

Engineering Technology

Kong puppet in King Kong the Musical

Theatre adapts to the world around it to tell its stories. Technologies have only aided in the storytelling capabilities of the art and have become a large part of what makes a show “great”. For example, with new innovative technologies, shows like King Kong: The Musical can be brought to life. Innovation with puppetry allowed the legend of Kong to be put on a live stage. The puppet weighs 1.2 tons, requires 15 people to operate, and cost $35 million to create (Lunden). The puppet brings live theatre to the stunning spectacle which it has been known for. Kong is also able to make facial expressions which portray emotion and even picks up the actress in it’s hand at one point in the production. The show itself had 29 previews and 324 regular performances after closing in August of 2019.

Miniature Model Stage of “Hamilton” with turn table in center

Another show that set the tone for expanding technology in the theatre world is Hamilton. At the center of the stage there are three separate turntables that allow a litany of dramatic effects. It can portray movement, passing of time, as well as just looking cool. It has become one of the most iconic pieces in the show and remains the core center of the show’s movement, functioning, and storytelling. It set the tone for other shows like Hadestown, which uses similar turntables with a one-of-a-kind circular center that descends below the stage for the illusion of travelling to the Underworld. While the feats of these shows were truly significant and revolutionary in the theatrical world, there are more innovative ways in which theatre has evolved with technology.

The Jason Bourne Stuntacular in Universal Studios Orlando is a stunt show that incorporates a 28-foot-tall by 130-foot-wide LED screen projection that runs on a video game engine and contains over 19 million pixels. This technology allows the show to become immensely more immersive than anything in theatre before as they also incorporate real elements and set pieces that match the setting created by the screen as well as move with it. According to Deb Buyank, vice president of entertainment for Universal Orlando, the screen “creates images so detailed that it blurs the lines between what is on screen and what is on stage” (Bibaldo). Accompanying the amazing stunt performers who hang from maneuvering cranes, hang off cars, and execute fantastic fight choreography, the technology in this show is the icing on top of the cake. The experience is truly one that raises the bar of live performing and truly sets the tone for the future of the arts. One scene that shows the true synthesizing of technology and performance is one where a building is moved on stage that stands approximately 28 feet tall and Jason Bourne throws a person off it into a hole that quickly opens up on the stage floor, visually swallowing the person. In the hole, there are unseen fall-pads to catch the stunt performer without harm. Without every single one of the pieces working together in perfect sync, serious injury or even death would come upon the performers; however, the reward for the risk is truly wonderful as the audience sits — and stays — at the edge of their seats in anticipation, excitement, and wonder. Buyank even goes on to say that this type of technology could have larger incorporations within the entertainment industry: half-time shows at the Super Bowl, Taylor Swift concerts, Mario Kart — the list goes on. With continual technological innovations like these, theatre will become even more immersive thus increasing the joy of the theatrical experience; however, there have been plenty of setbacks for the future of the theatre.

COVID-19

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggling time for all, it has been especially challenging for those in the entertainment industry. After all, Broadway alone supports over 100,000 jobs and contributes almost $15 billion to New York’s economy; however, what happens when those jobs are no longer sustainable. Broadway theaters have a minimum of 500 seats and can no longer pack the house with audience members due to the risk of spreading infection. Without selling out the house, theaters cannot sustain themselves with the lack of ticket sales. So, all theaters closed until safety against the virus was guaranteed, a feat yet to be achieved to this date. Rumors of reopening Broadway on the September 14th, 2021, has many optimistic for the future. Especially since over half of adults have received their first dose of a COVID vaccine, as of April 18, 2021, normal life and reopening society seems nearer than ever (Pereira). It’s extremely important for this industry to reopen as it brings people together and — currently — people are more divided than ever.

One of the main reasons which theatre is an important creative outlet for all is that it is known as an escape. When disaster occurs, the way people made it through mentally was through the arts: reading, music, poetry, art, etc. During World War II, people in Europe gathered in concrete bunkers with a piano in the center of the room and risked being bombed just so they could celebrate being alive one more time; however, that type of gathering is now the very thing which medical experts advise against as that is how the COVID virus spreads (Kenyon). With social distancing guidelines, normal means of live performance have been stifled to the near point of extinction. With thousands of theaters closing for good across the world after going bankrupt, it is hard to imagine the future of the industry.

Cancel Culture

On top of the increasing health concerns when reopening theaters, theatre companies have started to become careful with which shows they produce due to an increase in social sensitivity. With social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it has become incredibly easy for people to communicate over common subjects. While these mediums are ones with many positive facets, this large amount of communication breeds the over analyzation of pop culture and other medias. We have seen many celebrities be “cancelled” due to problematic tweets or Facebook posts — some happening years prior; however, cancel culture has recently turned its eyes to Broadway and other theatrical shows. (It is important to preface that cancelling a person or thing has historically been done with the intention of bringing consequence to negative actions executed in the past; however, the question must be asked, to what extent is cancelling someone or something ok?)

Many shows that have been cancelled are shows written in the “classical era” of musical theatre. For example, shows and music that have problematic ideas, or have been written by people with ideologies that no longer align with society, are no longer fit for the eyes of the world. To further define the word problematic, racist, misogynistic, patriarchal, sexist ideals are the terms which are being referred. This also includes, but is no limited to, sexual situations, violence, and other sensitive subjects. However, while one can argue that some of these things were social norms when pieces were written, what about contemporary pieces?

Photo taken from Disney+ showing of Hamilton

Recently on Twitter, a hashtag titled #cancelHamilton was trending and put the hit-Broadway show on the chopping block. The show was beloved by many inside and outside of the theatrical community all while setting records: being nominated for the most Tony Awards (16) while winning 11. Yet, the show still went under scrutiny for reasons of the show’s treatment or addressing of slavery and women. “Hamilton is a show that features slave owners where slavery is hardly mentioned and goes a step further to glorify them (i.e. George Washington)” (Peterson). Furthermore, people took offense to the sexualization of one character, Maria Reynolds, in a song called “Say No To This”. The entirety of the song revolves around the principle of a married Alexander Hamilton being unable to say no to the sexually-objectified Reynolds. While these are certainly issues which should be discussed, for the purpose of storytelling, these issues were handled in the proper way. The show does reference slavery a few times and do establish the sinfulness of Hamilton’s and Washington’s actions; however, the show is based on Hamilton’s life and not about slavery or the treatment of women. Moreover, the show puts on highlight on women empowerment with characters Angelica Schuyler challenging the wit of the founding fathers all while being her own person woman. The ideas of slavery and women are referenced few times in the show, yet when they are, they are not idolized in any way, instead scrutinized.

In order to preserve the future of the theatrical industry, cancel culture needs to understand the extents of their sensitivity. While certain ideals like racism and sexism should not be encouraged, creative freedoms must be preserved. Furthermore, the expression of those creative freedoms has seen a drastic change over the past two decades.

Focus on the Drama — Not Dance

Since the turn of the century, plays and musicals have turned to much darker tones and plots and have turned away from dancing, which used to play a large part of musicals. With shows such as Dear Evan Hansen, Heathers, and Spring Awakening, shows which all revolve around mature subjects — death, sex, and murder — the use of storytelling through dance has greatly diminished. Comparing these to those which contain heavy amounts of dancing, we see a trend in contemporary shows focusing more on the acting and singing in musicals. Shows including Kiss Me Kate, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, and Chicago are known almost entirely for their dancing and unique styles. Kiss Me Kate and Chicago are known for using the Bob Fosse dance style while 42nd Street is arguably the most well-known tap show. In these musicals, storytelling through dance is the key focus of these shows while they still contain large amounts of acting and singing. This has decreased the need of the “triple-threat”.

Cast of A Chorus Line performing “One”

A triple-threat is a term used to describe an actor or actress who acts, dances, and sings all at a professional standard. This label used to be the bottom line for anyone who wanted to work on Broadway; however, we are now seeing theatre companies make casting decisions based upon mainly acting and singing ability. For example, in the production of Dear Evan Hansen, every character in the show has an extremely important acting and singing role, yet there is absolutely no dancing in the show. While one could argue that a step-touch would be considered dancing and choreography, the show lacks “legitimate” dancing; therefore, why would casting directors pick someone who dances extremely well over someone who sings and has little to no dance experience. This philosophy has proven true for many other productions including, but not limited to, Be More Chill, Waitress, and Heathers. The future of Broadway appears to be one that continues this trend. While there are exceptions to this trend — Book of Mormon, Hamilton, Hadestown — the actors who will get cast will be stronger in their acting and singing rather than dancing. The only time a dancer will be picked over a singer/actor nowadays is for heavy dancing ensemble roles.

Conclusion

As a person pursuing the musical theatre industry as a career, I take in all this information with a grain of salt. Understanding where an industry is going is a great advantage for anyone who is seeking a career. Having a full perspective on the challenges and limitations that come with the job will only aid me in the future. Theatre has always prevailed over multiple centuries and there is no reason to believe that it will not prevail now. Even with the challenges that COVID and cancel culture creates, technological advancement and the evolution of the art paired with the overall love for the art will surpass these challenges. While the art has moved away from traditional styles, all forms of theatre are still entertaining to many and allow for the creative outlet which has helped so many people through hard times.

References

Bilbao, Richard. “Universal Exec Gives Details on the Making of New Bourne Stuntacular Show”. Orlando Business Journal. f. Accessed 20 April 2021.

Hodge, Matthew. “21st-Century Broadway Musicals and the ‘Best Musical’ Tony Award: Trends and Impact.” Arts, vol. 9, no. 2, 2020, p. NA. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A641750253/AONE?u=napl44696&sid=AONE&xid=a5b38712. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.

Kenyon, Nicholas. “Not Back to Showbusiness: ‘This Wide and Universal Theatre’: Reflections on the Future of the Arts.” TLS. Times Literary Supplement, no. 6115, 2020, p. 24+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A631894335/AONE?u=napl44696&sid=AONE&xid=09d3a013. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Lederman, Marsha. “Playwright Wants Theatre ‘Cancel Culture’ to End.” Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada], 28 Jan. 2021, p. A14. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A649860576/OVIC?u=napl44696&sid=OVIC&xid=d9254a86. Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.

Pereira, Ivan. “Half of Americans Over 18 Have Received at Least 1 Vaccine Shot: CDC”. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/half-americans-18-received-vaccine-shot-cdc/story?id=77151708. Accessed 22 April 2021.

Peterson, Chris. Cancel ‘Hamilton’? — A Worthy Discussion or Cancel Culture Disruption? OnStageBlog. https://www.onstageblog.com/editorials/cancel-hamilton. Accessed 2 May 2021.

Theatremania. “Take a Tour Way Down Hadestown With Rachel Hauck and Rachel Chavkin.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCWZsq6TIUY. Accessed 8 April 2021.

From Naples, Florida. Student at Kent State University (BFA in Musical Theatre).

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