I think theatre should be subsidized. There. I said it. And I know many will disagree with me.
Many people I know think theatre (and all art for that matter) should be at the very least cost-recovery and at the very most revenue generating. This is a popular stance among those who view theatre as a form of entertainment. There are certainly forms of theatre that seem to be exclusively, if not solely, designed to entertain. Broadway, musicals, some theatre festivals are all designed to attract as many people as possible and make as much money as possible.
That’s fine I guess if that’s what you want to do. Certainly, there’s a market for it. The question remains, however: does the market exist because of consumer demand, or do consumers exist because of market indoctrination?
What motivates popular theatre (like Phantom of the Opera, for example)? Do they create it solely for the revenue? Mainly for the revenue? If so, what does that say about the quality of popular productions? Does it have substance? Does it nourish our soles in lasting, meaningful ways, or does it just make us laugh and gasp fleetingly?
I don’t believe the primary purpose of theatre is to entertain. If it were, why must we go to the theatre to watch it? Why must it be live? Why can’t it be recorded in perfect, sanitized form and shown on a screen?
I believe the primary purpose of theatre is to effect social change. I believe theatre for centuries (including Shakespeare and Molière) has been about ridiculing and questioning social norms, positing progression of civilization, and establishing equalities and liberties. I believe theatre still fills this role today. I believe we must go to theatre to watch it because we need to experience it. We need to take what we see and hear (and touch and smell in some cases) and analyze it according to our current world views; we need to use it to take inventory of our own paradigms and see if there are ways we can change.
Because I think theatre is for effecting social change, I don’t think ticket sales should determine what content graces the stage. Similarly, I don’t think universities or colleges should be revenue generating; they, too, are about exploring ideas and embracing change.
As soon as vehicles for making change are motivated by revenue, the system that makes the revenue gets to decide what ideas get to be taught and ultimately what changes get to be made. In effect, theatre becomes counterproductive.
I accept there’s a place for commercial theatre and companies should be free to produce such works. I think it’d be a failure, however, for every theatre (and by extension, every play) to follow this pattern.
Playwrights, directors, and actors should be free to explore, criticize, analyze, incite, and effect.