How come live theatre's in trouble? The standard arguments say we're not optimizing social media, ticket prices are too high, we're not reaching into other communities, and the LA Times does a lousy job covering local theater. But that's not the real problem.
The real problem is: we're desensitized.
Channel 2, today's KCBS, was LA's first TV station. It began live programs in 1938 to just a few hundred homes. In '39 it had programming six days a week, but that was drastically cut back during World War II, cutting its audience even further.
Lowell Thomas began blazing the TV news trail in 1940, when an entire news program lasted ten to fifteen minutes. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow set a tv record with his 30-minute special on Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Newspapers and radio dominated. We could dirty our hands by reading all about it or sit around the radio and lean in as mother darned our socks. We didn't see live images in any meaningful way until well into the 1950s. So imagine sitting in the audience for Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible, and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
These plays broke ground and reminded us how to behave or begged us to question the effects of war, depression, truthfulness, self-awareness, humility, mendacity, and greed on us, our families, and our communities. Audiences were touched. Or offended. They hadn't seen anything like it. People didn't talk about sexual abuse or genocide in polite circles. Today, we do it freely and often.
And because we talk about it, early 21st Century people who put on plays -- and their audiences -- are at a disadvantage. Is there anything left to shock us? Teach us? We have read it all, heard it all, said it all.
The questions of ticket prices, LA Times coverage, social media, expanded communities ... they're meaningless unless we first ask, how do we break ground today?
Having just written and directed Altarcations at Hollywood Fringe, I put myself at risk of asking a question without being included in the answer, but ... Of all the plays you have seen in the past few years, how many broke new ground for you? Not, "how many moved you," because we all can be moved by Feed the Birds now and again. But, which works taught you something new? What play left you in your seat after your row emptied out? Which is the first to come to mind months later?
As the LA theater community forms a producers league and comes off its Fringe high and scouts out new works, we need to ask ourselves: can we give our audiences something they have not yet seen or heard? And I mean beyond the classics that collapse time. Because, if we can't, we're sunk.
(Steve Julian is a playwright and host of KPCC's Morning Edition. His play "Altarcations" was in the Hollywood Fringe Festival.)