Theater needs to adapt to new audiences

As the line producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Amelia Acosta Powell coordinates the creative process of play production with the artistic administration of the theater. Powell came to OSF from the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where she was the casting director and artistic associate. We met at Starbucks Coffee Company on East Main Street in Ashland.

EH: Do you see the nature of theater changing?

AAP: Theater goes through national and international trends. The American theater is at a major tipping point because we’re seeing artistic leadership change all over the country. The vast majority of artistic leaders have historically been older white men. I’ve been excited to see recent announcements from major theaters announcing women artistic directors, some women of color, even some women who are earlier in their careers than the men who have been running these theaters. I think we’re about to see a real paradigm shift in terms of the priorities of the stories that are told and the values that are espoused in the work.

In terms of ticket sales, we’re seeing a lot more interest in new plays written by a diverse authorship, which is really exciting. In continuing to find a balance of how the classics are honored and celebrated for the beautiful works of literature that they are, OSF has been a leader in innovating with the classics, making every Shakespeare play a new play, to have resonance with contemporary times.

EH: How does theater relate to politics?

AAP: Art is always political. Right now, I think we’re experiencing a huge upsurge of artist’s voices that have something to say about the current socio-political situation in our country. We know that some of the best works of art through history have come out of intense political turmoil: the art of Brecht or Boal, for example.

Even before the election, artists have been pivotal to the conversation with series of commissions like OSF’s American Revolutions, which both “Roe” and “Sweat” are a part of. That’s an example of a theater going to a playwright and saying, “We need to hear your voice right now. What do you have to say that may resonate with American history — but has also something to say for today?” I’m excited about the rest of those commissions coming in. Nothing now can be written without the context of the world we’re living in.

EH: What is on the horizon?

AAP: We’re going to see innovations as we adapt to new audiences. Theaters are always grappling with: “How can we serve the loyal and essential patron base that we have, and simultaneously have something interesting and exciting to offer to newer younger audiences, that will keep the theater alive for generations to come?”

For new generations we have to acknowledge that their lives have been very different from ours. It’s going to be an existential question, because people have access to almost unlimited on-line entertainment. We have to find a balance between acknowledging and incorporating all the new technologies that are available, not leaving behind the single most essential thing about live theater: Those are real people, just like you, that are standing on stage, and anything can happen. It’s that thrill or excitement of the response to the in-the-moment stimuli that you can’t experience on TV, or in a video game, or any of those other formats.

We experience a level of empathy for the characters that we see on the stage. There’s nothing like that connection that is drawn between an audience member and the actor on the stage. Live theater actually trains us on how to be human.

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