It requires more resources and a bolder art
This is a cultural article which is part of Then24’s opinion journalism.
At the same time as the theater season takes a summer break, a debate arises about the failing audience and the theater’s relevance. Community is what drives us to the theater, some theater directors claim Today’s News survey, which Viktor Malm in Expressen rightly dismisses. At the same time, he regrets that the theatre’s social value has been eroded, if this the “majority” (uncertain which ones) must be convinced.
Johan Hilton has previously claimed in DN that there is a changed “buying behavior”, that the pandemic has made it difficult for the marketing departments to conduct a “forward-looking audience and marketing work” and that it is we, “individual cultural consumers”, on whom the responsibility rests. Leif Zern in the same newspaper wants to see another explanation, that the theater “attacks our senses”, which wanted the “overwhelmed reality”. Thus an aesthetic argument, that the theater literally raises its voice at the expense of the more subtle, lingering effects the theater may have.
Theater art lives on then as long as it cares about its uniqueness. All attempts to imitate other cultural expressions (film, digital gaming, etc.) are doomed to fail as long as it does not convert them into specifically theatrical expressions. Its relevance depends on the degree to which it succeeds in (presenting) social, cultural or moral-philosophical issues that do not have a better forum elsewhere. Sonia Hedstrand wrote in Today’s news about art, that there is an imperative of goodness, that government grants and orders for public art must not provoke, but must confirm the prevailing values or specific interest groups, as minorities.
Something similar is noticeable on the theater stages, let me call it an affirmative imperative, that the values that a play stems into are the same as the audience’s. It does not get, like Lars Forssell once desired, lay thumbtacks on the red velvet chairs. One consequence of this confirmation imperative is that the institutional theaters stroke their audiences, while the free groups get exactly the audience that the group stands for, politically as well as aesthetically. Of course I generalize, but that’s about how you sell tickets.
Hilton’s reflexive choices of an economic terminology is a sign of the times. As the school has reduced the aesthetic subjects and can barely teach the students to read and write, at the same time as the humanities in higher education have been marginalized, the basic competence of especially the younger audience has eroded. Every theater production must start from the beginning: inform about – “communicate” – who the playwright is, what the play is about and, as if it were an experience park, how fantastic emotions it will evoke. No wonder the only department that has expanded into theaters in recent decades is the marketing department.
With the increased demand for self-financing, which means ticket sales (sponsorship is scarce), and where the quarterly reports control the business (a certain percentage occupancy is required for a production to live on), the theater has become confusingly similar to any commercial business. (Suzanne Osten gives some hair-raising examples in yesterday’s DN). The theater has become a commodity producer and the audience its customers – “cultural consumers” – a twist that has affected more and more of society’s tax-financed institutions and activities set up for the country’s individuals as citizens, not as customers of a department store.
The theater audience are not customers, but citizens. As an audience, as with all art worthy of the name, I want to learn to see something else, to have my view of art and reality disturbed.
Theater art has through modern history moved in a kind of borderland, foreshadowing societal change (Ibsens A dollhouse) or criticized societal structures (Strindbergs Miss Julie, Lars Noréns Person circle) and sometimes gone so far as to create scandals. Of course, it has also renewed its art form, finding aesthetic expressions in step with the times.
In its best moments, the theater creates an alloy between the aesthetic experience and the intellectual content. (Of course, for such an assimilation over time, a school system that places greater emphasis on humanities and aesthetic subjects is required, but that is a different, and sad, story; perhaps a play material.)
But for this time is required, and what gives the theater time is money. What is missing is thus not primarily an audience, but the financial resources that provide space for a theatrical art that is relevant and interesting to the citizens of society. If the theatre’s raison d’être is to be governed by audience figures, both the theater and society are really bad. And as a tax-paying audience, I expect not just one or two thumbtacks on the chair, but above all to be addressed as a citizen, not as a consumer with the opportunity to invoke the right of withdrawal.