Theater Commentary: Facing Some Hard Truths

By Bill Marx

The time is overdue for a serious discussion of what is happening (or not happening) in Boston-area theaters. Just don’t expect to see anything in our sheepish mainstream media.

“Enjoy a Night at the Theater from the Comfort of Your Couch” runs the slogan in this recent advertisement for the Providence Players of Fairfax.

Theater writer Don Aucoin’s recent piece in the Boston Globe on the struggles of local theaters felt belated. It was as if a messenger in a Greek tragedy had missed his cue and stumbled onstage late. For well over a year, theaters of all sizes have lamented that audience attendance numbers have not recovered from the crippling hit they took during the pandemic. And they worried that if things didn’t turn around, more companies would go under, as did Watertown’s New Rep Theatre in October 2023. As I have written elsewhere, the situation has become especially dire for small theaters, the kind that present challenging new work where fledgling artists can take chances. Large and medium-sized theaters are playing it safe (politically and artistically), waddling along as they vacuum up the available resources. Overheated promotion doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. That might be because, in an economy increasingly obsessed with wooing besieged eyeballs, our stages are hawking as “bold” material that is more often than not conventional. Whatever the reasons, the sales job is not working, given that more and more of those eyeballs are glued to screens — or visors.

Aucoin and his interviewees mention some factors driving the downturn: aging audiences, rising costs, the triumph of technology, low season subscription numbers, and turned-off younger generations. (For a deeper dive, read Scott Timberg’s 2015 review of Michael J. Kaiser’s prescient Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America.) Here are a couple of other reasons. The systematic Balkanization of today’s audiences. Technology allows you to see what you want when you want to see it. And that flexibility includes stage performances. Why schlep to a local theater production (of unpredictable quality) when you can stay at home and — for a reasonable subscription price — view drama from around the globe, often with big name thespians? A decade or so ago the buzz word among stage companies was “community.” But they never really took that notion to heart. It was feel-good rhetoric used to pull in customers, and now they are (understandably) being drawn in another direction by cheaper and more convenient entertainment. It is not new that wealthy young donors are more interested in ameliorating current social problems than assisting the arts. But, as Amy Schiller argues in her excellent book The Price of Humanity: How Philanthropy Went Wrong and How to Fix It, today’s philanthropists have become determinedly entrepreneurial. “Effective altruism” is all the rage because its commercialized vision of generosity gives fat cats permission to demand returns on their charitable investments. Stage productions can’t deliver that kind of profit-driven, bottom-line data.

Aucoin didn’t mention another reason for theater’s decline in his piece, perhaps because it hits too close to home. Serious public discussion of the stage is nonexistent: the mainstream media, when it isn’t ignoring theater, spews out publicity friendly coverage. And this dearth of arts criticism inevitably levels artistic standards. Remove reasoned discrimination, turn reviewing into diplomacy or puffery, and what is left? The triumph of high tech marketing, an evolutionary turn that all but guarantees the rule of the fittest influencers. The major media powers-that-be — the Boston Globe, WGBH, and WBUR — have contributed next to nothing to a debate that we should be having about the future of Boston’s theaters. Have Aucoin and Co. ever dared question what our stages are producing? Registered notes of skepticism about bewildering artistic or economic decisions? Their attitude is — whatever is, is right. Readers and listeners have every reason to be shocked at the news that the city’s theaters are struggling: nobody deals with the big picture, while most of the local shows receive raves. By the way, is anybody rushing out to buy tickets for the productions that Aucoin and Co. huzzah? When I began reviewing theater in the early ’80s, the Boston Globe stage critic had real clout, particularly regarding local shows. Those days are long gone. The unfortunate upshot is that well-connected artistic institutions, wielding maximum “branding” power (looking at you, A.R.T.), rule the roost, so New York-obsessed “popular” entertainment reigns.

And the Broadway or Bust mentality, though profitable for a few, is not good for the art of the theater. In a recent podcast, Patti LuPone condemned today’s Broadway, which she characterized as a combination of “Disneyland, the circus, and Las Vegas.” Her explanation for what’s happening was no-nonsense: “Whoever intended to dumb down the citizens of America have done a fantastic job. We are dumb as shit. And you see it in the choices of material for the stage right now. It’s pop musicals and people are going to see what they know. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want to invest in something that might change them in some way.” That rush to placid escapism — which is not being countered by critics — brings up another contributor to theater’s decay: arts education in the schools is on life support. And that is a tragedy that keeps on giving. Without learning about theater at an early age, experiencing it at its best, kids don’t develop an appetite for live drama. These days audiences expect theater productions to look and sound like TV or films, and in order to survive, theater artists comply. It is a downward spiral that continues to undercut theater’s distinctive strengths. A generation or two has come along that doesn’t know what they are missing, and there have not been enough meaningful efforts to turn that around. In the Arts Fuse, Joan Lancourt has eloquently argued for the value of children’s theater. We need to think about ways to assert the value of live theater in the long term.

On top of that, this cultural illiteracy is thinning out the theatrical visions of our professional theaters. In his Substack column “The Honest Broker,” Ted Gioia has pointed out that sales of old music is far outstripping demand for new recordings. And he argues that this hunger for nostalgia ends up undercutting the economic vitality of the musical ecosystem. Theater, at least in the Boston area, is sliding in the opposite direction, though the outcome is just as unhealthy. Stagings of scripts by “classic” playwrights — Shakespeare, Jonson, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, O’Neill, Brecht, Bond, Kennedy, Fornés, and Churchill (these are among my heroes, feel free to add your own) — are on the endangered list.  The demand for new work is necessary — a critic should call for theater that reflects the times. Hearing from alternative voices is essential; it has been long overdue. So what’s the problem?

As Gore Vidal observed, we live in the United States of Amnesia. A sense of history is needed to nurture and inform the present, to educate artists and audiences about the rich accomplishments of the past — theatrical visions of yore can be expansive as well as limited. The current good versus bad guy scenario (enlightened present versus the benighted past) is very American: the rush to “empowerment” (from whatever perspective) discards or demonizes whatever is deemed to be uncomfortable or upsetting. Ironically, in some cases, these “classic” playwrights provide invaluable examples of dramatic dissent; these are powerful texts that resist contemporary political bromides. And then there is the eye-rolling hypocrisy of the omnipresent cries for diversity. Where are the productions of international theater? There are no plays on our boards from Israel, Palestine, China, Africa, etc. Fearful and defensive, our theaters are curling up into provincial balls — and squeezing the imaginative life out of themselves.

I don’t expect everyone to agree, and that is as it should be. But the time is overdue for a substantial discussion of what is happening (or not happening) in Boston-area theaters, an X-ray that goes beyond the Boston Globe‘s bland, self-protective snapshot. For example, it is a very good thing that the Huntington Theatre Company and the A.R.T. are now commending each other’s productions. (I remember a time when any kumbaya between these major regional theaters would have been unthinkable.) But why stop there? Theaters large and small should be exploring ways to unite and plan for the future, to share marketing, resources, ideas, and honest self-scrutiny. The pandemic has made it clear that we are all in it together, and real friends must be willing to tell each other hard truths.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Gerald Peary on February 14, 2024 at 11:24 am

    When you venture to see a play in Boston, 90% of the time it will be, at best, “pretty good,” but in no way substantially better than many dramas available on cable. Why leave the house? Especially when the “pretty good” plays are mostly directed in the most conventional musty manner. What we don’t get on cable are the great classic dramatists, surely a place that theater could venture. When was the last time that you saw in Boston a play by Aeschylus, Sophocles. Euripides, Aristophanes, Plautus, Moliere, Racine, Shaw, O’Casey, Yeats, Pirandello, and so on and so on? Yes, Bill Marx is right. The local drama critics accept the current mediocrity and are boosters for it, plugging every stage play because they want theater to go on. Sigh!

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 14, 2024 at 1:55 pm

      All true — our local critics airbrush reality. I would add that it is not only the major playwrights that we don’t see produced in the city, but international plays and scripts that reflect what is going on today, from the climate crisis and widening income inequality to the rise of American fascism.

      In The American Prospect, Rick Perlstein recently posed the question: “Why is there so little great art on the forces that find the U.S. on the brink of right-wing dictatorship?” Candidates were proposed from TV, literature, and film. Perlstein’s personal favorite was Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome. The tome is 1,074 pages long — it has been decades since I could wade through that much of King’s prose. So I can’t judge Perlstein’s ecstasy. I was not convinced by his homage.

      Plays in the current bubble world of theater that deal with fascism? Nada

      Hey, how about an enterprising stage company crafting an American update of Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine? Just a suggestion …

      • Steve on February 14, 2024 at 5:07 pm

        1)The past eight years have been so dizzying, with crises on every front, that it will take artists even more time to come up with substantial work about them.

        2) Whether leftist, liberal or conservative, few audiences will go see explicitly political work they may disagree with.

        3) The current emphasis on lived experienced and authenticity deters artists from making grand statements about the times. And there’s good reason why we got here – who wants to see a trust fund kid’s play about opioid addicts in Appalachia or women destroying their bodies for minimum wage at an Amazon warehouse? But how many writers from that community would be able to get their work seen in cities outside it?

        4)To get really cynical, artists are scared what might happen to them if America goes full fash.

        • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 14, 2024 at 5:40 pm

          All meaty points. A few counterpoints.

          1) The climate crisis, the threat of nuclear war, gun violence, fascist build-up, all of these emergencies have been been going on for over eight years now. When does ‘it takes time to respond’ turn into denial and downright complicity? Brecht satirically attacked German fascism as it was happening: the first of his openly anti-Nazi works premiered on 21 May 1938 in Paris. Theater used to be a place where current events could be reflected on quickly and economically.

          2) Catering to audience expectations has always been a pressure on playwrights. But that didn’t stop wily artists from smuggling in messages that riled up audiences. Sometimes simply asserting the hard, dark truth can be enough — that alone tends to piss everyone off. Or at least make them think. Ibsen, Shaw, Beckett, Bond, Bernhard, and Kane. Here’s Bernhard on winning a literary prize: “The cold increases with the clarity.”

          3) I am not all that eager to see a rich kid’s concerned vision of American inequality staged in front of a well-heeled audience. (Still, if the kid wrote like Shakespeare or Beckett …) We need to see theater that comes from a working class perspective, or at least stage work that genuinely reflects their concerns. I just saw a workshop production of an amusing play about unionizing at a “Starbucks” like coffee shop. Effective agitprop against the powerful reinforces the need for collective action rather than the celebration of individual triumph. What’s more, the script took a few shots at the union while making some effective points about the need for diversity. It was mounted at a local Irish pub. Our idea of what theater can be (and where it can be performed) has become incredibly narrow.

  2. Steve on February 14, 2024 at 12:03 pm

    According to an article in Theater Mania last year, the average Broadway theatergoer earns $271,000/year. No wonder they don’t want to be challenged!

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 14, 2024 at 12:31 pm

      Hi Steve: Yes, I saw that article … Broadway is generally about rich people making more money from theater made for rich people that will make all concerned feel better about themselves. And that self-congratulatory, profit-driven sensibility has infected off-Broadway and regional theaters around the country. Why challenge audiences when the point is have them pay big money to be soothed?

  3. John Geoffrion on February 17, 2024 at 1:28 pm

    When I was working in Boston theatre (2011-17), there was a (relatively) robust theatre scene with a lot of smaller startup theatre companies. Most of them crammed into the Factory Theatre for two week runs. Pretty much any bunch of theatre friends could cobble together a production and get it on stage without bankrupting themselves, and the emerging artists involved could at least get their work seen. These groups all seemed to disappear practically overnight when the Factory closed (the building it sat in became a workout center for the residents). Except for the company I co-founded, every single small/Fringe/non-Eq theatre company in Boston that I did a full production with has shuttered. Every. Single. One. Most of the smaller companies that endured thru today have independent funding sources, but the rest? RIP 11:11, Happy Medium, Bad Habit, Argos, Whistler in the Dark, Theatre on Fire, Independent Drama Society, and countless other groups from that brief period (sorry if I didn’t name yours) that made some really great work. Churn is expected and inevitable, but a lot of the groups I worked with in DC before I moved to Boston are still in operation today.

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 17, 2024 at 2:22 pm

      Absolutely right, John. And where in Boston’s mainstream media has this painful point been made? Nowhere — Aucoin and Co. are all about celebrating the big companies getting bigger. They do not dare talk about the concurrent destruction of the small groups that serve as incubators of new talent and ideas. Too much of a downer for readers and donors, who like success stories about the upwardly mobile. We demand narratives about the “empowered” — not the “disempowered.”

      And, because I am a senior citizen, let me add Theater Works to your list, one of the finest small groups ever to come out of the city. In the ’80s, the troupe produced such exciting original work as Me and My Shadow, an adaptation of a John Barth short story, Jon Lipsky’s marvelous adaptation of the Iliad, Living in Exile, and staged The Bundle, a play by my favorite living dramatist, Edward Bond.

  4. Vincent Paul Murphy on February 19, 2024 at 1:14 am

    A.R.T. also brought the Theater Works THEY ALL WANT TO PLAY HAMLET to their mainstage. This was a time when there was more synchronicity between companies and the focus was not on recycling NY hits but creating new work resonant in Boston (Scheherazades Sister/Murder Now/Billy The Kid/Stallers Farm/etc)

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 19, 2024 at 2:08 pm

      I agree, Vince. As long as Boston theater companies and their honchos are dedicated to either re-cycling hit Broadway material or developing shows that are calculated to make a killing on the Great White Way (for wealthy investors), that kind of healthy artistic collaboration/cooperation is not going to return. And that means a bleak future for Boston theater — aside from a handful at the top.

  5. David Pincus on February 26, 2024 at 8:09 pm

    Ah, Hub theaters managed by a non-profit, that share resources, mainstages, Jewel Boxes, if you will, rehearsal spaces, sympatico production needs of multiple local theater companies (scattered throughout the City), with one staff paid for out of existing (and vastly reduced) operating budgets supplanted by private and public aid (with other ideas embraced from the mind of Jerry Polner), was an idea I worked on with many others during my time on the Community Board, but sadly that time has not come yet, but it should.

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