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Live Theater's Ongoing Struggle

There is something very intimate and special about seeing a live show. The intimacy of actors being a few feet away from you and playing out their emotions in real time is captivating. The effects are visceral for the audience. But theaters are struggling to survive, and it doesn't matter if the performance is on Broadway or in a little community presentation. Might this have more profound effects than we’d expect?


Going to a live show feels like a treat. It's an escape from the challenges of one's reality. For an hour, or two, or three, a show transports you to another place, time or dimension. You are a fly on the well to other points of view.


That can build knowledge and perspective; qualities that are deeper-ranging than simply an effect on an individual viewer. Seeing other circumstances might build empathy for others, under the best circumstances.


As a young woman living in Queens, New York, I was privileged to see the great Richard Gere in the Broadway production of Bent in May of 1980.  He played a gay man incarcerated in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Germany during the Holocaust.


His performance was nothing short of brilliant, in my layperson's opinion. And the critics agreed. Gere received a Theatre World Award for his role, which he more than deserved. The actor shaved his head for the part.


I was sitting in the seventh row with a friend and thought he was just about the most handsome man I'd ever seen. But when he got into the character, I was floored. Gere had starred in Looking for Mr. Goodbar two years earlier, but he is more than just a pretty face. The man can act!!


Gere's portrayal of the persecution that homosexuals faced in the camps was so gripping and profound that I wrote him a letter. I had never done that before and have not since. His character just got to my core and I felt his pain and I wanted to let him know that he had touched me. 


Well, not to disappoint, I received a personal reply from the actor himself with his signature. His words were "Dear Ms. Charatan, thank you for your kind and thoughtful remarks. Sincerely, Richard Gere."


He would never remember — but I sure do. I appreciate he took the time to acknowledge my letter. No, I'm not selling it. It is an example of the actor's humility and humanity.


His work enabled me to feel what a person would have felt in such unbearable circumstances and increased my awareness of suffering. We all need to be aware to stop such atrocities. Art imitates life and benefits the world in many ways. 


Sadly, live theater is on the downswing. The price of tickets, even at local theaters, can be staggering. Understandably, it's out of reach for the pocketbooks of many people who would like to go. The same applies to live concerts. There have been many times I'd like to see an artist but decide that a couple of hundred dollars might be better utilized somewhere else.  


So what does a Broadway show cost in 2023? According to Statista, it is $148.00 a seat. That's a chunk of change and likely too much for a person or family earning a modest income when costs of basics remain high.


Even though a single ticket had dropped to around $128, that's still too much for many people to shoulder. The LA Times reported that theater post-Covid occupancy is just about one-third of what it was before the Covid pandemic. And operating costs have skyrocketed. Materials for costumes, rent increases for theatre space, fees for drivers, etc, are up. Everything is not 'coming up roses' for retention of audience attendance, said the article. 


The smaller and mid-size nonprofit theaters are in even worse shape. Board President of the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, Martha Demson, estimates payroll is several hundred times higher to accommodate services needed to put on a show. Her organization is sponsoring a bill that would help small nonprofits pay payroll and survive. Undoubtedly, we will see similar proposals sprouting up around the country.


The New York Times wrote that subscriptions for theater tickets are way down in the city — part of which I am sure is the residual of Covid. Sitting arm to arm for several hours might make some folks still feel reticent.


It is a sad situation that is not likely to turn around for another few years if theater as we know is to carry on. Government assistance programs for funding might help but they are few and far between. In an ideal world, live theater would be available to all who want to go. But offerings for free tickets are scarce. Let's hope this exquisite art form resurges with more affordability options for everyone.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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