During the last week of June, I chaired the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference, which took place in Boston and was hosted by Emerson College, my home institution. The annual gathering is a chance for dramaturgs across the U.S. and Canada to come together and exchange ideas about their craft and the field of theatre and performing arts in general. The theme of this year’s conference, “Building the Future,” was topical. At a time when arts funding is being challenged by other, more pressing social needs, and as audience entertainment habits become more and more solitary, what are the performing arts to do now and in the future, and how does the dramaturgical vision and leadership fit into that new cultural outlook?
With Netflix, YouTube and other Internet services providing any type of entertainment on demand, in the privacy of one’s own home, the ritual of going to see a live performance is becoming increasingly endangered. In the December 2013 issue of the Wall Street Journal, the drama critic Terry Teachout observed: “The idea that you might voluntarily go out at night to see a half-dozen human beings act out a story in person . . . is now alien to most Americans, especially younger ones.” Going out to see a theatre show or an opera in a crowded theatre is no longer part of our customary social framework. Ironically, as the appeal of these communal rituals declines, Americans are becoming more and more lonely and isolated, seeking refuge in Internet chat rooms and social networks. In a 2012 article on the technosolitude of modern life, the Atlantic concluded that “we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and . . . this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.” What “the epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and our society” is yet to be fully understood and analyzed, but as technology makes it increasingly easier to avoid human contact, the consequences of our self-imposed social isolation will be more and more pronounced, changing the fundamental way we relate to ourselves and to one another.
How does the shared real-life experience offered by performing arts fit into that new paradoxical landscape of postmodern culture? The performing arts have always provided a platform for discussion of broad social, political, moral and philosophical questions. Greek dramas, Shakespearean tragedies, Mozart’s soaring tales have led us through and towards common understanding of our human position vis-à-vis the silence of the universe. What function will the performing arts have in the 21st century as the paradigm of American loneliness is slowly becoming a global phenomenon, as other developed and developing nations replicate our lifestyles?
The LMDA Boston conference attempted to answer some of these challenges of the modern world. The three main plenary sessions, “Dramaturgy and Leadership,” “Inter-institutional Collaborations” and “Digital Networks,” provided a vision of the future in which performing arts are an integral part of a new digital, new media kaleidoscope. Performing arts are moving towards a multidisciplinary, collaborative and globalized mode of art-making, changing at the same time the relationship between live performance and the audience, which expects progressively more sophisticated and challenging narratives. New collaborative technologies, peer-to-peer exchange platforms and user-driven feedback create new opportunities for dramaturgs to become cultural, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional mediators, leaders and context managers in an ever-more demanding world of images, news and sound bites. The fact that Boston was hosting the LMDA conference is a testament to our city’s vitality and intellectual and artistic leadership in the increasingly more complex conversations about art, politics and our very self-representation and self-definition.
Terry Teachout, “How Theatres Can Combat the Stay-at-Home Mindset.” Wall Street Journal, December 25, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304866904579266882201324884 (accessed December 25, 2013).
Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The Atlantic, April 2, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/ (accessed July 7, 2014).