Seeing 2020: Major Theater Trends of The Future?

In the decade just ended, there were unmistakable trends specific to the theater – teen musicals, for example, and celebrity bio jukebox musicals. Which of these trends will continue in 2020 and beyond? What larger trends in the culture and the country  — e.g. income inequality, polarization, identity politics — will be reflected on New York stages? There have been a couple of insightful essays about the trends of the past decade — one about the culture at large, another about New York theater in specific. My focus here is on the future — on what will play out in the 2020s. The following are not predictions, but questions: Which way will we go?

Binge-watching on Broadway?

Screens will surely continue to be a major way that an increasing number of people will experience “live theater” — both online (Netflix ) and in the movie theaters (National Theatre Live, Fathom Cinema.) This is already helping to redefine what “live theater” even means.
Audible’s foray into live theater, in which they commission plays for live performances on the stage of the Minetta Lane Theater and then record them for distribution as audio books, suggests even more of a game-changer.
The main question this activity provokes: How much will these platforms for “live theater” change the nature and content of the theater being created?
The movie industry altered the stories we see on Broadway. So many now are stage adaptations of movies (next up: “Mrs. Doubtfire.”)
Will the Netflix-inspired habit of binge watching produce more two-part plays (such as Harry Potter and The Inheritance?) Will we see play serials? More plays of marathon length (Gatz?).

What other changes will new technology engender?

And, as a countertrend in opposition to the screen dominance, how much will immersive theater and other experiments in live engagement become more widespread and more mainstream? How much will playwrights and producers try to create work that is NSFS (not suitable for screens)?

Will there be any Hamilton 2.0s?

Almost half of the shows scheduled on Broadway for the Spring 2020 season are revivals.  Given such phenomena as the rash of “reboots” of old television shows online, how much room will there be on Broadway for original works, told freshly, exploring new territory? Or, in other words, was “Hamilton” a one-off?

And will New York theater beyond Broadway make it their priority to go where no theater has gone before, or focus instead on jazzy new spaces?


Theater for all — for real, or only for show?

Some of the biggest theater news that received the least attention over the past decade were the concrete steps taken to make Broadway more accessible for theatergoers with disabilities — on-demand audio-description for theatergoers who are blind or have low vision, and on-demand closed captioning in real time, in one of two ways—through a dedicated device called iCaption, or with an application called GalaPro that you can install in your own smart phone.

But these efforts were largely limited to Broadway. It is still rare, frankly, to find any other theater that complies with the spirit or even the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s common for theaters to make a half-hearted effort – say, by providing assisted listening devices but not checking to see if they work.

New so-called “state-of-the-art” theaters like The Shed have paid less attention to the new technologies aiding people with disabilities than to more overtly dazzling technology.

And “accessibility” shouldn’t just mean to would-be theatergoers with disabilities.

How serious will theaters work to make theaters affordable? There are a handful of hopeful signs, such as the innovative Broadway Plus One.  What began as “Slave Play” playwright Jeremy O. Harris to corral his rich friends to subsidize tickets for his artist friends who couldn’t afford Broadway tickets has become a formal program: The Broadway Plus One works is that, at checkout, people can now add $25+ to their order for “Slave Play” to buy tickets for others who can’t afford them. The tickets are then distributed through a number of non profit partners including Broadway For All.


Who will be on stage?

“I’m not a girl, not yet a woman…I’m in between.” Britney Spears sang those lyrics some two decades ago (a song that will be one of those in her Broadway-aiming jukebox musical, “Once Upon A One more Time.”) It could almost be the new anthem (gender-adjusted) for Broadway. The opening of “Be More Chill” and “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” last year  added yet more titles that focus on teenage characters, with a roster that includes the current, more commercially successful shows Dear Evan HansenHarry Potter and the Cursed ChildMean Girls but also such older shows as 13, Bye Bye Birdie, Carrie, Hairspray, Matilda, Newsies, School of Rock, Spring Awakening.

More interesting to me than whether these teen-oriented musicals will continue are two larger questions:

Will they accurately reflect the lived experience of teenagers, or continue to rely on stereotypes? (Contrast the teen musicals on Broadway with the teen-driven annual showcase entitled Rebel Verses.)

Will they be portrayed by actual teenagers?

Replace “teenagers” with African-American, Asian, disabled, gay,  immigrant, Latino, Muslim, the poor, trans, women, etc. – and the same three questions apply: How much will they be depicted on stage? Will the portrayals be accurate? Who will portray them?

And, depending on the answers, will this draw in a greater diversity of theatergoers ?

One trend that will certainly continue – the push for more inclusion both in subject matter and in casting.

Who will drive the theater conversation? 

With the death of so many newspapers, and the elimination or reduction of theater coverage by those that remain, how will theatergoers decide what to see?

Will it be left to the chatrooms, will new sustainable forms of theater criticsm emerge – or will it be left to the publicists?

What form will “artivism” take?

“Can we all get along?” Rodney King asked in the early 1990s after he was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers, which was captured on videotape.

The tape led to the indictment of four L.A.P.D. officers, but a predominantly white jury acquitted them, which led to rioting in Los Angeles. It was at a subsequent press conference that he asked this question.

Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary theater about the L.A. riots, entitled “Twilight” Los Angeles, 1992” is being revived Off-Broadway in April, bringing attention back to documentary theater, which has proliferated in the last few, politically challenging years (especially verbatim documentary theater), and I expect will continue in the new decade.  But there are many other reasons why Rodney King’s question is  timely. So much in the culture at large is polarized and fragmented. Theater is not immune from the fraying of comity and consensus. To me, the extraordinary hostility over the use of cell phones in the theater speaks volumes.  If the community  cannot effectively and civilly solve such a straightforward internal problem, how can we expect the theater to offer solutions to such urgent issues as climate change and income inequality?

The question of how effective the arts can be to change the world is one that lately nags at writers like Tony Kushner and Michael Chabon. The actors, directors and choreographers of whom I asked the question in 2015 were generally more optimistic then (as were most people I know.).

How much of the activism by artists in the decade to come will be off-stage, undertaken by individuals, and how much in the art form itself?

How will this decade of theater compare to the 2,500 years that preceded it?

How much will we look to the past for inspiration? What era will we most resemble?

The illustration above is entitled “Eye Enclosing The Theatre At Besancon France,” an engraving made in 1847 by Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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