7 Major Questions for Theater in 2023

On January 1, 2020, I explored seven possible major theater trends  of the new decade, asking: What will the future of theater turn out to be? I entitled the post “Seeing 2020,” but as it turns out my vision was extremely near-sighted: The future arrived abruptly without warning within weeks, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three years later, having assessed these trends annually, the same questions about the future of theater remain, now informed and shaped by all that’s happened since. Judging simply by the number, 2023 seems like an odd and off year, Will it be the return to normal that 2022 promised to be (but wasn’t), or at least bring us some stability? Will it provide new answers to the following questions?

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

1. Will there be innovation or retrenchment?

Two events occurred in 2020 that turned the theater world upside down — the pandemic shutdown, and the racial reckoning that came about in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. Each led to some radical innovation — the first to new forms of theater, online and outdoors, the second to a broadening of who and what is presented to the theatergoing public.

At the beginning of 2023, however, the pandemic continues, still taking its toll. Theater makers and theatergoers are left feeling anxious and frustrated, thanks to COVID-caused cancellations still occurring with some frequency, higher costs due to inflation and the need for extra understudies, and the unpredictable behavior (and size) of the theatergoing public. There is even now talk of a tripledemic (not just COVID, but the flu, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who at the beginning of his tenure a year ago was urging people to attend a Broadway show, recently advised New Yorkers to start wearing masks again.

This anxiety and uncertainty are the fuel that drives most of the questions about 2023. What lesson, for example, will producers take from the Broadway productions of “Ain’t No Mo'” and “KPOP”? Will they see these shows’ shockingly brief runs as evidence of the need for retrenchment, or view the apparent enthusiasm of their fans campaigning to extend their runs as proof that there needs to be more innovation in the approach to marketing?

2. What role will digital theater play?

“Screens will surely continue to be a major way that an increasing number of people will experience ‘live theater,’” I wrote on January 1st, 2020. At the end of 2020, I pointed out that screens were for much of 2020 the ONLY way anybody was experiencing live theater. By the end of 2021, in-person theater seemed to have made a triumphant return — “Broadway is back!” Many viewed digital theater as having served its purpose during a crisis, but no longer needed.

But some continued to see digital theater as a new way of expanding the definition, and the appeal, of theater. Some incorporated the return of in-person theater by creating hybrid works — both on stage and online. Will such work expand? Will the lingering effects of the pandemic convince more to reconsider the practice.

3. Who will be included on stage?

Will the lived experience of “teenagers, African-Americans, Asians, disabled, gay,  immigrant, Latino, Muslim, the poor, trans, women, etc.” (as I put it in 2020) be depicted on stage? Will the portrayals be accurate? Who will portray them?

There were six plays on Broadway written by African-American playwrights, with a largely African-American cast, that opened on Broadway when it reopened in the final months of 2021. There were six in all of 2022, including three playwrights making their Broadway debut — 27-year-old Jordan E. Cooper, 91-year-old Adrienne Kennedy, and Michael R. Jackson, whose “A Strange Loop” won the Tony Award for best musical. Several other shows had mostly, or all, Black casts.

In 2023 so far, there is one, “Fat Ham” by James Ijames, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (as did Jackson in a previous year.)

4. What form will activism take?

 Two Broadway theaters were renamed in 2022 for Black theater artists — Lena Horne and James Earl Jones — the fulfilling of an agreement by the three major Broadway theater owners as part of A New Deal for Broadway developed by the activist organization Black Theater United. What more is in store?

5. Will there be a push for accessibility and affordability, or protection for the bottom line?

Some of the biggest theater news that received the least attention in the past decade were the concrete steps taken to make Broadway more accessible for theatergoers with disabilities, such as on-demand closed captioning in real time. But “accessibility” shouldn’t be a narrow codeword for disabilities. To make theater accessible, it needs to be affordable. When physical theaters were shut down, the theater on offer was generally more affordable, often free. The “reopening” of in-person theater didn’t continue that silver-lining trend. As famed Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg pointed out in a much-noticed speech in 2022: “When “A Chorus Line” opened, the top ticket price was $15. That’s not a joke. And now it’s $250 to $500. We’ve chased away an audience.”
The focus of institutional and commercial theater has been about keeping afloat. Will there be a renewed commitment to accessibility when the economy becomes more stable?

6. Who will drive the theater conversation?

With the death of so many newspapers, and the elimi 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 criticism emerge – or will it be left to the publicists? These are the questions I’ve asked every year in this decade. (A new question: Will the current convulsions in social media have an effect?) If there have been some positive signs, such as the BIPOC Critics Lab, something that struck me as more emblematic of the emerging answer occurred in 2022 involving the publicist for the Music Man and his quirky policy involving opening night. Indeed, the change in the meaning of opening night is a sign of the continuing, deliberate devaluing of professional theater criticism: (Broadway Opening Night. What It Means. How It’s Changed. 7 Facts to Clear UpThe Confusion and Crystallize the Outrage.)

7. What will be 2023’s place in theater history?

In the first of these trend pieces, I asked “how much will we look to the past for inspiration? What era will we most resemble?”  The answer has been obvious in the first three years of the decade (even 2022) — the eras of theater shutdowns, especially the Plague years in Shakespearean England and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. What will theater be like at the end of 2023? Let’s keep an eye on that.

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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