“What went wrong?”
It’s a question I have been asked repeatedly regarding the demise of San Jose Rep, which filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier this summer. People speculate about the quality of the plays or the selection of works for the stage. These have almost nothing to do with the theatre’s shuttering. It was more a case of the size of the patron and donor pools.
I think critical factors were beyond San Jose Rep’s control and are actually at work across our nation, threatening many resident professional theatres. While some of these factors were beyond the Rep’s control, they are instructive for whatever comes next.
The Rep had opportunities along the way to rebuild, regroup and change, but the changes were huge, way beyond what any board or artistic director or management expert could truly comprehend, as the evidence that follows will show.
The simple answer is San Jose’s population changed a lot in three decades and the Rep changed very little. There was also a behavioral change. It is a story being repeated throughout the American performing arts landscape.
When I launched San Jose Rep, the city’s first resident professional theatre, San Jose had a population of 692,242 that was well-educated and arts-friendly. The ethnic makeup of the city was 74.1 percent Caucasian, 22.3 percent Latino and a small Asian population. The median age was 27, my age at the time.
Today the 2010 population breakdown is 952,576 people with an ethnic makeup of 28.7 percent Caucasian, 33.2 percent Latino and 31.7 percent Asian.
Despite efforts over the past few decades to create a broader array of ethnic representation among theatres, in content and casting, the American theatre is still largely a European-based, English-oriented art form. Theatre is very much about language. Great playwrights are known for their use of words (e.g. Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Neill, Mamet, etc.)
Music helps to reduce the language divide, but the fact that just 44.6 percent of San Jose residents speak only English in their homes illustrates the challenge. I must add that every language brings a cultural context for people who speak that language, so it isn’t simply a matter of knowing definitions. Also, about 39 percent of San Jose residents were born outside the United States.
The behavioral changes are just as difficult. San Jose still has a young population. The median age has risen to 35, but most people under 40 have had little or no exposure to any theatre during childhood. Attempting to sell tickets to them is almost futile. The possibility of these young people buying a subscription is even more remote.
The number of San Jose theatre-goers, subscribers and donors has been shrinking. It doesn’t mean people didn’t love San Jose Rep. Tens of thousands did. It just means that sustaining the size and scope of the Rep has been a daunting challenge for many years.
The re-boot—which will surely come—must find a way to cultivate young people, adapt to these demographics and acknowledge that for the near future, a smaller scope of work is prudent.
However, there must never be shrinkage in imagination or effort to create the magic that can only happen on stage. I am optimistic because artists are resourceful and genius is creativity under challenging conditions. We have both.