Theater is one of the most profound forms of art to have ever been created. From plays that provide insights into the human condition to musicals that can lift the spirits of a whole generation of theatergoers, the medium is one of the most enduring to have ever existed. There’s a reason why Broadway and off-Broadway are still so popular, even decades after they were developed.
But theater also offers a challenge to many people, especially those who aren’t used to being in a theater environment. Musicals can sometimes struggle to hit the right spot, especially if they’re perceived as tacky. And plays can sometimes be alienating to people, especially if they focus on characterization and identity over pacey plot lines. This article will explore some of the key reasons why theatre can be challenging – and what some on Broadway are doing to reduce this problem and help ensure that theatre is accessible for all.
Plays: not so easy
Plays fall into a number of categories, and it goes without saying that they don’t all suit all individuals. Some plays are known for being particularly accessible to watch and enjoy, even if the person watching doesn’t have a background in literature or theatre. These include a range of plays with fast plot lines or gripping mystery plays like The Mousetrap – which, as one of the longest-running West End plays and a play with a wide appeal, just goes to show that some plays can be enjoyed by all.
But other plays, especially those derived from certain literary traditions which focus on character development over narrative, can be very hard to get settled into – especially if the viewer is not literary-minded. Plays with historic language, such as the works of Shakespeare, can also be hard. These days, there are often now more accessible forms of plays like these which have been brought up to date in one way or another – perhaps through changes to the language, or to the wider context such as the set.
Musicals: a broad appeal?
Musicals are still highly popular among many people, often because the combination of relatively simple language and positive, upbeat tunes just can’t help but leave you feeling happy once you step out of the theater door. But for many people, musicals are inaccessible because they’re perceived as being tacky, or as having no appeal to certain demographics. Men, for example, are perhaps less likely to go to some musicals than women, especially if there is a sense that there is an over-reliance on aesthetics.
The work of producers including Louise Gund has gone some way towards ensuring that Broadway musicals are popular and relevant for many audiences. And the arrival of shows such as Hamilton, which focus on history and incorporate modern elements like rap, has led to musicals being perceived as having a broader appeal. But there is still some work to be done – and for many musical theatergoers, there’s still a requirement to leave self-consciousness at the door of the theater and instead plunge into accepting the emotional ride and rollercoaster to come.
And it’s also well worth remembering that for some people there are physical challenges to accessing and enjoying the theater, too. Many historic theaters were not built with people who have disabilities in mind: steep stairs are one challenge, while uncomfortable seating can be a real issue for those with back or leg problems. And for those who experience auditory or sensory conditions, the noise and light of a theater can be overwhelming.
Luckily, however, theater managers are now taking steps to reduce these problems and ensure that everyone can have a good time at the theater no matter what their abilities or disabilities. First of all, it’s now possible at some theaters to book screenings which are friendly to those with sensory problems thanks to reduced lighting and noise. It’s also often the case that special disability friendly areas are carved out in gangways for people in wheelchairs to comfortably settle and watch the show.
In sum, there are lots of reasons why people might find the theater a challenging environment. There could be physical reasons for this, for example – some disabilities can really interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy what they’re watching, while the content of plays and musicals can also cause issues if there’s no match between a person’s preference and backgrounds and the show on offer. But a lot of steps have been taken by the industry to improve this problem: from freshening up old fashioned language in Shakespeare plays to ensuring that there are provisions made for people with disabilities in terms of seating, things are getting better and changing.