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October 20, 2008

The Icing and the Cake

Yesterday, on one of those brisk and sun-drenched autumn afternoons, the line stretched out the door of the cheery little bakery in Chelsea where my friends and I had somehow lucked into one of the two tables. Catching up over caffeine and chocolate, we watched the steady stream of customers inch their way up to the glass case filled with cupcakes, and I wondered: Rumors of its demise to the contrary, might the Great Cupcake Craze be buoyed, not sunk, by the wounded economy? Might cupcakes be one of those small indulgences that we substitute for the larger ones, like buying lipstick instead of a dress in tough times?

Historically, movies do well when people don't have much money to spend; so, for obvious reasons, do libraries. This time around, high-end skin-care products -- cheaper than cosmetic surgery, after all -- seem to be on people's must-have list, too. Meanwhile, today's New York Times tells us that museums are fretting about the future, and they're hardly the only ones taking a hit. Arts organizations are proceeding with caution, and so are patrons.

I'm curious about how producers of live performance, theaters in particular, will position themselves to compete for these newly limited dollars, given the inherent costliness of what they do. Will theaters offer more readings and workshops and fewer fully staged productions? Will the popularity of the 90-minute play endure, or will audiences come to view it as giving too little bang for too many bucks? Will stages fill with yet more solo plays and two-handers, or will ticket buyers demand large-cast spectacle? Will escapist fare edge out the topical while comedy eclipses drama? And will ticket prices fall far enough to let audiences keep filling the seats, but stay high enough to keep people employed in the theater industry?

A bad economy won't kill live performance; it never has. But it will do some damage. Like cupcakes and tubes of lipstick, art can be a luxury. Unlike them, it's also a necessity for the human soul. How much harm the economy inflicts on the arts will be, in part, a measure of how skilled producers, presenters, and performers are at getting that point across.
October 20, 2008 12:51 PM | | Comments (0)

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