Sociology of going to the theater: the reason for the decline in audience

Wow innovative are Germany’s public stages? This is a difficult question for cultural sociology, but one that can be researched empirically, although it has not yet been asked. Maria Glasow and Thomas Heinze have now been able to close this gap with data from the theater and work statistics of the German Theater Association. Her focus is exemplary on the publicly financed stages North Rhine-Westphalia, since the decline in visitors in the examined period from 1995 to 2018 was twice as high as the national average. The authors combine this “signal of crisis” with the empirically proven finding that audiences are aging: are theaters losing viewers because they show too much of the old and don’t give the new a chance?

Of course, the assumption that the theaters could open up new and correspondingly younger audiences by taking on primarily new plays by younger authors cannot be proven. However, the novelty of a piece is the only measurable indicator of a reasonably scientific approach to the question of innovative power in artistic practice. However, one could also ask whether the crisis in the theaters has nothing to do with the artistic side of what they offer, but rather with economic reasons or the competing offers of cinemas, for example, or the growing number of streaming services.

In any case, the decline in visitors is undeniable: in NRW, the number of visitors has fallen by 21 percent since 1995, and subscriptions by as much as 36 percent. In the same period, the number of plays played rose by 38 percent, including first and premiere performances by 26 percent. In general, the number of new pieces has definitely increased. From this, the authors first formulate the hypothesis that the more performances a theater has in a season, the more room there should be for innovations. They also suspect that the willingness to experiment could have something to do with dependence on operating income: the more subscribers, the fewer innovations, while higher state subsidies should increase the innovative spirit of a stage.

Classics remained top dogs

But what do the stages in NRW show most? They perform a lot of new things, but that also disappears quickly. World premieres tend to be short-lived and only rarely manage to establish themselves in the theater repertoire. The most frequently played newer piece was “Norway Today” from the year 2000 by the now 58-year-old Swiss author Igor Bauersima, which still managed to have 369 performances. But that didn’t even make it into the top 20: there it was Friedrich Schiller right at the front with 892 performances of “Kabale und Liebe”, closely followed by Shakespeare, Brecht and Lessing. Even Sophocles’ “Antigone” had almost five hundred performances. Why can’t younger authors hold their own against the Athenian competition of 442 BC?

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