When you stack up the general public’s statistical disinterest in theatre against the general economic condition of the art and the artists themselves, the rational mind has to question why anyone would continue to pursue such a statistically trivial career. Or worse – why anyone would ever educate or train someone to pursue this career. You can choose to take the high road and produce aesthetic arguments supporting such a choice, but only in a first-world country where basic needs are by and large taken care of can this argument actually take place. There are many places in the world where no one is arguing about how many plays or whose plays get produced every year. You own career, stacked up against these statistics, makes for a sober reckoning.
Our society is built on stories. We communicate our values, our ways of interacting, our aspirations according to the stories we tell each other over generations. The idea that there is value in helping others who are in dire need, for instance, which underlies the Haitian relief effort, is passed on from generation to generation by the stories we tell that reinforce that value. Without that story, or with a more dominant counter-story, such admirable behavior would likely be scarce.
I think I'll take a crack at answering the question, because the question goes back to what my goal was when I began this blog, the philosophy that underlies how I try to approach theater, politics, and everything.
There's a lot of evidence to support the theory is that what drives humanity to create the complexity of our civilization is our ability to communicate. Mankind makes discoveries, and then it shares discoveries with one another, and passes them down. Mankind discovered other ways to encode that communication -- first carved into stone, then written on pages, printed, broadcast, and then finally put into the digital sphere.
You can look at the history of science. A theory begins with a single man making a statement. Someone responds to it. Someone adds on to it. Someone criticizes it. Someone corrects it, someone else rebuts the criticism. The conversation evolves the ideas, and it only evolves as we respond and add on.
That's what culture is. Culture is an aggregation of everyone's attempts to join a cultural, historical conversation about today, tomorrow, and the future. It's a big conversation, much of which is chatter -- Twitter, in a way, is a microcausm of the language. There are conversational threads like the permanent conversations about sex, about governance, about happiness. There are conversations that crop up and rage suddenly in a context and then fade away as people move on (is the Leno-Conan thing going to be important in 2011?).
I'm reading up on mimetics lately to try and support this idea but the idea is this: our society is built on two things: the fitness of our bodies, and the fitness of our ideas. In fact, at this point, we stress the fitness of our ideas more than the fitness of our bodies, because they are far more flexible and pay back to the fitness of our bodies much quicker.
That's what we're doing here in the theater: we're trying to enter this big cultural conversation in the ways we know how. We've got things to say, memes/ideas to spread, things that we hope will add to the survival of the species. We're a tiny shred of society's conversation, or a sliver of its imagination. We're just individual neurons firing inside the great mind of society.
Can we guarantee that our firings are doing something? I don't know. Ask a neurologist which brain cells are "vital" in the working of the brain. We lose some all the time. Often, it's the connections between brain cells which are more important than the neurons themselves -- and that's the conversation.
I forget who it was who first implanted the meme into my head that playwriting is the supreme act of arrogance -- writing as though people care about what you have to say. But the truth is, people are surprisingly interested in what everybody has to say. And we don't have to reach everyone ourselves -- we just have to be 6 degrees away from everybody.
One of the important memes that this conversation includes is, as Scott notes, generosity. That conversation goes so far back in history we can't remember where it begins, but you can see it in the Gospel ("Give to other people, and you will receive. You will be given much. It will be poured into your hands--more than you can hold. You will be given so much that it will spill into your lap. The way you give to other people is the way God will give to you."), and you can see it in the Gospel of Wealth ("In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.")
As we debate the issues back and forth, in sermons and books and advertise and put on plays, the ideas evolve. They get more specific. When I was young, it seemed like people wanted to help Africa, so they sent food and clothes. Then African economists got together and pointed out that buying food and clothes and sending money was counterproductive in the long term. Nowadays, it seems like we've refined our tools for giving. All of a sudden there's microloans, we're debating whether it's more effective to use pesticides or mosquito nets, we're talking about how closely linked government reform is to international aid. A century ago, we didn't even have a movement that believed that people in other countries might be as worthy of our aid as people in our own.
How often is theater at the center of the debate? Not all that often. But then again, how often is any of the 6 billion people on this planet at the center of the debate? The new rabidly self-aggrandizing type of person typified by the Balloon Boy family or the Salahis is the compulsion of Americans who do not want to be at the edge of the debate, do not just want to be one neuron in a mass of coordinated neurons -- they want to drive the debate. The Salahis, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck; people who aren't content with chiming in with their two cents.
Let's just keep the conversation rolling, so that our ideas can literally evolve and hopefully make us more fit as a society.