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Q and A with Simon Donoghue

by Mark Peres

June 8,2009

Simon Donoghue is Associate Professor of English/Fine Arts and Director of the Abbey Players at Belmont Abbey College. He is a veteran actor who has done extensive work with Theater Charlotte, the late Charlotte Rep and Actors Theater, among other collaborations. He is an award-winning director, playwright and actor, and has held his position at Belmont Abbey College since 1976. He received his B.A. from the University of Virginia and his M.S.L.S. at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

What are the significant trends we are seeing in theater?

In the 20th century, we’ve seen a decline in community theater, and as we move forward in the 21st century, we’re seeing a diversification of professional theater. Community theater has struggled for many reasons. It is dependent on citizen time, and there is a loss of volunteers as women have entered the work force. Other forms of entertainment and artistic expression have drawn audience away. Professional theater has diversified out of New York City with productions and actors touring throughout the nation. As a result, we’re seeing far more commercially-driven, formulaic theater and far less original, experimental, locally-based theater.

How would you describe the state of theater in Charlotte?

Theater has never occupied a central position in Charlotte. We’ve never had community-wide support for adult professional theater, unlike in similar sized cities like Louisville, Milwaukee or Minneapolis. The lack of support in Charlotte for adult professional theater isn’t because of the quality of work – the caliber of production and acting is impressive here – but because of other reasons. People in Charlotte are not unlike Americans across the country who are simply prepared to see theater go away – and the symphony as well. We have reasonably marginal support of the arts in this country, but art appreciation, especially of the fine arts, is not broad-based. Appreciation of live theater is not an essential occupation for most Americans. 

Why not?

We haven’t done a good job of making the arts central to community. We put money into arts education for children, but the arts are not vital to most adults. We associate theater with kids and students – the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte is remarkable – but theater is not part of the life of the majority of adults. Most theater groups struggle and are underfunded. Very few actors can earn a living acting. Most actors in New York are struggling as waiters and waitresses. Live theater is also expensive to produce and consume, and it competes for every dollar of entertainment. 

Is theater necessary?

Live theater is one of our oldest art forms and offers rewards, pleasures and transformations for its audience that no other art form offers. However, like any other taste, it takes time to develop. At the Abbey theater, our Shakespeare productions get the most visceral reactions. We are going through the entire canon, producing a different play every year, and while some audience members are engrossed because they have been exposed to Shakespeare, others can’t stand it. If we are not invested in theater, it has less and less value. In addition, special effects in movies, new media and other forms of non-linear entertainment such as iPhones and Youtube are working against the audience’s ability or desire to concentrate. Throughout the country, even on Broadway, people are texting during performances. Our ability to be a good audience is being heavily fragmented.

Interestingly, the same holds true in classrooms. Teaching is live theater, yet people are no longer geared to linear presentations. It is very difficult for students to sustain attention when the material is not glamorous or sexy or perceived as immediately useful. Americans assess value based on utility. Since theater is not useful for many, it is for them not necessary. 

In what light is theater necessary?

Theater hints at our full potential as humans. When we participate in theater – and dance and music and artistic expression of all kinds – we are engaging in our full human potential being realized. Art informs us of what it means to be human and connect with other people in community. It provides access to our larger human connection. When we watch a theater performance, we carry out a little of what we’ve seen with us. As a believing Catholic, I believe that art is a reflection of God, of truth and beauty, and that art and theater are a glimpse into the divine. In a humanistic and divine light, there is nothing more necessary. But whether we want to pay for what is necessary in that light is an entirely different issue.

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