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The wonder of theater, and the smash-hit Hamilton

The theater industry has much to celebrate these days. A record 13.3 million people attended Broadway productions over the 2015-16 season, according to the Broadway League. The art form takes center stage Sunday night at the Tony Awards. And the hip-hop musical Hamilton is a roaring success—the type of “cultural phenomenon” that only comes around once every decade or two, says Scott Edmiston, chair of the Department of Theatre and professor of the practice.

Here, Edmiston explains why so many people are craving the theater experience, shares his Tony Awards predictions, and highlights some exciting developments in Northeastern’s theater department.

Broadway attendance reportedly hit an all-time high this past year, driven largely by the success of musicals like Hamilton and The Lion King. What is your reaction to this, and what does it tell you about this art form?

Theater has been called “the fabulous invalid” because it has continuously been diagnosed as dying. In the 20th century, when movies came along, everyone said the theater would disappear. The same thing happened when television and home video came along, and subsequently with the internet and streaming. We can watch anything anywhere now, and it was again thought people would stop going to the theater. We’re finding that’s not true at all. There is something that we seem to crave about the live experience that is primal for storytelling and being live in the room with the performer and having a unique experience that only you are having. When Beyoncé releases “Lemonade,” millions of people have the same experience, which is thrilling. But when you go to a play, only the people in that room have that experience. I think in this age of technology, theater has taken on new resonances for us in many ways.

I think we also crave being with others who share our social values. We see this with social media, but there’s still something about the live experience of theater that’s unique and powerful. We can breathe and laugh and cry together as a community. I may not know the rest of the audience, but there’s a sense of oneness in our shared communal experience. That’s something that the theater offers that is in contrast with how we experience so much of the world today through screens.

I think in this age of technology, theater has taken on new resonances for us in many ways.
— Scott Edmiston, chair of the Department of Theatre

Has the meaning of theater evolved as society has shifted into the digital age?

Absolutely. There’s a special sense of truth you can get from theater in the age of media. For example, Tuesday night I was watching Hillary Clinton’s speech and the primary election results, and there were 10 experts on TV telling me what to think and feel. After a certain point I had to turn it off. We have access to so much information, and many events are interpreted for us. When you go to a play, there’s no filter and no one interpreting the events for you. You watch the story and observe human behavior, and make decisions for yourself.

Theater also has the ability to be subtle, mysterious, and ambiguous. Last fall I directed a play in Boston called Casa Valentina, which is about transgender identity. Rather than reading news reports about bathroom laws or seeing a reality show about Caitlyn Jenner, the audience found it meaningful to be in a theater space where they could observe characters who were dealing with the complexity of gender identity and its relationship to sexual identity. They had two hours in which they could think about these issues for themselves come to conclusions on their own.

We’ve been in this age of reality TV for a while. We’ve been so saturated with the concept of reality, that the theater provides a sacred space to exercise our imagination. When you see Hamilton or The Lion King, these are increasingly rare opportunities to use your imagination. We know Alexander Hamilton was not a Latino man who sang hip-hop songs. And it excites and delights our imaginations to experience his story in that astonishingly creative way.

Scott Edmiston, chair of the Department of Theatre

Scott Edmiston, chair of the Department of Theatre

The Tony Awards are this weekend. What are you most intrigued by or looking forward to this year?

The Tonys this year will be very predictable. Everyone knows it will be Hamilton’s night, and everyone wants it to be Hamilton’s night. It’s the kind of cultural phenomenon that comes along every 10 or 20 years on Broadway, and everyone who can get in to see it says it’s as good as the hype. I don’t sense any backlash, either. I think those of us in theater are proud and want to see it go as far as it can. And its success will continue to shine a light on different kinds of theater in New York and elsewhere. What’s good for Hamilton is good for theatre nationwide.

The theater provides a sacred space to exercise our imagination.
— Scott Edmiston, chair of the Department of Theatre

Attendance is also up for Northeastern’s theater productions, and the department has completely revised the curriculum over the past couple of years. Can you explain more about the exciting things happening in the department?

Audience attendance is up 48 percent over the past two years. I believe people are craving this live intimate experience, and our space—the Studio Theatre—is very intimate. It seats only 80 people, and our department runs shows for two weeks, which is somewhat unique for universities. We expanded our season from four productions to six, with two of them performed outside the Studio Theatre.

We also had a 20 percent increase in applications for fall 2016. Last year, all of our courses for non-theater majors—Introduction to Acting, Improvisation for Entrepreneurs, and Professional Voice—filled to capacity. And last year, the number of theater minors grew 52 percent, from 29 to 44.

This summer, we’re building a new theater space on the third floor of Ryder Hall. The renovations will combine two acting studios into what we’re calling a theater lab. It will be ready in the fall. We’ll continue to have more fully-produced shows in the Studio Theatre. The theater lab will be more for experimental theater and fringe theater experiences. It will seat up to 90 people in flexible configurations. The lab will allow for new forms of research and experimentation in performance and theater. One of Northeastern’s trademarks is experiential learning. Well, we believe that experiential learning was first developed in Ancient Greece—and they called it theatre.

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