Lawrence may be guilty of one-sided support of the arts

Sometimes I wonder if Lawrence's reputation as an art community is really on the up and up. Don't get me wrong, within Lawrence resides hundreds of artists of all types. But while there are scores here, creating paintings, music, plays and books, is the Lawrence community really supportive in the role of financially creating a marketplace for artists?

With somewhat painful regret, I'd have to say no. Not all the time, anyway. And in that way it's not an artist community because in a true artist community there should be give-and-take on both sides. The artist needs the buyer, and the purchaser needs someplace to buy his art or stage production or music performance.

So we've got plenty of artists making a variety of products for us, but it seems Lawrence residents are so busy filling the seats at Sandstone Amphitheatre for an 'N Sync concert or Southwind Twelve Theatre's stadium tiers for a Farrelly Brothers gross-out comedy that they often miss out on a first-rate university play.

Take for example that for the first time in two decades the University Theatre program will not perform a summer season, and the primary culprit for that is budgetary restrictions. The department needed to cut $60,000 as part of a financial setback stemming from dwindling box-office ticket sales. The theater's debt dovetailed with what it cost to mount the summer season, so with the swish of a pen, the program is gone for this year.

That's a pity. Though Lawrence is sometimes rife with theatrical productions, the summer tends to be a bit lean on shows. And now that University Theatre is decommissioned this season, it looks like staunch theatergoers will have to make more road trips to Kansas City to take in the umpteenth dinner theater featuring Don (no, I'm not dead yet) Knotts.

University spokesmen explain that their box-office take has been down during the past several years. And that seems to be the norm with many theaters whether they offer scholastic or professional shows. It's a roller coaster ride in Lawrence; if a blockbuster-touring program comes through and plays the Lied Center, or Lawrence Community Theatre mounts a really popular show, then the seats are filled. But otherwise, audiences can be scarce.

There are two reasons, in general, for this: Just as Hollywood reinvented itself by offering gigantic crowd pleasers that were strong on special effects but thin on plot, Broadway saved itself a few years back by repackaging productions as grand scale events from "Miss Saigon" to "Titanic." And it worked. They now gain huge business volume off the casual theatergoer who wants his "money's worth" of razzle-dazzle, gee-whiz special stage effects. The downside to this is that small, intimate plays often go by the wayside, just like smaller movies get shoved aside by the publics' rampage through the cineplex to catch the latest edition of "Hannibal."

The second reason is that audiences for theater productions are declining. They're literally dying off. I've been to countless productions that were full of gray-haired audience members. Younger people are simply staying away. Theater is just too static a medium for children raised on high-tech video games and the "Jurassic Park" series.

Ironically, KU has avoided that problem. The students are good about attending KU productions. It's the Lawrence public that is dwindling, as they attend other events or look for more flashy, rip-roaring styles of entertainment.

And that's a real shame because the productions mounted through University Theatre offer a variety of material, from family fare to cutting-edge and controversial, to new works from up and coming writers. And usually it's with a reasonable price tag. If you took a date to the latest Tom Green movie fiasco, then with popcorn and drinks you've spent $20. For that amount you could be at a live theater event watching flesh and blood performers in real-time scenarios.

Theater is such an incredible and unique art form. There are no second chances or retakes on the stage. A painter or a sculpturer can redo a work. I've even seen bands stop in the middle of a song and start over to try and get it right. But night after night theatrical actors do it in one take. And the medium they work in features the gamut of human emotion and experience. They can make you laugh, cry, sing along, get angry or leave the theater buoyed with emotion and humming a tune.

But more than just entertainment, as an art form, plays touch people's hearts and get people to think. Who hasn't raged alongside Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as he cries out against the mendacity and the liars in the world? And who hasn't left a revival of "Guys and Dolls" singing "Luck be a Lady Tonight?"

There are legions of actors, directors, writers and technicians putting their hearts and souls into productions � usually for scale pay or for free. And there is a lot of new and exciting talent learning their craft on the KU stages. All they need is a continuing audience to support them.


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