People Are So Lonely, And Theatres Are In So Much Financial Trouble

Illustration by Jennifer Pearson, inspired by a photo from True Colors Theatre.

Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory declaring loneliness a public health epidemic. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation,” Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in his report, “we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.” As it happens, there is a natural and time-tested cure for loneliness that has existed for over 2,000 years: the theatre.

The post-pandemic crisis in the American theatre is not over; nonprofits are struggling all over the country as funding sources dry up and audience numbers dwindle. This healing medium needs an urgent and generous infusion of money from state, city or federal governments, or we will continue to see many theatres close in the next few years. Jobs are being lost, doors are closing.

I would like to offer a modest proposal, which, unlike Jonathan Swift’s, is not a joke. We are facing a public health emergency—and we need funding from the National Institutes of Health immediately. Let’s treat theatre as a proven method to stem the tide of debilitating isolation in this country. Given two joint crises—the loneliness epidemic and the economic implosion of the theatre—why not channel emergency funding into our existing theatres from public health coffers?

What next, you say? Government funding for bowling alleys? Maybe! In all seriousness, a Senate panel in July 2023 approved a two percent increase in the National Institutes of Health’s budget to $47.8 billion, whereas the National Endowment for the Arts’s proposed budget increase this year was from $207 million to $210 million. For comparison’s sake, France spent 4 billion euros on arts funding last year. If, as the Surgeon General warned, loneliness is as worrisome a malady as tobacco use, not only should the NEA’s modest increase be speedily adopted, but the NIH should also get into the business of supporting theatre as one proven medicine used to spur human connection.

Much as I love streaming my favorite shows on Hulu, television does not cure the problem of human loneliness. Rather, it exacerbates our isolation. During the pandemic, streaming might have saved us from the problem of boredom verging on insanity, but it also created the troubling pattern of devouring stories in near total isolation, all at once changing ancient cultural habits of sharing stories in community. The visual and literary arts are vital to our artistic health, but no art form galvanizes community quite the way the performing arts do. We can curl up and read a book in bed, even occasionally join book clubs, but how can a book club compare with synchronized heartbeats? Some years ago, a study by neuroscientists from University College London showed that audience members’ hearts actually start to beat in unison when they watch a play in real time together. A room of people feeling the same thing at the same time is almost a medical miracle, a spiritual elixir, a balm.

There is no prescription medicine for loneliness. It is instead a community, cultural, and structural problem, which the theatre addresses in its very DNA, without apparently meaning to.

When we make a play together, we quite naturally create camaraderie, an ancient form of social glue. When we go out for a night at the theatre, we leave our houses, change into presentable clothing, often go with a friend or two. As an audience, we see other human beings milling around, and once the show starts, we hear stories that speak to our collective souls—not unlike the process of going to a house of worship. These plays can be repeated over and over again by different communities formed around storytelling, yet somehow breathe newly with every incarnation.

From an at-risk child who gathers with others to make a play after school, to a teenager seeking friends who joins the high school musical, to an elderly widow who goes to a matinee with a friend, to a 30-year-old who might go to the theatre on a date—the theatre addresses the problem of human loneliness a every stage of development. There is no prescription medicine for loneliness. It is instead a community, cultural, and structural problem, which the theatre addresses in its very DNA, without apparently meaning to.

A former student of mine, the brilliant playwright Phillip Howze, created a series of Self-Portraits which culminate in unexpected proximity and conversation among audience members. In A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, the luminary Taylor Mac had audience members pass ping pong balls from one mouth to another. These groundbreaking experiments in creating instant community in real time are necessary and profound. These are natural corollaries, or further iterations, of the bizarrely effective, ancient sitting-in-silence-and-crying-or-laughing-at-the-same-time theatre technique. Last year, I went alone to see the play Primary Trust by Eboni Booth (published in this month’s issue). Though I did not know the people sitting on my left or my right, our aching compassion for the loneliness of the main character, and the tenderness of our in-the-moment opening to artistic experience, made us feel like a newly formed community by the end of the evening.

I once wanted to start a theatre company called More Than One Cup, founded on the principle that everyone should have more than one cup in their home to share beverages with visitors. A friend of mine had gone on a blind date and the man she met only had one cup for drinking. I said, “You’ll have to find a man with more than one cup!” We all need more than one cup! A theatre experience is shared. It is a symbolic clinking of glasses, a cup that runneth over in a time of adversity, extremity, and want.

Theatre could even function as a place to find love, creating evenings devoted to blind dates during previews. I could imagine an initiative called “Plus One” in which single-ticket buyers were paired with other single-ticket buyers; they could be given free drinks at intermission to lubricate a conversation between them.

There’s nothing worse than writers quoting themselves, but perhaps you will forgive me if I quote one of my characters, who once said, “Maybe plays are corny. But the truth is no one is lonely while they’re in a play.”

Sarah Ruhl (she/her) is a playwright, essayist and poet living in Brooklyn.

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