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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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