Conversations like this are pretty common for a theater actor:
Me: Yeah, I haven't been working as much lately. I'm rehearsing a Shakespeare play.
Colleague: Oh, what play?
Colleague: Oh. I did that in high school. I was the villain guy.
To the average American, that is what theater is. That is what flashes through their minds immediately when you say that word. It is something they maybe did in their primary or secondary education, and that is about the last experience they had with it. Other than a vague notion of 'Broadway', or perhaps if they live in a big enough city, seeing images like this at their coffee shop or on their office bulletin board, it doesn't enter their mind anymore. This is what we, as theater artists in America, are up against.
Perhaps in no other art form does the amateur pervade its own image more than in theater. Think about it - every single image and advertisement we see for film/tv has no expense spared and is crafted by professionals. Imagine if the only paintings anyone had seen were the paintings their classmates made in middle school art class. Even 'professional' theater so often has the most static, inane, embarrassing images associated with it. (When is the last time you saw a dynamic press photo; or a cover of American Theater Magazine that didn't look like a student newspaper?) This is not to say that academic and community theater doesn't have it's place in our society, simply that that is not all it is.
We all know that theater has a small audience. But how can we ever hope to increase it if we so poorly represent it to the public? Never mind the issue of producing work that interests a contemporary audience (that is a whole different can of worms) we will not get people through the doors until we can effectively let them know that theater looks less like this and more like this.