Friday, February 29, 2008

Concrete Ideas

Over at Isaac’s place, he asked a really great simple thing: what concrete changes would you make to improve the New York theatre scene. Such a basic thing. He points out that the usual suggestions are really large things with many moving parts that would require a lot of time and energy to re-direct and are, in some case, really unlikely to be affected. Like reforming the showcase code. Or building more theatres in more neighborhoods. But what smaller things can we look at, things that can be changed more easily or more quickly. I threw a couple of suggestions in his comments (scroll down) and I wanted to elaborate on them a bit.

- Metacritic for Theatre. If you don’t know the site, it’s a pretty neat thing: it’s a review aggregator for movies, tv, music, and games. It takes reviews from publications all around the country and on the web, gives them a numerical value and calculates a total score. So if a movie has nine good reviews from newspapers around the country and one bad review from a national magazine, it winds up with an overall positive review. And vice versa.

This is essential for New York theatre. One of the biggest problems on the scene is the air space that the New York Times theatre reviews takes up in the community’s mind. All that really matters is what the New York Times has to say. Even in this age on online reviews, in a city of several daily newspapers, the media capital of the world, basically two guys who write for one paper can kill any show, doom any show to obscurity, or create the Next Big Thing with one stroke of their pen. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in the slightest. There is a massive power inequity that hurts theatres, especially experimental theatres. The Times has a definite taste and if you fall outside of that, woe to you.

This has hurt New York theatre because all the boards, funders and subscribers care about is the Times review. It doesn’t matter if audiences like the play, respond favorably. If the Times review is bad, that play is dead, never to be produced again, never to be trusted. The days when the playwright’s career would also be over are gone, but it’s not much better.

A review aggregator, like Metacritic, would allow patrons to see the wider scope of press and get more opinions. It would widen the conversation and expose people to different schools of thought, different kinds of theatre. While the reviewers aren’t the sole arbiter of taste, they play an important role. We just need to regulate that role a bit more.

- A full-court press by groups like ART/NY, TDF and TCG to find ways to lower ticket prices. I went to a very good Off-Broadway show in a respectable house (around 100 seats). It really was an excellent show, though, at least for me, not mind-expanding. The cast was good, solid New York actors, but no stars of any kind. No “name” playwright or “director.” A very typical New York theatre production. I had a friend involved, so I got a comp. The regular ticket price: $45. Plus fees, if you order online. The house, on a Thursday night? About ten people, and I doubt any of them paid (though I could be wrong). Was that show worth that ticket price? Not anything against it in any way, but no. Especially considering that if I wanted to bring a date, now we’re talking $100, before dinner.

A few weeks back, I went to this theatre to see a play. It was a big, messy, joyous thing, certainly not a polished, slick piece of theatre. It looked great, was passionately performed. A big, sloppy kiss of a play. And the regular ticket price: $20. Because of a huge sponsor, granted. But under those circumstance, I could hate the play, dislike any aspect of it, and, you know what, I might still come back to see the next one. Because I’m not out a significant amount of money.

This is a big freaking part of the problem. At the current ticket price range, for most folks, the plays have no room to suck. Because of the investment. A theatre professor of mine always said that theatre had to justify its theft of time. And now, more and more, it has to justify its theft of money. This leads to more revivals, more stunt casting, more timid plays. Because there’s no room for failure.

I know that there are a lot of reasons for this problem, from union salaries and requirements to theatre costs and real estate to the price of advertising in a super-saturated environment. But there is one simple solution: money. A concerted effort from the theatre development and advocacy groups to build a pool of funds to help defray costs and keep ticket prices low. These guys can’t do it for everyone, but if others joined in the fight, were brought to the table and this problem were addressed head-on, the benefits are exponential. If Off-Broadway show from here to here are all the same low price, more people come and see them, the theatres can take bigger chances, more theatres can thrive. If I ran one of these organizations, I would make lower ticket prices across the board in five years my number one goal.

Those are my ideas? What are yours?


August Schulenburg said...

I personally would love ticket prices to be lower because if they were, I'd see even more theatre, but given that my Friends Of Similar Income (or FOSI, for a ludicrous and potentially unnecessary acronym) who don't see theatre on a weekly basis are more than willing to drop $60-120 on a night of beer, food, and late cabs home; I wonder if the problem is high ticket prices. The non-theatre going FOSI are more than ready to careen into credit car debt for a weekend of hangovers; but are unwilling to drop a similar or even lesser amount of cash to risk the hangover of a bad play. So I think that lower price tickets can serve as a wonderful incentive to get new people in the door, but I'm not sure it is the be all and end all for curing theatre of empty seats. I wonder what other factors contributed to that full house of $20 ticket buyers, because there are many near empty houses with $20 tickets, as well.
And the meta critic idea is great.

99 said...

The lower ticket prices aren't just about getting people in the door the first time, but bringing them back. I agree that lots of people are willing to drop $150 for a night out, and sometimes even on theatre. But I find those kind of expenses are on things with a high rate of return on it. Theatre can be more of a hit-or-miss proposition. We also want people to come back for more. If you spend $40 (for two tickets) on something that sucks, you'll still be more likely to come back the next time than if you spent $120. I see it as part of a cascade affect: if the ticket prices are lower, audiences can be more stable. If the audiences are more stable, the theatres can take more chances and be more responsive. I'm sure, like an underpants gnome, I'm missing a step or two there, but that's the basic logic.

Brian Diehl said...

Lower ticket prices will certainly get more butts in the seats, but producers see the bottom line and want to switch from using a red pen to a black one as quickly as possible. All they can see is that those seats have the potential of making top dollar and they don't want to "cheapen" their product by cutting prices.

Actors Inequity ( is working on a "Marketing Your Theater" section and we repeatedly come up against the argument that each seat is worth its weight in gold. Even some community theaters wouldn't think of giving away a seat, even if it's to an "influencer," someone in the community who could really talk up your show. It's crazy!