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 Metacritic.com, 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?