Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I'm not sure really how I feel about this. Again, heavy on the "we don't market," and heavy on the "what we're doing in the theatres is awesome." Maybe there's something different happening in Toronto. That's entirely possible. My sense of the NY theatre scene is different. My read from non-theatre people who don't go to theatre isn't that they don't hear about it; they don't think they'll like it. Which is a different problem.

A few months back, I ran into an acquaintance at a reading. We'd originally met in a very different context, not theatre-related at all. When I saw her at the reading, my first question was "Do you know the playwright?" Turns out she didn't. Turns out she just goes to readings and plays. She's in her mid-twenties and just goes to readings. Needless to say, my mind was sufficiently blown. Not only by her attendance, but my assumption, even as a theatre person, that the only reason she was there was because she knew somebody involved. Granted, it was a reading, but, isn't the point of a public reading to see how a play is with an audience. A real audience.

New York City is a large place and there are definitely communities that are underserved by theatres, and not in a position to hear about new plays. But a lot of people are and still choose not to go to them. Better marketing might help them find other choices, but if the product is unappealing, the product is unappealing.

I like the part where he says that the "third or fourth time someone from our community tells them they should go see a play, they will." But the corrollary is also true: the second time someone from your community tells you they saw a play and it was bad, you won't go. And, unfortunately, you might not go to any more plays at all. How do we address that?

I also like the undercurrent of a high tide raising all boats. I've gone to Partial Comfort's Battle of the Bards a couple of times and I love it. I love that the NY indie theatre community can fill a club with people there to see some plays and judge them. Sure, they're there to drink booze and hang out, but it's also about the plays. But I'm also always disappointed that there's no follow-up, no follow-through on keeping these people connected to ALL of the companies. No central mailing list that all participants can hook into, no joint productions springing out of it. Everyone goes back to their own cubbyhole, takes their jealously guarded audience and we never hear from each other again.

Honestly, though, I've noticed this changing. I now get a lot more e-mails from theatre companies advertising other companies' shows. This is, on the balance, a good thing.

Again, this may be particular to New York. We have a ton of options, possibilities, plays to see. And some of them suck. A case can be made, though, that the urgent thing is getting people in to see them. I just think the two problems go hand in hand.


Simon said...

First of all, welcome the hell back. I was only last week lamenting your absence from the theatrenets. You've been missed.

As to the topic at hand, and my recent post on it, I think the conversation you're starting is great, and an essential one for the artists. How do we raise the standard? If we get more critical of each other's shows instead of being a mutual admiration society, does that fracture us as a community at a time when we should be banding together for mutual gain?

Ultimately, it's up to the audiences to drive up the standard of theatre. They review with their feet, and with a perfectly functioning system the crappy shows would fall out of orbit from the sheer weight of their own weaknesses, and the great shows would thrive. Theatre artists that make awful work don't know they're awful, they think that they're wonderful, so telling them to make better art isn't going to make any sense to them, nor is it in any probability within their ability to make theatre at the level that you're asking for. So, we need a bigger audience base for our segment of the theatre world to vote them off the island, so to speak.

Therein lies my point about better marketing. The inherent gamble right now, as you indicate, is that if we manage to get an uninitiated guest (of which I'm sure there is much more here in Vancouver than there is in New York, theatre is part of the common language of your city, sadly not mine, not even close) into a theatre and the play sucks out loud, in all likelihood that guest is never going to take a chance on theatre again. Bad plays are a singularly awful experience to endure, god knows. Our best hope for preventing this is to raise the standard of the product and, here in Canada anyway, no such standard yet exists. We have yet to cultivate a discerning enough audience. I believe this happens over time as a new audience better educates itself by comparing performances.

Does such a standard exist amongst the existing audience in New York Off-Off?

99 said...

Thanks for the welcome, Simon. I'm surprised to find that it's kind of good to be back, ranting and raving.

I'm going to post on this a bit, but I didn't mean to get into the value judgements of "good" or "bad" theatre, precisely. I don't know if there's an objective standard, or even should be. But I do think that the audience is already voting with their feet and their wallets, as the recent NEA study shows. They don't like the product and most of us are focusing on the packaging. Sure, in an ideal world full of mobs of regular theatregoers, every single theatre would find its perfect, loyal audience. But that world, no matter how much money is thrown at us, will never exist. The question is how do we edge ourselves closer to that world.

Simon said...

This is incredibly fascinating to me. Here in Vancouver, small-house theatre has never, in our entire young history, made real inroads into the mainstream consciousness of the city, and we look to cities like New York (and Chicago, and Edmonton, and Montreal) as exemplars of that dream. So if your audience, an initiated audience, has stopped showing up, wtf? What kind of material is available that's turning them off, or worse, boring them away?

Here in Van we have two types of indie theatre being mounted: progressive, wonderful, edge-cutting original work that is pathetically marketed outside of the choir; and young companies putting up old New York plays from the 60s/70s that have become scene study staples, plays that in their day shocked and moved their audiences.

What's going on in NYC?

99 said...

That's a really great question! I've been a bit out of the loop for about a year or so, but I don't think the basics have changed much: the audiences are getting older and grayer. We have the large non-profit (or in some cases, not-really-non-profit) theatres dominating in terms of grant money, press and "headspace." There's a level of mid-sized non-profits, most of whom are stuck competing with the bigs, in terms of star casting, name playwrights. At those levels, most everyone is looking for a transfer. Then there are the small theatres, many of whom are doing really interesting, compelling work, but it's largely for audiences of friends and family, and other theatre people. There isn't a lot of engagement with the larger population of the city. And I think the work shows it. A lot of it is made for audiences of critics and theatre people. We have a lot of plays that feature the problems of upper middle class white people with a moderately liberal bent. There is good work and exciting work, but usually within that spectrum. And we wonder why people outside of that class and race aren't all that interested in coming to see the shows.

Simon said...

Boom, that's it, in a nutshell. What is it with theatre companies and vanity work? Why not consider what the community might want to see, instead of putting up something that is all about you? Drives me nuts.

I love this quote from the Ontario theatre blog Grinder's Grumblings:

"We do not make theatre solely for personal reasons (though there may be a personal motivation to it) - we can only make theatre in a collaborative environment with our audience. I think it's up to them to dictate the content - what they see, like and understand is ultimately what puts food on the actor's/director's/producer's table, not some brilliant new business model for a theatre company. Our job is to fulfill our obligation in this partnership - to create content, yes, but not to judge it, except to improve it, and we can't do that without the feedback of the audience, who in giving back to us (be it through comments, critiques, or simply voting with their feet) are fulfilling their half of the partnership. Through this sybiotic relationship we collectively create the content as two equal players, rather than dictating content from a "master-apprentice" relationship, an idea that many of us seem to cling so desperately to in this business."

Lindsay Price said...

I think too it's the nature of marketing, and what marketing is.

New marketing, that uses social media, that focuses on communication and connection, that uses social media at its best by presenting an honest, human face to a company
should (the almighty should) reach those who aren't sure if they like theatre. It should garner new audiences and connect to them.

The issue now is companies who see social media as just another selling tool without the connection factor.

99 said...

Lindsey, I think you're right about the attitude of a lot of the old guard (for lack of a better term). They want the mailing list to bring people to the theatre, but they don't understand that if you want to attract a younger audience, you need to do shows about their lives, the things they care about. Some theatres try and have it both ways. They produce old plays about young people, like Fifth of July or Boys Life, and then cast a bunch of TV stars in it. I think we can and should be doing more.

Simon, I think I've said it before on this blog, but maybe not: my ideal of a theatre is one where there's no distinction between the people on the stage, the people in the audience, the people working in the theatre and the people on the street. Right now, if I'm going to a theatre in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, I can always tell who's going to the theatre and who lives there. There's so little connection between the theatre and the neighborhood it's actually in here. The audience is coming from the suburbs, so they do theatre for people in the suburbs and then wonder why people in the city couldn't care less. It's not even vanity. It's just blindness.