Over the last weekend, I heard the same cliched phrase on an old episode of House and an episode of CSI:, so obviously we've all heard it: if you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras. In theatre, we seem to have a tendency to think unicorns, then magical ponies, then antelopes before we even get to zebras.
In the comments to the post below, Simon asks if there's an objective standard of good theatre in NY theatre circles. I realized that I was getting into value judgements that I didn't mean to. I don't care if a play is good or bad, really. I personally prefer good plays, but my definition of good won't be yours. That's not really what I meant by the problem being the plays.
What I mean is that the audiences are seeing the plays. In other places, that may be because they don't know the plays are happening. In parts of New York, that may mean they don't know the plays are happening. But I think, beneath that, they don't care. We have to make them care. And that's more than a snappy new website or the right e-mail list.
Another old saw we're all familiar with is Occam's Razor. (If you're not, go here.) The simplest explanation is the probably the right one. If people are still going to theatre, but they're not going to straight plays...well, you see what I'm saying. This should be obvious. And it's not a matter of reviews, or awards or stars, because, as we see, the best reviewed plays don't do so well. So we look for reasons, all kinds of reasons, but rarely do we look within. Marketing matters, of course it does, but the experience that someone has in the theatre matters, too. Maybe more.
What I've found time and again in theatres is that audience building is wholly the province of "administrative" or "development" staff, and seen as somehow separate from the artistic process or goals. The artistic staffs tend to think about this show as a singular event, except in those rare cases of a season with a theme. Each show has its own artistic goals, separate from the show before it or after it in the season. How does this make sense? How are we to build a theatregoing audience at large when each show isn't even linked stylistically?
I've seen a couple of shows by this company. Not always exactly my fare, but it's interesting: they have an aesthetic, a singular vision of how to do theatre. It's cheap, it's simple and it works for them. I'd like to imagine that if they were given a big fat old grant, they'd still do things the same way...maybe with nicer jeans or something.
We have to look at the art, not just the business and ask ourselves: is this successful? How are we measuring success?