Friday, December 19, 2008

Biting Hands...

So after a nice ol' huzzah from Isaac, I find I have some thoughts on his next post. Because I'm definitely in the Richard Nelson camp on this one. I think there's a very sharp difference between what he's describing as happens in the publishing world and what's happening in theatres. Basically, what he's describing is the rehearsal process. It's not like the publisher says to the author, "Yeah, we love your book. Here are ten things that you have to change for us to consider publishing it. Off you go." But that's what we're told in theatre. We have to make these changes before the play is even ready for the ultimate process that it's supposed to go through. And we know that if we go into rehearsal, after two years of writing, three readings, a workshop, two more reading, and we don't want to change it anymore (if we can still remember what we wanted to write in the first place), then the theatre will be unhappy with us. We'll be difficult writers and collaborators. So we're going to have to do more rewrites anyway.

That's what's so outraging. Our own work must be perfect before it's finished. It's a terrible standard and keeps plays from being produced. The worst part is, we all know it's kind of bullshit. We know that there are certain writers, ones who are hot right now or have enough pull or whatever, who don't have to go through this process. They walk in with a first draft and they're going right into rehearsal. They haven't had to submit draft upon draft, or deal with notes from three different directors, staff members and managers. Again, back to the lying endemic in our business: this process is arbitrary and unfair.

But, in a way, even if it was done differently in another art, so what? How you make plays is not how you write books. Should we be happy about something that's unfair and arbitrary because it's worse for a songwriter? We don't need for all the arts to be developed in the same way. Writing a play is, ultimately, a collaborative process. It's different that most other art forms in that way. The rules should be different.

Isaac, I still love ya.

An Experiment

This morning, I thought I'd try a little experiment. I picked out five mid-level non-profit theatres here in NYC and I went to their websites. On each, you can find a mission statement. I copied them and took out the identifying characteristics. See if you can tell who these theatres are*...

Theatre #1:
XXXX produces a diverse range of premieres and new interpretations of America's best contemporary theatre. Founded in XXXX to produce…contemporary plays, XXXX has expanded its mission to include the development and production of new plays and the creation of programs that nurture young theatre artists. This commitment has manifested itself in many ways, from presenting new productions to providing long-term residencies for playwrights, directors, composers and lyricists.

Theatre #2:
Guided by the artistic vision of X, X and X, XXXX brings together exceptional theater artists to produce works that force us to reexamine the world we live in through the unique perspectives of extraordinary writers. XXXX is dedicated to discovering and developing challenging, engrossing theater to present on our main stage, while simultaneously nurturing the development of emerging young voices through our literary and education programs. XXXX draws from among the finest actors and actresses in the world, casting them in roles that challenge performers and audiences alike. By providing a safe environment to explore compelling stories, XXXX encourages artists to take risks – continually stretching their boundaries and working beyond expectations.

Theatre #3
For more than XX years, XXXX has produced daring new works by emerging and established playwrights. Known for its artistic integrity and commitment to the playwright's vision, Primary Stages has become a creative home for established playwrights like X, X, and X, and emerging new voices such as X, X, and X.

Theatre #4
In order to best foster the future voices of American Theater, XXXX is committed to the development and production of innovative new plays. Our mission is to provide a positive, nurturing experience for emerging playwrights, to present diverse and challenging plays that otherwise might not be produced, and to foster the future voices of the American theater.

Theatre #5
XXXX is a writer's theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists, and to the production of their new work.

Pretty hard to tell which is which, right? Or who's doing what kind of work? It's all the same language about "nurturing," "supporting," "encouraging," and "challenging." It says nothing about style or approach. Nothing about the content. Shouldn't that be important?

The problem is the grant language, the corporatespeak that dominates our conversations. It's safe, fuzzy and easy and it's the lingua franca of the arts. You have to be able to convince the suits that you're not some crazy artists with wacky ideas. You're a CEO in the making, a smooth corporate operator. You just have a ponytail and show up to meetings in jeans.

There's a great old Mamet quote (not this one, though that's pretty awesome) about how long ago theatre people were a step above carnies and gypsies. We were seen as dirty, untrustworthy, sketchy and possibly dangerous. What's so bad about that? We were flimflam artists, hucksters, snake oil salesmen. We could use a little of that spirit again. A little dirt from the street on our souls.

* - You can put your guesses in the comments.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

One Quick Hit...

I didn't even know what to say. I saw a person I know today, an older, white lady of some means. We were talking about plays and she mentioned seeing a solo work recently by an African-American artist. "It was great," she said, "Truly marvelous. You should check it out."

"Sounds great," I said.

"I didn't understand a word of it, though. Not a single word. I guess I'm too old."

"Yeah," I said, "Well..."

"He's got to clean that up. People like me are the ones buying theatre tickets. I told the artistic director."


How do you tell someone that's exactly what's wrong with theatre today? How?


I had a great chat with a theatre friend of mine last night and some of that chat is going to wind up here. Here's part of it:

My friend's working on a fairly large show, a classical production. It's quite good and has received some great notices. So, kudos! But they're planning for next year and the leader of the theatre wants to do a bigger show, with a much bigger budget. My friend marvels at this, sicne they barely made the budget for this show, their biggest ever. When this is explained to the leader, the leader says, "Well, we'll raise more money."

But the board argues, "We might not get it, so you'll have to cut your budget."

The leader, "We can't cut the budget! We must raise more money!"

That's it. That's the total of the business plan.

This is part of the problem with our old friend, the standard model. It's turned us into beggars. Pure and simple. And this is bad. In so many ways. We're seeing it right now.

Theatres are now almost solely dependent on the whims and fortunes of rich people. So when rich people are doing well, theatre is doing well. Now that rich people are doing badly, theatres are scared, terrified and shrinking. Because we have no alternate plan. And certainly no alternate method of raising money. Not even putting ads on theatre blogs.

This is part and parcel of the debilitized state of theatre today. I'm not saying that cutting the budget is wrong. It's probably the best solution. But so is finding another way to bring funding in to fulfill the vision.

We're stuck with this Hobbes' Choice: work with what the rich people give you or don't work at all. There's got to be a third way. What's the third way?

Occam's Razor Burns

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?

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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Skim the Surface or Dive In?

Apropos of what I was saying here, we have a perfect example of the dichotomy: Alexis Soloski and George Hunka, marketing vs. essence.

I actually don't mean to be totally glib about this. They are two different and legitimate approaches. We know the problem: theatre is failing, particularly straight play theatre. It's failing to reach an audience, and it's failing to serve the artists. The question is why.

From Soloski's point of view, it's a failure of marketing. She says:

The NEA already sponsors some theatre outreach, but why not launch a Big See? The endowment could partner with hundreds of communities to encourage attendance at theatre productions and ensure that all schoolchildren have access and
exposure to plays, developing a new generation of audience members. [...]

If all else fails, the NEA might consider underwriting the salaries of movie stars who deign to appear on the stage. The Seagull, with Kristin Scott Thomas, and All My Sons, featuring Mrs Tom Cruise, have recently recouped their investments. Stargazing still ranks, it seems, as a popular pastime.

The basic assumption is that what's on the stages are fine, but we need to get people in to see the work. She does bring up keeping the ticket prices lower and more in line with other forms of entertainment, but, in its heart, that's also a marketing issue. If we believe that the work is, as is, worthy of support, then these are good solutions and ideas (well, I don't know about subsidizing Katie Holmes. I mean, she should probably be able to work for scale. Or for free.)

On the other end of the spectrum is George Hunka, who is substantially less rosy about the work itself. Here's a choice section:

Once the theatre offers audiences the respect, consideration and experience that they can't find in any other aesthetic form, perhaps they will return. The dark experience of tragedy, a form which has long been considered by many an irrelevance to contemporary human experience, has been precisely what has been missing, and no wonder; its death was reported by George Steiner as long ago as 1961. Critics and artistic directors find it uncomfortable and impossible to market within the current ideology of youth, innocence, hope and vague change. [...] The lessons of tragedy are unfathomable in the age of the post-show discussion, which seeks if not closure at the very least comfort: tragedy provides neither. The tragic consciousness is necessary to a fully cognizant vision of this world, not theatre itself. But where is the fun in that? And no one wants their fun to be taken away.

Strong stuff. I don't know if I agree with his emphasis on tragedy, or that its loss is attributable to the current ideology of optimism. To be honest, though, when I talk to the non-theatre-going folk, their biggest complaint is that the plays are so serious, or take themselves so seriously. They dread being preached to, or shouted out, or, even worse, spoken to too earnestly. But isn't part of theatre recognizing what's going on and responding to it? That's another question for another post. Right now, we're just looking at George and Alexis. And George is definitely saying that the problem is in the content. For George, lower ticket prices and starrier casting won't change the plays themselves and it's the disconnect between the plays and the audiences that are creating this problem.

Two sides, one problem. But, of the two, the marketing folks are the ones we hear from more often. Maybe it's just a natural position to think that what you're doing is right, that if the right people hear it or see it, then all will be well. It's a good thing to think and feel. But does that solve the problem?

And, of course, we'd all like better plays produced more often, but what's better? Who decides? If the audiences want laughs, fart jokes, plays about Paris Hilton, should we give it to them? Or is the role of the artist to strive for more? Are the two mutually exclusive?

From where I sit, we do need to some thinking about both. Theatre, by and large, needs a marketing overhaul. But we really do need to pay attention to what we're marketing. Thinking about the website committee and that theatre, a super-snappy, updated website, full of cutting edge geegaws is terrific. We go viral, post videos, have a blog, get the word out there that we're doing a show. Who are we getting the word to? If we're using the internet, posting on facebook, we're reaching a certain kind of demographic. What happens when they walk into the theatre and don't see themselves on stage? Or worse, see an annoying or offensive depiction of themselves. They don't come back. And all of your marketing saavy has gone to waste. The two things go hand-in-hand. Content should match the medium. That disconnect is the gap that threatens to swallow us whole.


Monday, December 15, 2008

So...What's Missing Here?

I was all away in my semi-sort-of-almost retirement, sitting by a pool in a tropical, non-extradition country, drinking fruity cocktails with umbrellas in them, when I read this. And it was enough to get my ass back on this fucking horse. So, go and read it. It's quite short. And then come back here and tell me what's missing. I can wait.

Did you see it?

Well, let's see. The audiences for straight plays are declining. But it's not the ticket prices. Or the options. Or a lack of theatre companies. (Though, I'm sure there are folks who can argue that this particular study is wrong there.) Jeez, golly, willikers, I just gosh darn it can't imagine what other factor could be keeping people from going to plays. Aw, shucks.

This little article mentions three well-received, award-winning productions currently running on Broadway. Two revivals and one transfer from a regional theatre, a play about nasty, white upper middle class Midwestern folk. Huh. Yeah, I almost had it...and then I lost it. Slipped right through my fingertips.

I couldn't possibly be...there's no earthly way it could be...might it just be...the PLAYS? Surely you jest.

No, really, all sarcasm aside, theatre artists really do need to some soul-searching about what we're doing, why we're doing it and who we're doing it for. Yes, the audiences are dwindling. We all know that. We've all known that. Yes, we face competition from all kinds of medium. But that ain't it. The audiences for musicals are going up and frankly, you can see why. Broadway is crass, it's commercial, it's disgusting, but you know what? It knows its audience, it knows how to find its audience and it goes after 'em.

People do still love and crave live performance. But they want it to mean something to their lives. They want it to connect to them, invite them in. It doesn't have to talk down to them, or pander to entertain and enlighten. But it has to connect.

Studies and articles like this always set off orgies of meetings and symposia and jibber jabber sessions that, inevitably, descend directly into marketing meetings. That's the solution. It's the marketing. We need better branding, nicer posters, a better website. It should have movies on it, and a blog. We need street teams spray painting our logo on things in cool parts of town. People should think that we're not a theatre, that we're a club or a rave. Do kids still go to raves? This is the line of thinking. Because no one wants to ask the hard question: what are we doing? Why don't people like what we're doing? Because we're not going to like the answer.

I've been sucked in, slightly against my will, into just that kind of discussion, about a theatre's website re-design. The buzzwords are flying fast and furious: interactivity, Facebook-connectivity, blah blah blah. It's all fine, great, grand. I have nothing against a prettier website, a slicker interface. But the question of content...hasn't come up. The idea of who we're trying to attract into the theatre and then, most importantly, what are they going to find when they get there, this is the last part of the discussion. And people wonder why I might have gotten a bit burned out on this world.

These are the wake-up calls, folks. The canaries are singing their hearts out and rather than digging our way out, we're making the mineshaft a little more comfortable, resigned to the cave-in (yeah, yeah, I know that canaries don't warn against cave-ins, but I'm rolling).

We gotta start having the hard talks.