Saturday, August 29, 2009

200-Pound Gorilla

I love me some Isaac Butler. I think that's more than apparent. He was one of my inspirations for starting this blog and, even when my output is slow, I make it a point to read his stuff and hang out at his place. He's written a doozy of a post on the strengths and weakness of the "indie" theatre scene. (I guess Off-Off-Broadway is old hat now?) It really is good stuff, thorough and well-thought-out as usual (despite some funky formatting problems - did you write it originally in Word 2007? I've had problems cutting-and-pasting from the new version of Word into Blogger...but I digress). You absolutely should RTWT.'s the thing for me: it's totally pointless. I'm sorry, Isaac. It's cathartic and everything, but it's all stuff that we all know. That out here in the blogosphere we've all talked about and talked about and talked about, fought about, broke up about, got back together about. I've only been kicking around here for a couple of years and I know I've written on this stuff, and so have you. Not enough money, not enough space, not enough noise, too many shows. Yep. All true. We need more collaboration, more connective tissue, more money. Yep. We do.

Maybe I'm feeling the same late summer bitterness and cynicism that's going around, but I don't think we're alone in this. I think that the folks who run the theatres know it, they read our blogs from time to time, they freaking live it. I know I lived it when I worked in theatres. The real question is how is it fixable? I don't know that it is. Because of one of the big, real insights in his post, the 200-pound gorilla in the middle of the entire theatre scene: some of the work is bad. Hell, let me give in to the cynicism all the way: a lot of the work sucks. Period. And there's nothing we can do about that. Because it's not really a bug. It's a feature.

We work in lightning, in alchemy. You put together a group of passionate, energized people of varying levels of talent, organization and sanity, shake vigorously and sometimes, you get brilliance. Sometimes you get a big, fat turd. And that's the life we've chosen. But because of that, you know what: no one with money is going to give it to us, willy-nilly. Whenever I talk to someone on the "inside" about the crappy funding practices and wack funding priorities, pretty soon we get to the real crux of the problem: no one wants to give money to something that sucks. That's why basically every theatre in town, at every level, is exactly one bad show away from failure. Once you stink, it's hard to get that stench out of the seats. We're all dependent on hand-outs to survive, whether they're handouts from rich people or rich foundations or handouts from the government. And none of them want to piss money away.

And the really great thing about this problem, well, the two really great things, are that it's a beautiful, double-bind, Catch-22 situation. One, you really can't tell. There was a show announced this spring, at a theatre that I rather like. It was a big, ambitious production of a neglected American classic. It was cast with slightly starry people, but interesting actors, many of whom had solid theatre credits under their belt. I was excited about it, thrilled. And I was stoked when I got a comp offer during previews. Sweet! Except it was the worst show I've ever seen and I walked out of it. And it was a huge, honking failure. On paper, it was awesome. But somehow, somewhere in the process, it went horribly wrong. You can't quality control that.

(Sidebar: I was trying to think of the opposite situation- something that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea, an awful, train-wreck of a show, but that turned out, in actuality, to be great. Can anyone think of something like that? Maybe Spring Awakening?)

The other part of the double-bind is that our community will resist it. We don't want quality control. You know what people call it when you start talking about quality control measures? Commercialism. The reason the city and the rich people are willing to invest significantly more money in stadiums and movie studios and even opera companies and museums than theatres is because they know that those entities are trying to please their fans, going out of their way, sometimes even to the detriment of what they're supposed to be doing (cf. the recent Yankees and Mets) in order to "put butts in the seats." Well, that and make money. If a theatre company announced its intention to have the biggest box office ever, as a goal, it would be shunned. Probably rightfully so, but that's a bigger issue, a bigger conflict for this community to deal with than "We can't get enough good press."

When your top strength, that anything can happen, in the rehearsal hall, in rewrites, on stage at any given time, is your biggest weakness, you're screwed. And maybe there is a level of just accepting that we're kind of screwed. Until theatre companies can find a way to make money of their own without being pilloried as turning commercial or sacrificing their core values, we're kind of screwed.


David Dower said...

Hey, 99- Is it true that "for NY audiences it has to be 'new'"? Perhaps for the shiny few- the people who bestow a sense of shine on the artists-- but really for "the audience"? Most people who go to theater, I'd bet, have no idea whether it's a premiere or a second or third or fourth production-- they go because it's on their radar (review, word of mouth, mega-ad budget) and it gets on their radar faster if it's familiar in some way (title, star, adapted from a film/book whatever).

I personally am devoted to contemporary artists and to creating an environment for their success. But even I drag my feet to be the first in to see something "new". And I waited in line to see the revival of South Pacific at full price and was thrilled to produce A Delicate Balance with a fabulous cast and director.

I am really on a jag about this whole newness thing. I think it's a story we're telling ourselves that's neither true nor helpful but let's us off the hook for the real challenge: being relevant to the vast majority of the general public looking for something to get them out the house.

So I, too, applaud the Rattlestik choice to mount a play they love that they think might connect. There are early Sarah Ruhl plays and Amy Freed plays that people could and should be doing as well-- and would if we weren't so convinced that the road to glory is through newness. Especially when there seems to be no evidence that it's true in any broad sense. Premieritis, where it rules, is not the fault of the audience. Funders/practitioners heal thyselves, I think.

99 said...

You know, you're right; it wasn't really accurate to say that NY audiences want something new. It's not even the critics or anything: it's the theatres that seem to shy away from second or third productions. It's like there's a tacit understanding that unless a play is twenty-five years old, it's not going to get a remount. And certainly not if that original production wasn't well-received. A revival of South Pacific isn't the same as a revival of What's Wrong With This Picture by Donald Marguiles or Tales of the Lost Formicans by Constance Congdon or Gretty Good Time by John Belluso. There are exceptions, but they're rare.

I do think it's a story that theatres tell themselves and a delusion we work under. It does seem to be pervasive all through the industry, and I think it's got a serious hold here in New York. I read Rob Kozlowski's previews of the Chicago season and I felt a lot of envy about the mix of classics, recent plays and new plays available. I can't seem to find that kind of breadth of field here in NYC.

But you're absolutely right that it is an internal problem. Audiences want good plays. Period.

joshcon80 said...

I would actually split the difference between the original post and David's comment. I don't particularly think audiences care about newness and I agree that they're more likely to see a play with a star in it etc. On Broadway, that is. Uptown, in the big houses. I think downtown is whole other story. I think a lot of the Rattlestick's audience knows exactly who Thurber is and have a familiarity with her work. Not that this should mean it's bad for them to reproduce her play or anything.

Carl Benson said...

Hi 99,

Was turned on to your site by an SF playwright named Tim Bauer who has a blog called Direct Address here:

He and I have been kicking around a lot of similar conversations to what you write about. And form your sire, I was turned on to Isaac's post about the Strengths/Weaknesses of the Indie Scene.

Anyway, I posted this comment over there and figured I'd post here as well.

If you're up for it, check out the PianoFight blog ( for more of this type of talk with an SF context.

On to the commenting:

Really interesting discussion across the board here, specifically for me, Sara's comments about for-profit vs. not-for-profit, Isaac's about supply and demand, and RLewis's thoughts on branding.

My biggest beef with the not-for-profit arts world is that it is inherently self defeating. By setting up as a non-profit, you are, to an extent, saying that the company will never make money and will consistently need subsidization in order to survive. Essentially, there is not enough demand to fully pay for the art being created.

Branding (marketing etc) is huge in changing the level of demand for theater across the board. As the Intertubes and other impersonal tech weave more seamlessly into our lives, the demand for live, human to human contact/performance/interaction is going to increase. You simply can't get that online, which is why bands are now making most of their money touring as opposed to the sale of records, which are now largely promotional/marketing tools as opposed to solid revenue streams. In short, we've got to start marketing theater in a way that competes with bars, concert venues, clubs and restaurants.

I agree with Isaac that currently the market doesn't have much to do with determining what work gets produced, but I think Theater in general could stand to pay a bit more attention to ticket sales and the bottom line. If a non-profit company can get a production paid for before the first ticket is sold, then what incentive does that company really have to make sure the production is something people want to see?

The basic difference between the two business models is that non-profits are culpable to their board of directors and big donors, while for-profits answer directly to the market and the people actually buying the tickets. And to be honest, aren't these the people we should be answering to?

Currently, if your theater is backed by charitable funding, your artistic fate lies in the hands of the relative few who dole out the grants. There is, however, a sorely underused, undervalued, and generally under appreciated though potentially limitless supply of funding ... ticket buyers.

Great blog, great discussion, love reading it, and please keep up the good work and on-point commentary.