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.


1 comment:

Sarah McL said...

Yeah, I thought that Guardian article was pretty disappointing. Her "Big See" idea sounds a lot like Free Night of Theatre, and I thought placing all the onus on the NEA betrayed a pretty lame understanding of US cultural policy. Sigh.