Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Flop Theory

I've been thinking about what I was talking about here, and I have a question for you all, dear readers: do you know of a theatre, particularly a mid-sized or larger theatre, that was brought down by a flop? Seriously, one theatre in your area that had to close because of a costly failure. Because I really can't.

I'm not saying it's a bullshit fear, but it may be totally irrational. Since we haven't seen the full report, this may count for a small part of the Artistic Directors' issues, but it seems prominent and important enough. And it also feels real. It feels like the theatres are afraid that a bad show will wreck them. But I don't know of a single case of that, at least not off the top of my head.

I've seen some bad shows, and I know of a lot of theatres, at all levels, who have produced critical and artistic failures, of all sizes and shapes. But I've never heard of one going down solely because of a bad show. Or even of an artistic director fired because of one bad show. Now a string of bad choices, sure. Poor financial management, absolutely. Even just plain old bad luck or force majure has definitely brought down theatres. A success might have staved off some of that, but I don't know of one where a single bad show tipped the balance.

Now, maybe they're willing to cover it up and call it "financial mismanagement" when they just mean risk assessment. Or creative differences or whatever. Maybe it is more prevalent than I think. Maybe it's always just lurking around the corner. But I'm more inclined to think it's an institutional fear and a carry-over from a theatre's (or an artisitic director's) early days when, absolutely, a bad show, or an unnecessarily expense show, can bring you down with no coming back. Interestingly, when a theatre is small and everything is on the line, they seem more inclined to take bigger risks. But to carry it over when your budget is topping a million dollars, you have a robust board and a semi-stable audience and (hopefully) a strong community of artists around you...just doesn't make sense.

Back in the '90s, there were all of these jokes about the artistic director of a major NYC theatre that had a big ol' moneymaker that (presumably) gave them a big war chest/cushion that this artistic director burned through on a couple of ill-fated major projects. But then the AD would come up with a great show and make the money back. That cycle went around and around a couple of times before the AD moved on, to much fanfare and postitive memories (at least in public). But no one ever really thought the theatre would go down. And it didn't.

It's like the survivor of the Great Depression who hoards their pennies, even in good times, because they know in their bones that catastrophe is right around the corner. But it's not going to be as bad (at least we hope not). But sometimes I think it's also a nice, convenient excuse to explain the general timidity of institutions. Something they tell themselves to make it okay to aim for the middle of the road.

But, seriously, folks: am I out to lunch here? Is there some major example I'm missing/forgetting? Is it different where you are?


isaac butler said...

The closest I know about is The New Group, whose disastrous "Mourning Becomes Electra" came pretty close to closing it. They ended up letting go... i think it was their general manager and their marketing director as a result? something like that.

but i do think the fear is somewhat irrational. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of theaters are one bad season away from serious financial worries but that's a little different.

Art said...

It is tough to say exactly what contributes to the collapse, but I do believe North Shore Music Theatre here in Boston was pretty much brought to the financial brink by the disatrous decisionthe to put on High School Musical 3 last Christmas. The show flopped.

But I'm not sure if that is type of example you are looking for.

99 said...

I heard exactly the same thing about the New Group and it was one of the examples in my head. I also heard that the G.M. was against doing the show to begin with...but that's a topic for another post.

And the example of the North Shore Music Theatre looks like exactly what I'm looking for.

RLewis said...

I don't know if it was exactly One Show, but didn't Papermill Playhouse go from royally flush to deep red in little more than a season?

Freeman said...

It doesn't sound, though, like any of these institutions are brought down by a single flop. It's a series of missteps, programming choices that brings you to that place. That's not to blame the victim, I just see 99seats point here: there's much more to it than a single show that doesn't sell enough tickets.

The Green Cat said...

Perhaps the issue is not being "one flop" away from closing but one MORE flop away from closing. (I can tell you that "Mourning Becomes Electra" was not the only "flop" that The New Group did.)

99 said...

That's a bit more reasonable, honestly. Any small business is one bad year away from disaster. But not just one project. At least, any reasonably well-run business. Which, let's face it, doesn't include a lot of theatres.