Monday, June 8, 2009

Weighing In...

Well, it took me a couple of days to realize that I was incredibly jealous of all the very, very cool kids down in B'more at the TCG National Conference. And I was so very jealous. It sounded like a lot of fun and even good conversation to boot. Plus one of my favorite people in the whole world got a great big, well-deserved award. But I've got to get over it and get back to work.

Isaac threw down quite the gauntlet over at his place with this series of dispatches from the conference. As many have remarked, there are literally enough thoughts, observations, informational nuggets and ideas there to power about ten blogs for about three months. I'm not quite up to that level of hardcore blogging, but I can at least weigh in on part of it. I'll start at the tip of the old iceberg. In his notes on the soon-to-be-released new play study, Isaac notes that "theaters consider themselves one flop away from closing," which isn't necessarily the most mind-blowing revelation, but seeing it put so succinctly and plainly kind of hits me in the gut. And I think it connects to the most excellent David Dower is talking about here. David notes:

We speak of a nationwide affliction called "premieritis", a condition which prevents theaters from producing second and third productions of works that have already given up their world premiere to someone else. The data on the topic in the TDF study is curious-- it seems to show that many, many more theaters claim to have produced world premieres than playwrights say have had premieres. It raises a question about whether there's a common usage of the term 'world premiere' being applied across the field, or whether organizations are misreporting, or perhaps there are plays receiving their world premieres that somehow haven't charted with the playwrights in the survey pool.
But I'm more concerned with whether or not we are actually suffering the sort of epidemic of premieritis that we seem to assume we are. Part of my concern about telling old stories is that they can be very hard to stamp out once they get going. Remember that old e-mail about Nina Totenberg saying on NPR that Congress is going to cut the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? It was an e-mail that started back in the late 90's, I think and it was reporting on a newstory of the day in which it was launched. But it was picked up and forwarded millions of times over several years (Has it finally died, btw? Have I inadvertently revived it here?!?)

Is it possible that it's not really the world premiere that's important, but the feeling of exclusivity? Is the feeling of having something special that only you have, and that makes you worth more?

If you feel like any play can be a flop and take your theatre down, then you want to do everything you can to enhance your properties. If it's slapping on the word "premiere," then you do it. Whatever you can do. We have an epidemic of "premieres." North Midwest Premiere! Greater Akron Downtown Premiere! I've had plays given productions, definitely productions, off-book, costumed, teched, under-rehearsed productions that were open to review that we called "workshops" because again, not being able to call something a premiere, at least here in NYC, is a big drawback. But it's just a marketing term, a label that says "you can't get this anywhere else."

Even one of David's examples, the co-production of Ruined, is the best of all possible worlds. You call something a "co-production" so you can still call it the world premiere, but you already know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands. Nice and safe. And safe is the operative word.

The obvious question is how close are most theatres to closing. If "premieritis" could be a myth, then is the idea that one bad show can doom your theatre also a myth? But it's a myth that affects how theatres behave. The bunker mentality cripples us all. And leads to worse things.

This part is gossip. I recently heard a story that kind of scared me. A young, emerging playwright is being produced by a major NYC theatre next season. Another, smaller theatre was also planning a production that would overlap with the big theatre's run. And the big theatre put pressure on the small theatre to re-schedule their run. And the way I heard it, it had more to do with not wanting their "property" diluted by over-exposure than about protecting the playwright. This is the mentality of hanging on by our fingertips. And it doesn't do any of us any good.


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