Renewing the economics of theatre
March 29, 2009 5:11 PM   Subscribe

The recession has hit the theatre world (and the arts scene in general) very hard - but some argue that theatre practitioners aren't doing themselves any favours when seeking funding. The main question insufficiently addressed is "who is the funding for?" - hint: it's not about you. Approaching theatre as a product isn't working, not when MFA acting programs don't often allow its graduates to earn enough to earn back their debt. So now the question is: how can the economics of theatre be changed?
posted by divabat (60 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is going on my facebook profile.. assuming I can figure out how to do that. I have a theater degree and I've been debating this topic with my friends for years. Some EXCELLENT points in these links. Thanks, DB!
posted by Vavuzi at 5:30 PM on March 29, 2009


I did a Creative Industries degree and the topics above were very closely related to my first essay (urgh, that thing gave me a headache). There should be a "Post link" option on your profile - the icon is a piece of paper with a tack on the top.
posted by divabat at 5:46 PM on March 29, 2009


I'm always amazed at how few actors are actually cunning in the ways of the world. They have all the skills it takes to get ahead: good memories, advanced degrees, a desperate desire to please, few scruples or sexual inhibitions, skill at dissembling, the ability to pretend that they like -- no, adore -- people they can't stand, and (often) very good looks. They devote their whole lives to making people like them. They are articulate and well spoken. Why they can't use these skills to fashion some kind of living for themselves is one of the great mysteries. Why are so few actors able to play the role of successful people in their own lives?
posted by Faze at 5:58 PM on March 29, 2009 [13 favorites]


It's a shame this wasn't a FPP earlier because Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America has just finished most of it's run, I remember seeing it and loving the discussion it created.
posted by Del Far at 6:02 PM on March 29, 2009


Great group of posts, divabat. By the time I reached the post calling the MFA a Ponzi scheme, it occurred to me that the whole thing was reminding me of a lot of recent writings 'round the net on English degrees and other similar areas of academia. Anyways, back to theatre: if the best that theatre folks can hope for at the moment is nationalized health care ... well, yikes.
posted by barnacles at 6:07 PM on March 29, 2009


See this excellent long-running blog for a similar discussion: Greg Sandow on the Future of Classical Music.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:17 PM on March 29, 2009


Theater is a small undertaking in the U.S. That doesn't make it unmeaningful, but the economics aren't likely to change, and they're bad. If you're a company that relies on grants, you're going to tend to create theater that fulfills the requirements of grants organization, which tend to privilege theater that has some demonstrable social value -- particularly educational theater, which, in my experience, tends not to be very good. Didactic theater sometimes works as education, but rarely works as theater. Additionally, these companies are the ones who really suffer during an economic downturn, as funding for the arts dries up, because they are the ones most likely to have a professional staff that they suddenly can't afford.

But it's also a problem for any company that relies on donor funding for their seasons and has any real overhead. Which means that, for theaters not to really suffer during these times, they have to remain flexible and low-budget, which has its problems. Skilled theater people should be paid for their work, and paying a staff tends to improve the quality of the productions, while relying on free labor tends to cause an inevitable reduction in quality (not always, of course; I've seen some wretched professional productions and some terrific amateur ones -- but regularly enough to matter.) And it's already hard enough to make a living in theater. In the Twin Cities, which has a lively and very active theater community, most of the people who make a living in it are not in creative, but in administrative positions, while actors, playwrights. etc., must usually work a second job or, more often, temp or work at a full-time but flexible job to make ends meet. And these are often pretty low paying.

But I just can't see the economics of this changing. Most theater in this country are done for small audiences of a hundred or so seats per show -- and those seats, more often than not, will be mostly empty. You would be hard-pressed to keep a theater alive based on ticket sales alone, and companies that do so rarely offer any really challenging fare, but instead light popular favorites such as Tony and Tina's Wedding, which can run almost forever and attract busloads of audience members. But it's not a good play, or meaningful. It's fun, and that's about the best I can say for it.

Outside of bigger cities, theater is an almost entirely amateur undertaking, and so people who are in it tend to do it for social reasons. Having seen hundreds of plays produced for those reasons, it's often a crime to charge for it.

I've been a playwright for more than a decade, and a professional theater critic, and I just don't know that there is a way around this. It's what theater is nowadays, and has been for quite a long time. Audiences aren't getting bigger, and they aren't likely to. I think all we can expect is that in tough times theater is going to take a hit, so it's a good idea to squirrel away money when you can and get ready to bunker down, so really cheap production for a while, and expect to have a smaller income -- and perhaps no income at all from theater -- until the economy rebounds.

As to theater programs, well, I went through one. It's good if you're interested in the history of theater, although I can't imagine any economic good in that education unless you're planning to become an educator -- there's certainly no income that comes from having an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of theater in the world that actually produces theater. Most acting programs are horseshit; you're education is going to get you a lot less distance than any native talent you might have, and if the school is suggesting that it will assist you in looking for work outside the academic world, you're in for a shock when you get out there and discover the paying work is primarily in commercials and industrial films, and non-trained actors get just as many or more roles as people with MFAs. Moreover, many courses have almost no education in the nuts and bolts of theater, such as getting headshot, or learning how to audition, or how to write a resume, or much of anything about theater management. Actors graduate with 100k degrees and then have to take seminars in auditioning, because they aren't especially good at in and casting agents don't care about their degrees.

If Obama wants to improve the lives of artists and encourage the arts, universal health care will do it, as the first link states. But if he wants to have a dramatic, world-altering effect on the arts, he'd be far better served by making sure people have free and easy access to computers and underwrite Web pages like YouTube.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:20 PM on March 29, 2009 [13 favorites]


One point that seems to be missing: The greying of the theatre audience. Having worked for four years at The Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest theatre in America, and the most-subscribed in the world (not hyperbole), I've found that most theater people, the folks that sit in the seats, buy the tickets, make their voice most heard, and contribute are: old people. Old people, elderly people, and quickly dying off people are some of the biggest supporters of theatre as an institution and they're not going to be around much longer.

This has lead to some gallows humor among us subscription sales people that we'll finally have matinee seats to sell, but younger generations mostly don't give a shit about live theater. 20-somethings don't care. 30-somethings might care, but they have work and family concerns. Maybe they'll see a show, but don't expect to make them a passionate theater goer based on that alone. On top of this, the economy is hitting the old folks pretty hard. When the choice is down to food, medicine or theatre, you can guess what they're going to skip.

Theatre-as-a-product is also bothersome as well. The Walnut, with a 50,000+ subscriber base is in a serious Catch-22, forced to balance doing new, untested works that may alienate audiences, versus tried-and-true popular shows that bring people in, but not the sort of people who actually care about theater as an institution. For example, a couple seasons ago, the Walnut did "Godspell" - not a bad show, well reviewed, and those who saw it loved it. However, the damn thing couldn't be given away. The next season, we were playing numbers games to try and meet the "50,000 subscribers" mark. Just last season, we did "Les Miserables," a big show with a big name, and hit a record number of subscribers. How many will stay, however, is another question entirely. The management was screaming at us for not meeting last year's numbers, and screaming for months.

Perhaps paradoxically, this was our best year for fundraising in a long time, though a planned expansion combined with 200th Anniversary goodwill may be to thank for that. We'll see how long THAT lasts too. I don't think it'll be long before the Walnut, like most theatres, is struggling to keep it together. They've already started playing games with employee pay and benefits.
posted by SansPoint at 6:29 PM on March 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm a theatre director.

I say, let theatre "die." I put "die" in quotes, because theatre can't really die. It won't. It's a basic part of what humans do. Various forms go in and out of vogue, but in the long run I agree with this quotation from "All About Eve":

Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band - all Theater. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience - there's Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don't understand them all, you don't like them all, why should you? The Theater's for everybody - you included, but not exclusively - so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it's Theater of somebody, somewhere.

MY personal theatre is much limited. I'm a snob. I don't like "Cats"; I like "King Lear." If MY sort of theatre dies, that will suck for me. And if theatre's lose funding, that will suck for my many friends who are actors, designers, writers and directors.

But if I'm really honest -- if I call a spade a spade -- what I worry about when I worry that "the theatre is dying" is that (a) I won't get to watch what I want to watch and (b) that my friends will have to get more mundane jobs. I'm not saying those aren't real concerns, but they are not really concerns about The TheaTUH!

If all funding for the arts dies then ... then... then people who REALLY want to make thearte will still make it (even if they have to make it for free in the park). People who REALLY want to watch theatre will still watch it. Eventually, it will find funding again. Then the funding will dry up again. Then it will become available again... World without end.

Bottom line, though: people are storytellers and story consumers. That much is stable. You can't kill it. Whether or not it's funded is irrelevant.
posted by grumblebee at 6:30 PM on March 29, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm not necessarily sure that any solutions exist, at least not ones that don't involve magic or a Star Trek future. I do think that Big A Art is not doing itself any favors. Recent art graduates have earnestly informed me that the art "object" is no longer important; it's what people (the critics and the art community) say about it that matters. Production of the art object is "mere technical skill." Painting, sculpture, acting, all of it is (*turns to one side and cack!s quietly*) is mere technical skill.

Each one of these people who wanders around saying these things, well ... I have this vision of small stacks of bills for funding burning up in hot bursts like flash paper, each time they open their mouths. Any part of the solution for art funding involves all of these people being on a small island talking to each other and kept away from everyone else.
posted by adipocere at 6:35 PM on March 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


ALVY: You're an actor, Max. You should be doing Shakespeare in the Park.

ROB: Oh, I did Shakespeare in the Park, Max. I got mugged. I was playing Richard the Second and two guys with leather jackets stole my leotard.


The American brick-and-mortar theater theater model just strikes me as yet another dead transmission vehicle for performance (just like newspapers are the dead transmission model of journalism). That said, I'd be curious to know how the RSC is doing these days. I have a feeling that their ticket sales might be down, but there's no danger of them going away.

So I'm just trying to say, it ain't theater that's dying, it's American theater.
posted by bardic at 7:01 PM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


In terms of funding for the arts, NYC tried a bailout for Broadway after 9/11 so it's possible to continue funding the arts even as it functions now. Is that the most stable thing in the art funding world? Possibly not but, like someone said above, every person who gets an english or liberal arts degree is told the same thing; that the degree they got is not worth the expense. The degree might not be since it's not a professional degree but that doesn't mean its not capable of being a debt that's paid back. The question is if an MFA is a professional degree. Society, for a long long time, has said that it's not.
posted by Stynxno at 7:16 PM on March 29, 2009


"20-somethings don't care"

Singles' night at the theater; a voucher for a free drink at a nearby bar with each ticket, where audience members can mingle with other singles from the audience.

Married couple's date night: package two tickets and reduced-cost dinner before or after the show, in partnership with a nearby restaurant that also needs business.

Very cheap "goundlings'" tickets: kids paying five bucks a ticket today, if hooked, will be subscribers twenty years from now.

If I like a performance, I want to see it again: sell me a reduce-rate "see it again" ticket on my way out, or sell me a DVD of the performance I just saw (doesn't have to be edited or even a quality film, just set up a camera in the balcony.

Straight-up gimmicks: let Double-Nickel the rap artist or Cletus the stock-car racer butcher Hamlet if it draws audience. Sell beer in the balcony. Produce "Hair" in the Bible-belt and let everyone know there'll be nakedness, or run together Shakespeare's Greatest Lines as Mark Twain did: THE ROYAL NONESUCH ! ! !... Then at the bottom was the biggest line of all, which said: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED. 'There,' says he, 'if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!'"
posted by orthogonality at 7:37 PM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Let me just say, if your season consists of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mame, and other popular favorites, as is generally the case with community and regional theaters, you're not a theater but a waxwork museum, and I don't care of you find funding or not. American regional theater has turned its back on new work and panders to its blue hair audience, who are going to die soon anyway.

I'd rather have vital contemporary theater with no business model and artists who are just scraping by than a jukebox of theater that last had anything meaningful to say a half-century ago. And, as far as I am concerned, that goes for you self-indulgent theater school grads who insist on remounting Godot and Mother Courage every season. A little bit here and there is fine, but, frankly, if I am going to watch yesterday's theater, I'm just going to watch film versions of it via netflix. They had better actors, directors, and budgets anyway, and the supposed "immediacy" of theater is not worth the $15-$20 you're demanding I shell out; not for a mediocre production of something I've already seen 100 times.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:58 PM on March 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


I think the American theater (or at least the participants hoping to do it as a job) need to reassess the reality of their hoped for profession.
I like plays, I don't mind musicals. Before we had kids my wife and I subscribed to pro theater for a few years. But the reality is, like pro-basketball or rock music, it is a financially adequate career for only a small number.
There are many more people hoping to get an income from theater than there are audience members to support them.
Where I live we have free health care and government subsidised theater groups, but there are still plenty of waiter/actors and barrista/playwrights. Our big name local theater companies have sponsors (Audi, UBS and a telco at the ones I just looked at), discount tickets and subscriptions for the under-30s, star involvement (Cate Blanchett), yet they don't make anyone very rich. And if you aren't in the couple of top companies, you should expect to earn much less than average income.
Is this fair? Well, yes. There are many people who will do this enjoyable work for free or for peanuts, so many that unless you are in the top few in your profession you won't get paid much (or even if you are, really).
There is an audience for three or four pro theater companies in my city of 4 million, and a bunch of amateur and almost-amateur groups. Supporting more professionals is just socialism (not that I have a beef with socialism) and I can't imagine it ever getting a run in the USA, even under an Obama presidency.
posted by bystander at 8:08 PM on March 29, 2009


There should be amendments to national constitutions that prohibit post-secondary arts education from being offered in any communities that aren't major population centres with soaring architecture, theatres, galleries, independent bookstores, art and mess and noise on the streets*. Is your community college located two blocks south of the Walmart in a dying industrial city of population 85,000 offering a two-year painting and sculpture Fine Arts certificate? Locks on your doors tomorrow, by presidential decree. What can an 18 year old learn about art on your campus, living in your suburbs? Let them go to the big city, compete for a few openings at an elite institution. All the students who would have completed your training because they didn't have the skill to get accepted elsewhere or because they didn't have the drive or imagination to leave home or the courage to live somewhere that might be expensive and cramped with crime and garbage and vermin and foreign people will have to learn a trade or get some professional certification instead, and they'll lead more secure useful fulfilled lives for being forced to take that path of refrigerator repair or accounting over musical theatre.

*Perhaps the Iowa Writers' Workshop and some funky collection of revamped cottages in the mountains where the celebrated artists of the 1920s gathered in the summers to run around naked can be grandfathered, but everywhere else, locks on the doors.
posted by TimTypeZed at 8:26 PM on March 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why are so few actors able to play the role of successful people in their own lives?

Could you explain what you mean by this, Faze? Because this sounds uncomfortably close to "why don't all those actors get real jobs?"

(lapses into thought a moment)

But there's another question at the core of that; what drives actors to do what they do? What drives any of us to work in theater when it is so clearly such a risky venture? Someone I worked with once at one of my "day jobs" once asked me about the process of trying to produce a show, all the risks involved, the thousand little miracles that have to happen for your show to actually be successful, and he just blinked a few times and said, "that just sounds like...it's like it's a lottery ticket that it takes you ten years just to buy." And he was right.

I was on stages for the first 20 years of my life, and working behind them for the next 18; never acted professionally, but was a stage manager professionally (still am, once in a rare while) and I also read and review plays. I know full well that I may never be rich doing any of this. But it's never been about the money; doing something just for the money is something that to me sounds just so soul-sucking that I never wanted any part of that, no matter how wonderful that something would be. I'm happy taking a day job to support the real vocation; that's just the way it is.

That's all because of the power of theater, REAL theater, mind; a power I first discovered at the age of seven when a nearby college's professor came to give my school a presentation on Elizabethan theater, showing us some of the stage tricks they used and then delivering a speech from Julius Caesar that just left me thinking, "I don't understand what he's saying, but holy cow, this feels seriously cool." Only seven years later, I was in a childrens' theater production my hometown put on in another school, and I was the actress that gave another little girl in the crowd that very same kind of moment. It's not about the money -- it's about doing a production of Hamlet and you hear someone in the crowd audibly gasp when Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup. It's about the whole room falling silent when you're all hanging out killing time waiting for the top of the show, and one of the stagehands suddenly starts reciting a speech about madness and reality from Man of La Mancha and the whole room falls silent to listen to him. It's about the actress playing Emma Goldman encouraging four strangers, all jaded hipsters, to get up on a stage and dance with her. It's about any one of a number of fleeting lightning-in-a-bottle moments and watching an audience react so strongly to it.

but that's all arty-loosey-goosey talk, just shy of me bursting out into "What I Did For Love." You need a stable practical foundation to let that kind of artistic freedom live. And I'm not sure the foundation we have now is all that stable; and I'm not sure how to fix it. Theater needs an audience; but most theater is priced so far out of reach of most audiences, that few can afford it. And yet, the reason why the prices are so high is because so much of the shows have huge pyrotechnics and special effects that are put in there precisely to draw audiences that have come to expect spectacle like helicopters landing onstage or chandeliers tumbling or what have you.

And yet -- far and away, the two best things I've ever seen on Broadway have had minimal sets and simple costumes, and small casts. The one performance in the history of theater that I wish I could have seen had no set at all, and no cast on stage -- the cast sat in the audience and piped up from whereever they happened to be in the house, sponataneously, and it turned into a sort of Rocky Horror Show kind of thing. Somehow the audience has come to equate "lavish effects" with "theater", and it may largely be because that's all they've seen; outside of the major theater centers, people just haven't seen any different.

So maybe more regional theater is the answer, with more of the simple productions, to prove to the powers that be that you don't need to spend so much to produce a show. Whether companies can stay alive long enough to do that though...that I can't tell you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:27 PM on March 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


And I'm not sure the foundation we have now is all that stable; and I'm not sure how to fix it.

There is no real fix. Theater is a PITA for the audience, cable television and streaming video are easy. You have to really want to see live performances instead of, say, popping over to YouTube to get a quick Henry V fix.
posted by MikeMc at 8:45 PM on March 29, 2009


EmpressCallipygos -- What I meant was, why can't actors use their super-powers to get rich? Once they've got us in the theater, they are able to sell us on the existence of whole preposterous worlds. Why can't they convince our real world that what they do is worthwhile? (God bless all actors, I say.)
posted by Faze at 9:01 PM on March 29, 2009


What I meant was, why can't actors use their super-powers to get rich? Once they've got us in the theater, they are able to sell us on the existence of whole preposterous worlds. Why can't they convince our real world that what they do is worthwhile?

I'm a bit clearer what you mean, but I'm still a bit fuzzy, so I'll state what I think is your point and then answer it (so you can correct where I'm wrong).

I think you mean, if actors can convince you to believe they're Glinda the Good Witch or Hamlet or Pumbaa the Warthog during the show, why can't the actors use that same charisma to convince you that "theater is important!" AFTER the show? Is that what you're saying?

Well, firstly, the reason that the audience believes that the person that they're looking at is "really" Hamlet or Pumbaa during the show is that the audience WANTS to believe it, in that moment. Audiences walk into a theater and willingly decide to accept that, "alright, for the next two hours, I will willingly believe that that plaster thing there is actually the Stone of Scone, and that that sword that guy's holding really IS sharp, and that the red goop smeared all over that is really blood and not corn syrup." It's part of the unspoken contract the actors and audience have with each other, that during the show, the audience members will drop their natural skepticism and accept the unusual conventions of the theater. Once the show is over, though, it's back to reality, and the audience puts its guard back up.

And, moreover, thousands of actors already DO try to convince audiences to support theater. The real questsion, to my mind, isn't "why can't they convince our real world that what they do is worthwhile", but rather, "what is it that is in the way of the real world's buying it"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 PM on March 29, 2009


"American regional theater has turned its back on new work and panders to its blue hair audience, who are going to die soon anyway."

True enough. But I think you're also presuming that there's some tidal wave of theatrical talent out there in America that's being slighted by "the man" in the form of old biddies who want to see "Mame" or what have you. Your caricature goes a bit too far.

I was involved in "underground" theater in college. Not as much as my friends, but hey, it was fun. Me and my friends managed to amuse each other to no end. And by objective standards, 95% of what we did was self-indulgent crap.

Get rid of the regional theaters, and people won't desperately search out the next Sam Shepard. They'll just go to the movies. Or maybe hope for a Shakespeare troupe to come through town on a regional tour.
posted by bardic at 9:26 PM on March 29, 2009


Faze: that's something I'm struggling with, not as an actor specifically but as a creative person and performer-in-training. In the list of world priorities, my personal satisfaction and joy at creating & performing doesn't rank too high; I'm not solving world poverty, ending global warming, or teaching children how to read. The type of performance I do is fraught with controversy as it is. What would convince people that I make a great investment?

I was just at a careers fair hosted by my ex-university (I graduated last week). Tons of jobs in engineering, construction, government, accounting, IT, business, medicine. A few community services. Nothing for the creative industries. I may be skilled in flexibility, putting disconnected things together, building networks, communicating across cultures, making a scene - but because I don't have specific knowledge in balancing accounts or analysing blood, there's no opening for me. (Then there's the residency factor but that's another story.)

Doing the things I love require money. I've been applying for jobs left and right - those that I can reasonably qualify for anyway - but nothing's bitten yet. There are plenty of casual and volunteer gigs, but that's not going to feed me. I've applied for a grant but don't know how to make a believable case for myself that isn't wanky or fake. Why am I important? What is my worth? I...don't really know.

A whole bunch of community arts organisations here in Brisbane just lost their funding recently. Apparently there was a countrywide move to reduce funding for Community Cultural Development organisations - noone really knows why. Major venues have also increased rent heavily, pricing out organisations that have offices there. There's been plenty of Australian research on major performing arts and funding, and there was also a landmark report that covered many of the topics in this FPP in Australia - I can't seem to remember it at the moment, something about the Hays report? but if I find it I'll post it here.

Personally it disturbs me that the loss of one funding source can mean the end of life for a group, organisation, or company. But we're also in a society where the arts isn't given financial value yet the world works on financial values. Artists are expected to work for the "love" of it, and any amount is "overcharged"...yet things like rent and training and living costs money. Money that's hard to find.

How do you convince companies, people, organisations to be your patrons, when you don't necessarily provide a tangible benefit? Sure, you may cheer them up, entertain them, inspire them - but in today's world that's not as valued as food on the table or a nice house. At least, not valued in quite the same proportions. What can be exchanged? How does one make creativity sustainable?
posted by divabat at 9:55 PM on March 29, 2009


i honestly don't understand this country. americans won't fund ANYTHING having to do with enhancing people's quality of life and promote creativity.

you won't fund the arts.

you won't fund universal health care.

you pay a pittance to teachers.

you treat parks and open spaces like it were a disease.

but you spend 1 billion a month bombing the shit out of innocent people in Iraq.

way to go USA.
posted by liza at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


"you pay a pittance to teachers."

Speaking as one, that's true everywhere. But I see your points on the other stuff.
posted by bardic at 10:38 PM on March 29, 2009


liza and bardic: The rest of it is true almost everywhere too. It's funny how people are reluctant to place financial value on creative life-enhancing projects if they don't have a tangible or material outcome. Where I come from, it seems like a privileged indulgence - only the rich can dare dream about being creative, about developing themselves. Why ask for money? The rest of us have mouths to feed.
posted by divabat at 10:59 PM on March 29, 2009


Astro Zombie: Singles' night at the theater; a voucher for a free drink at a nearby bar with each ticket, where audience members can mingle with other singles from the audience.

Married couple's date night: package two tickets and reduced-cost dinner before or after the show, in partnership with a nearby restaurant that also needs business.

Very cheap "goundlings'" tickets: kids paying five bucks a ticket today, if hooked, will be subscribers twenty years from now.

If I like a performance, I want to see it again: sell me a reduce-rate "see it again" ticket on my way out, or sell me a DVD of the performance I just saw (doesn't have to be edited or even a quality film, just set up a camera in the balcony.

Straight-up gimmicks: let Double-Nickel the rap artist or Cletus the stock-car racer butcher Hamlet if it draws audience. Sell beer in the balcony. Produce "Hair" in the Bible-belt and let everyone know there'll be nakedness, or run together Shakespeare's Greatest Lines as Mark Twain did: THE ROYAL NONESUCH ! ! !... Then at the bottom was the biggest line of all, which said: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED. 'There,' says he, 'if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!'"


God, if only you could convince the Walnut's marketing director to do that. It'd be a fucking renaissance. Rather than do Fiddler, we should fucking do The Rocky Horror Show and piss off all the old biddies. Bring in 20- and 30-somethings by any means necessary! Shock value! Cheap-seats in the entire Upper Mezzanine!* Beer and wine sold by people walking up and down the aisles between scenes and during Intermission! Shows where people smoke and say "fuck"! I'm with you 100%! Now, try convincing Bernard Havard, Mark Sylvester, and Ralph fucking Weeks. The same people who took away the $5 bonus the folks in phone charge get for convincing people who call in for a single show to buy a season. I wish you luck.

*We do sell $10 seats in row R of the balcony for shows, but that's not enough, and they go way too fast.
posted by SansPoint at 11:22 PM on March 29, 2009


(Bitter? Me? Nah.)
posted by SansPoint at 11:25 PM on March 29, 2009


The American brick-and-mortar theater model just strikes me as yet another dead transmission vehicle for performance

I just had to point out that this is COMPLETE BULLSHIT. 'Brick-and-mortar' theater model? As opposed to...? Internet theater? A fucking DVD of a stage play? That's called a movie. While the internet has allowed us to sit at home and jerk off while we IM and order Domino's, it is physically impossible for a theater to be anything but brick-and-mortar. Theater is one thing that can't be pirated. If you aren't there in the room, then it's not the theater anymore. To call it a 'transmission model for performance' is akin to describing a kiss as a swapping of salivary gland excretions.
posted by incessant at 12:01 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you aren't there in the room, then it's not the theater anymore.

QFT.
posted by Wolof at 12:07 AM on March 30, 2009


Then have fun remaining completely irrelevant in the context of American cultural life, because people aren't paying money any more to go to theaters.

Some of the more interesting theatrical work I've seen has tried to challenge conventions of space. And while a lot of the "guerilla theater" I've seen has been dreadful, some of it has been quite interesting. Some of the performance art I've encountered as well that tends towards the theatrical, but questions the assumptions of it.

But have fun playing with your circled wagons.

"If you aren't there in the room, then it's not the theater anymore."

You realize that this statement is bizarre given the origins of modern theater in ancient Greece, correct? The origins of theater have more to do with ritual and religion. Playhouses came much, much later.

Personally, I'm all for the privileging of the auratic theatrical experience, but it seems kind of silly to bitch about purity when the entire art-form is dying out in the States.
posted by bardic at 12:46 AM on March 30, 2009


Moreover, many courses have almost no education in the nuts and bolts of theater, such as getting headshot, or learning how to audition, or how to write a resume, or much of anything about theater management.

Can you explain this further?

In the UK, you can take a degree in theatre studies which will cover the history of theatre and the various movements and counts as a proper academic degree or you can go to a drama school and study technique and get practical knowledge about how the industry works.

If the American programmes aren't providing the core skills needed for working in the industry and are getting sneered at by the wider academic world, why would anybody pay for them?


The greying of the theatre audience

The UK government recently rolled out a scheme to try and combat this: A Night Less Ordinary. Basically they're providing free theatre tickets to anybody under the age of 26. Participating theatres have to set aside a block of tickets as freebies and it has to apply to their whole programme over a two year period. (So you can't just offer freebies for the experimental stuff that would be playing to low capacity anyway. You have to take a hit on Shakespeare, Allan Bennett and the big musicals.) I don't know whether the programme will translate into younger paying audiences two years down the line, but it's getting a big take-up at the moment. The block of ANLO tickets is completely sold out, every single week.


I'd be curious to know how the RSC is doing these days. I have a feeling that their ticket sales might be down.

When people have been camping out for tickets? No, they've had a great season. Whether they can sustain that momentum through the rest of the ecomonic downturn is anybody's guess.


I'd rather have vital contemporary theater with no business model and artists who are just scraping by than a jukebox of theater that last had anything meaningful to say a half-century ago.

It shouldn't be an either/or proposition. There ought to be - and usually is - a place for the producing houses and new-writing theatres to create new works from scratch as well as receiving houses to put on the latest jukebox musical. However, with future funding uncertain, theatres are going to run towards the safe stuff. That means endless repeats of English Lit examination set-texts that will pull in the school parties, stunt casting that will have crossover appeal and attract larger audiences, long-runners where people know what they'll be getting and are more likely to pony up for and children's shows, since the Christmas season has shown that these tend to do well despite the economic slump.


I just had to point out that this is COMPLETE BULLSHIT. 'Brick-and-mortar' theater model? As opposed to...? Internet theater?

Since the comment started with a mention of Shakespeare In The Park, I assumed that this was about giving the power to companies instead of venues and doing cool site-specific shit that will bring in audiences beyond the blue-rinse brigade and generally making theatre more accessible for the many people who assume it isn't something that 'people like me' go to.

If Bardic was seriously mooting the internet as a straight replacement for live performance, then that is indeed bullshit, but that's not how I read the comment.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:54 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"If you aren't there in the room, then it's not the theater anymore."

You realize that this statement is bizarre given the origins of modern theater in ancient Greece, correct? The origins of theater have more to do with ritual and religion. Playhouses came much, much later.


Cave, room, amphitheatre, whatever. Performing art, recording art. No distinction?
posted by Wolof at 2:25 AM on March 30, 2009


It shouldn't be an either/or proposition.

Completely agree. Unfortunately, it isn't even that. A vast majority of theaters in the United States, especially community playhouses, simply will not produce new work, except for perhaps a token show every few years. When asked why, they explain that their audiences don't come to them, when the truth is they just don't know how to promote new work. Every so often, something comes along that they all do, such as Zombie Prom or that Buddy Holly play, but these are nostalgia pieces targeted squarely at the blue hairs.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:47 AM on March 30, 2009


They have all the skills it takes to get ahead: good memories, advanced degrees, a desperate desire to please, few scruples or sexual inhibitions, skill at dissembling, the ability to pretend that they like -- no, adore -- people they can't stand, and (often) very good looks.

These are not really marketable skills on their own, unless we're talking about "the world's oldest profession." IF you have all those things going for you AND a business degree, the know-how to program computers, or great culinary skill, the situation might be rosier.

Most actors that I know have tremendous general smarts and charisma, but they don't have any skills or degrees that would be helpful in a specific trade. They DO have some skills that might be helpful in high-level management, advertising or PR jobs, but they don't have the lower-lever skills that would allow them to work their way up to those positions.

Seriously, if you're "just" a smart, charismatic person (who doesn't know how to use Excel, can't type over 20 words a minute and only knows how to cook Hot Pockets), what are your job prospects?

Most actors don't even have the skills -- and, more important, the desire -- to acquire marketable skills. Unfortunately, in the arts, there's a notion that if you start working towards finding yourself a REAL day job, you're "selling out" and you were never a "real artist" to begin with. "Real artists" are starving artists. That's the ridiculous, romantic myth that's sold in arts colleges. The faculty doesn't always sell it (it's more likely to be the students selling it to each other), but the faculty rarely does anything to dispel it.

I've heard so many actors say, "acting is all I know how to do" or "acting is all I'm good at," as if the rest of us were born knowing how to fix cars or tune pianos.

In my view, schools should strongly URGE students to gain marketable skills. They should actively show students the many routes one can use to do that these days, e.g. the night courses in computer programmer or massage therapy. They should NOT liken this sort of thing to selling out. They should explain that it's a needed strategy to keep the arts alive. IF artists can HAPPILY support themselves, they are more likely to keep making art. If they can't -- if they can only do menial, soul-destroying say-jobs, they will burn out.

I lucked out. I was a computer nerd in high school, back before that meant the likelihood of a good job. Then Bill Gates, etc. happened, and suddenly I had a marketable skill. The result has been that I've been doing theatre (without getting paid a dime for it) for 15 years and have no plan to stop. Meanwhile, I have the means to support myself, and -- MOST IMPORTANT -- I like my day job. I don't even think of it as a day job. It's the other thing I do besides theatre. If I suddenly got that big break and became a Broadway director, I'd still keep programming in my life. Also, since art isn't about making money for me, I'm freed up to produce what I want to produce -- not what the market demands.

I don't have a plan to do theatre for just three more years, and then if I can't make money at it, to quit. Sure, I would love to make money doing it, but I don't expect to. I'm not working to try to do so (because that would mean making artistic compromises I'm unwilling to make). I am content with the fact that I may be doing theatre without pay for the next 40 years. I expect that. I expect to always have a "day job" (that I like). I don't resent my day job. It just seems like a necessary part of what I need to do to be an artist.

Meanwhile, so many of my talented friends have dropped out of the theatre. The romance of waiting tables and office temp work wore off really fast.

Art schools should be about giving students the skills they need to survive and keep creating art. Currently, most of them teach as if, after graduation, all students will be able to be full-time artists. That's just not the case. There ARE ways to have an enriched, artistic life without doing it full time. But our education system doesn't teach that.
posted by grumblebee at 6:32 AM on March 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Speaking as the Development Director at a midsized theater in Chicago, with 30 years in the industry, I have to say that there are so many problems with the blog links in the post that I feel a real need to debunk them.

You cannot find a poorly written grant proposal and then use it to condemn an entire industry. Every single grantwriter worth her salt knows that "It's not about me." That's grant writing 101. The people writing the navel-gazing proposals are not getting the grants, because the philanthropic community also knows that. As far as the arts "relying" on grants, this is also so far from the truth that every time I read it I want to scream. The vast majority of the arts in this country are not the huge institutions receiving the major grants and government funding. Small and midsized organizations get upwards of 60% of revenue from earned income sources like ticket sales, classes, touring/educational fees etc. Of the remaining revenue, grants income, in a healthy institution, is generally a small amount, and government funding a pittance. My $1.5M organization gets LESS THAN 1% government funding. Most gifts are from individuals willing to make contributions. My friends in the social service sector are hugely envious of the fact that we don't have to rely on grants to stay afloat.

Because of this, good development directors understand exactly who it's about-- it's about your audience. Bad development directors whine on poorly written blogs.

This is the model we were given. The government puts huge policy, social construction, and values constraints on artists in this country. But artists need an unrestricted voice, so there has been an attempt to free them from the cruelty of the market place. Think of it like tenure in a university that protects professors with new and unpopular ideas from being fired. If you fear losing your funding, you will be much more cautious about what you try to sell. I personally think that the model is very broken, because the arts do have to rely on the market more than they should. I don't know if government funding is the answer in the US, because I don't think our national character would tolerate truly values-blind funding.


Next? The greying audience. WHO CARES. People were complaining about the greying audience 30 years ago when I started in this industry, and surprise surprise the heads are still grey, but it's all new audience, because the young people from 30 years ago got old, acquired disposable income and started going to the theater. You don't hear anyone complaining about the greying of the Lipitor audience. If that's your market, then that's your market. Yes, you need threshold activities that young people and families will come to, but you don't throw out the whole model because you disapprove of old people having a life.

As far as thresholds, low brow theater is a way to get people into the plush seats. You will never convince a non-theater goer to attend experimental theater, but you might get them to Thoroughly Modern Millie, which might lead them to Gilbert and Sullivan, which might lead them to opera, or a musical at the Goodman, which might lead them to True West or David Mamet, or to that little hole in the wall down the block.

But divabat (love you man, just not the best set of links you've ever done), yes about the scandal of the arts MFA. We get knee-deep in heavily indebted MFAs every year about this time.

Plus, whoever it was who wanted to piss off the old biddies? They're the ones giving you those individual donations, so I don't think this is a good plan.
posted by nax at 7:20 AM on March 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


Great post and thread. If you're only going to read one link, read the first one, which lays out the problem and is well written. I particularly liked this, which applies to a lot more than the theater:
The first step is to spend some time getting away from the bubble. To hear how our own voices sound to the rest of the world, and to make an honest assessment of our current role in the cultural conversation. You’ll flop if you don’t understand your audience, right?

The next step is to be adults, and engage in the broader conversation about the breadth of our society, not just our myopic piece of it.
Too many people just look at their own myopic piece of the world and don't even make a stab at thinking about how it looks to others. If you can't make a good case to somebody who's worried about their kids, their job, and their healthcare, you're just being self-indulgent and have spent too much time sitting around with your fellow actors/poets/whatever talking about how wonderful you all are and how valuable your activities are.

I am not a theater nut; I've gone years without seeing a play (especially since I left NYC). But I do appreciate the theater and have been profoundly moved by plays, both expensive Broadway productions (Stoppard) and little Off-Off Broadway ones with no sets (Brecht). Furthermore, my wife used to be involved with a theater company, so I've seen the biz from the inside to some extent. I don't know what the solution is going to turn out to be, but I'm pretty sure 1) some significant subset of the world's population feels a need of theater and will attend if it's made available, and 2) the current distribution system is fucked. This means things are going to change; I don't know how (except I'm pretty sure the answer isn't government handouts), but the theater isn't going to disappear.
posted by languagehat at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2009


An anecdote-- a good friend of mine who is a playwright and director, and whose theatre company I've been very involved in the past year or so, was doing a teaching gig at a high school out in the suburbs in the fall--at one point, when he mentioned that he did help run a theatre company, one of the students raised their hands and stated that his mother was involved in a theatre where ticket sales were significantly down--they have been trying to do classic works to get bigger audiences, but it wasn't working--what gives, more or less? His response was to ask the students how excited they were to see, for example, Death of a Salesman--not very, it would seem. He then stated that his company is putting on a show in the spring called "Robots Versus Fake Robots" and asked who would want to see a show with that title--unsurprisingly, there was a very different response.

What this story illustrates is that making a theatre successful requires a lot of cleverness in terms of how you market your company, how you plan to make money, and how you define yourself. In Minneapolis, where the theatre community seems to have been hit with what is the small theatre equivalent of bird flu, there are still quite a few companies that have found ways to stay afloat, and even found ways to be growing, successful organizations. Some of them, like the one in the story above, have found shows that have a type of appeal that most people don't expect from theatre (the same company did a show last summer called "William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead") and that tends to draw different crowds, and bigger crowds. Some, such as the theatre I work at, operate bars and/or restaurants, and treat each performance, guest performance, concert, or anything else that goes on in the space as an opportunity to bring people to the bar--and in doing so, make the company less dependent on grants and donations, and give them more room to grow. In addition, it brings people into the space who wouldn't be interested in theatre otherwise-- they come in, have a few drinks, see a concert by a band they like, look around, and see an upcoming show they want to come back to. Our shows are routinely attended by people who rarely, if ever, go to a theatre.

There are plenty of ways to bring in new audiences. There are plenty of ways to make your theatre work. None of them are easy, or safe, or guaranteed to be successful, and none of them are going to be achieved by emulating large theatres, where people WILL go to see "Death of a Salesman" or any Shakespeare. A lot of small theatres that I've seen, that I've worked with, have a massive identity crisis--many theatre artists think that making good theatre is an end, and not the means to it--but it doesn't work that way. There's no meritocracy here, and if you can't make your theatre relevant to the community around you, it doesn't matter how well-done it is. There IS space for theatre in America, and a space for artists, but it isn't just presented to us--we have to find it or make it.
posted by Subcommandante Cheese at 9:03 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's no meritocracy here, and if you can't make your theatre relevant to the community around you, it doesn't matter how well-done it is.

Quoted for truth. I'm fortunate in that I live in New York City, where no matter what kind of theater you do there are people out there who will see it (granted, we still suffer, but I see that as more of a glut-of-options situation), but for smaller communities, it's important to have a good handle on what people would actually want to see. Yes, even in smaller communities you'll also still get people who will see whatever you put on, but -- even if you're doing something that only appeals to 1% of the people in your community, there's a financial difference between trying that in New York, where 1% of the population is still 80,000 people, and trying that in Fredonia, Kansas, where 1% of the population is only 20 people.

Know your audience and build a foundation first, then you can branch out and do other stuff.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:37 AM on March 30, 2009


Given a four-person play, with a ballpark of 60 hours of rehearsal per person, 240 person-hours before performance, house rental, et inf. If you pay performers, it's thousands invested/owed before an audience sees anything. I live in a theater-friendly college town, but average total house over the course of a run is maybe a couple hundred. So despite a friendly environment, the show can't pay for itself.

Two possible strategies: high-end and low-end. High-end means get external revenues, which require grantwriters. Almost inevitably, grantwriters get paid before performers get paid (the way of the world). Then a 'bigger & better' cascade often occurs, where people want more spectacle to justify the increased costs. So a local show cost about $70k, pulled in maybe 2k people by pulling in schools & such, subsidized to keep ticket price below $35, but now an infrastructure exists which needs support before the next show is begun.

Low-end: keep all costs down & hit the road. Original shows means no royalties, reusable sets means capital investment drops in the future, 2-hour radius means no overnight expenses... I'm trying this, we'll see.

I have to say, young people pack the house for favorite bands. The audience is engaged and energized. Okay, so audiences at bands dance, they participate in that way; but theater can enthrall, yes? Bring it.
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:58 AM on March 30, 2009


"Art schools should be about giving students the skills they need to survive and keep creating art."

Grumblebee, I really like your ideas, but this sentence of yours kind of encapsulates the problem.

Whither Wallace Stevens? Write amazing poetry and make a healthy living off of insurance sales. Forgo the MFA altogether. The academic-transfusion model for "art" is a trap.
posted by bardic at 9:59 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Original shows means no royalties, reusable sets means capital investment drops in the future, 2-hour radius means no overnight expenses

Unfortunately, theaters tend to turn to public domain works first. No cost at all.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:12 AM on March 30, 2009


Unfortunately, theaters tend to turn to public domain works first. No cost at all.

That still gives you Shakespeare...

Okay, so say I have a translation of a Greek play, the original in the public domain. Is it enough incentive to freemium the first few productions outside of our company? Might be...
posted by dragonsi55 at 11:21 AM on March 30, 2009


nax: The greying audience. WHO CARES. People were complaining about the greying audience 30 years ago when I started in this industry, and surprise surprise the heads are still grey, but it's all new audience, because the young people from 30 years ago got old, acquired disposable income and started going to the theater. You don't hear anyone complaining about the greying of the Lipitor audience. If that's your market, then that's your market. Yes, you need threshold activities that young people and families will come to, but you don't throw out the whole model because you disapprove of old people having a life.

I'm not seeing it at the Walnut. What I'm seeing is more and more old biddies trying to get into sold out matinee subscriptions while Friday and Saturday nights have prime seats to sell that are NOT MOVING. The Walnut's dramas, while often critically acclaimed - such as the Barrymore Award winning "Of Mice and Men" are usually poor sellers, and even subscribers tend to skip them. The draws as of late have been name shows like "Les Miserables", "Hairspray" and "Fiddler on the Roof". I suspect we'll be eating tickets on this coming season's drama as it's a world premier. Nobody has heard of it, nobody gives a crap about it, and the subject matter is potentially controvertial.

Think about it this way, if things were GOOD, would they have totally reorganized the Subscriber Services department to eliminate the salaried positions, putting a guy who love(d) his job (not me) in a position where he struggles to make ends meet AND THEN take away their bonus for selling subscriptions.

Plus, whoever it was who wanted to piss off the old biddies? They're the ones giving you those individual donations, so I don't think this is a good plan.
Yeah, those $5 and $10 gifts are ROLLING IN this season. Honestly, fundraising this season has been like pulling teeth from rabid cats. We're damned lucky that we made up the gap by increased gifts from people for the anniversary. I do wish the greyhairs would keel over, and we can do SOMETHING to bring people in that might develop a theatre relationship.
posted by SansPoint at 11:29 AM on March 30, 2009


Sanspoint, your name belies the sense of your response, which is very much to the point. And I think theaters need to adapt to this sort of thing--can't sell Fridays, but matinees are selling out? Reverse the price structure-- your more in-demand product needs to be more expensive and/or get rid of the empty performances or develop strategies to fill those seats (don't know that you haven't done this, just saying.)

I've been thinking about this thread all day (and I have to say I love MeFi threads that I can legitimately respond to while at work). Artists have been asked to save public education, rehabilitate prisoners, stop drug abuse, revitalise the cities and for all I know, fill potholes. So many funders, public and private alike, insist that the art itself must pay for itself, and that social uses of the arts are the only acceptable uses of public or tax-supported dollars. There needs to be some understanding that while these very worthwhile uses of the arts do not happen without artists who are trained to be artists, and who are willing to accept low salaries and lousy hours. But you have to train the artists. dragonsi55 nails it. The granstwriter is going to demand a salary and healthcare. The artist will work for love (up to a point), which is great for those who want them to do prison reform.

But you've got to pay for them to be artists, too.
posted by nax at 11:50 AM on March 30, 2009


You know, I'm going to say this because it's something that I've always found aggravating about the way many theatres work--why is it that you have to have one category that includes actors and other artistic staff, and another that's the "arts admin" side? More importantly, why is there so little overlap? I've always been incredibly frustrated by this--when you work in admin positions, it's often assumed that you are creatively useless, and vice versa. It makes SENSE that the people who perform, direct, design and tech your shows could be the same people who write your grant proposals, handle finance, and booking, and any number of other administrative functions--these are people who care about the success of the organization, and who can apply any number of skills they might have towards its success. This is how you create an organization where you don't have the situation of having paid office staff while your actors are barely paid if paid at all. People talk about how artists aren't given training in real-world skills, and my question is, why is it that schools such as the University of Minnesota, whose Arts Administration program seems to have supplied most of the theatres around here with most of their office staff, doesn't integrate this stuff fully into their theatre program--or their dance, or visual arts, etc. programs? Artists should be taught the skills that will allow them, and the organizations they are involved with, to succeed.
posted by Subcommandante Cheese at 12:22 PM on March 30, 2009


why is it that you have to have one category that includes actors and other artistic staff, and another that's the "arts admin" side? More importantly, why is there so little overlap? I've always been incredibly frustrated by this--when you work in admin positions, it's often assumed that you are creatively useless, and vice versa.

That may be the case in the larger theaters, but in smaller ones, it is decidedly not the case. Unfortunately, the smaller theaters can't pay us either because they're damn broke.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:26 PM on March 30, 2009


That may be the case in the larger theaters, but in smaller ones, it is decidedly not the case. Unfortunately, the smaller theaters can't pay us either because they're damn broke.

I don't know what your definition of small and large is, but my current experience runs counter to both statements here. 1, I've interned, worked for, or known enough about a number of small and mid-sized theatres here in Minneapolis, which has more than its fair share, and before my current job, I'd yet to see any theatre in which this wasn't more or less the case, although, granted, I haven't been doing this for very long. 2., again, there are small theatres out there that have figured out how to pay their employees. I'm lucky enough to work for one of them.
posted by Subcommandante Cheese at 12:38 PM on March 30, 2009


nax: can't sell Fridays, but matinees are selling out? Reverse the price structure-- your more in-demand product needs to be more expensive and/or get rid of the empty performances or develop strategies to fill those seats (don't know that you haven't done this, just saying.)

If I could I would. I'm just a phone monkey who tries to put butts in seats, or bring in individual donations. I don't make the decisions.

In fact, I'm not even that anymore. I'm on sabbatical to deal with my day job that pays a living wage and provides health insurance. When fundraising time comes back around, I might come back, but some recent management decisions that utterly fucked over a good friend of mine who I helped get a job there.
posted by SansPoint at 12:50 PM on March 30, 2009


Erm "some recent management decisions that utterly fucked over a good friend of mine who I helped get a job there have left me rather unwilling to come back."
posted by SansPoint at 12:56 PM on March 30, 2009


I don't know what your definition of small and large is, but my current experience runs counter to both statements here.

It could be a regional thing; I'm defining "small" as "only two people on the entire staff, but neither one gets paid still because they're too broke". So, we have to do everything. But something tells me that a theater THAT small is common more in New York, and outside of New York it would be considered "microscopic."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on March 30, 2009


For what its worth, there isn't a universal solution to this issue. What works well in one market isn't necessarily going to work well in another market. Furthermore, what worked well last year isn't necessarily going to work well this year.

And, while I'm at it, let me mention that your degree, your experience and your ability can take you to wildly different levels of involvement in the arts depending on where you are and what year you're living in. I look at the group of nine who received MFAs at around the same time I did and one of them runs his own theatre, one founded and has run a popular director's workshop for over a decade, one is a successful (i.e. making a living) professional director and designer on two continents, and the other six are supporting ourselves through involvement in arts education. Every one of us is supporting ourselves completely via theatre in some form or other.

On the other hand, MFAs that graduated from my alma mater a couple of years before or after us haven't been nearly so fortunate. And then there's a batch that graduated at the start of this century who have been ridiculously successful already.

We couldn't be more out in the boonies and our degrees have paid off for us - and most of us have never left the boonies.

Anyhow, my point is that "right place, right time" is an element in determining relative success in your field, regardless of your field, and regardless of where you receive your degree. There's really no way to know with 100% certainty when or where you should be, but you have to be prepared to jump on opportunities as they arise.

Or, as Shakespeare put it, "The readiness is all."

Anyhow, to survive, theatres need to keep pursuing grants, keep trying to expand their audience base, keep trying to understand the needs of their audience, keep trying to keep their budgets under control and basically do all the things that any sane business would do anyways. Most actually do this. If theatres are closing right now, they're hardly the only businesses closing down. We're just really good at whining louder than anyone else - because we had decent vocal training.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:35 PM on March 30, 2009


I don't know what your definition of small and large is, but my current experience runs counter to both statements here.

I'm curious about what theaters you've worked with. I've been a playwright and theater critic in the Twin Cities for more than two decades, and small theater companies that can have a staff, much less pay them, is decidedly out-of-the norm.

But I guess if "big theater" is The Guthrie, then places like Mixed Blood, who do have a staff, becomes "small theater," even though, in a place like Omaha, the Mixed Blood would be one of the city's theatrical powerhouses.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:13 PM on March 30, 2009


People were complaining about the greying audience 30 years ago when I started in this industry, and surprise surprise the heads are still grey, but it's all new audience, because the young people from 30 years ago got old, acquired disposable income and started going to the theater.

People have been bitching about this for at least thirty years because it's been a problem for at least thirty years. If we don't even attempt to fix this, then how can we describe theatre as being relevant or representative with a straight face?

I mean if you're honestly happy to sit around and wait for the next generation of white, middle-class pensioners to appear, you can, but there's at least 85% of the population who aren't white, middle-class pensioners and they deserve decent theatre too. (By which I mean more than the ocassional threshold play or children's piece.)

Basically it's not the biddies themselves I object to, it's the biddy-pandering culture which has alienated so many other potential audiences and stopped them going to the theatre.


Okay, so say I have a translation of a Greek play, the original in the public domain. Is it enough incentive to freemium the first few productions outside of our company? Might be...

Not to us it wouldn't be. We pay our playwrights union rates (TMA/WGGB) as a matter of policy.


I've been thinking about this thread all day (and I have to say I love MeFi threads that I can legitimately respond to while at work

This.
posted by the latin mouse at 3:28 PM on March 30, 2009


This is the thread that finally after 7 years, made me get an account.

I've been lucky enough to pay most of my bills in the last 2 years working in various theatres around Chicago. I know I'm lucky but I had a great professor and a few really smart grad students telling me about the real world while I was in undergrad. I have always been under the impression that an MFA was only good if you want to teach. It appears to me now that this idea tends to be put forth more for the design and technician side of the spectrum. Actors at my small university were never told that, as Don Hall pointed out in a different post, at any given time 86% of Equity members were out of work.

Maybe that statistic is part of the problem. If 55% of your members don't work all year your union is doing something wrong. Don't get me wrong I love Equity, they get me breaks and I don't have to pay dues, and I know it was needed and probably still is but something has to change.
posted by Uncle at 6:35 PM on March 30, 2009



Sacred cows asked to cut out the bull at Melbourne International Arts Festival

posted by divabat at 9:21 PM on March 30, 2009


But I guess if "big theater" is The Guthrie, then places like Mixed Blood, who do have a staff, becomes "small theater," even though, in a place like Omaha, the Mixed Blood would be one of the city's theatrical powerhouses.

Yeah, these definitions are kind of difficult to pin down--I sort of put the indicator "mid-sized" in there in recognition of this--but I think this is particularly applicable to those theatres which I would have a hard time calling "large," but still are large enough to have their own spaces, since that means they have that many more debts to pay, and need a steadier stream of income. Included in this are places like Mixed Blood, Penumbra & PWC (although they're both on the larger side), Interact, Heart of the Beast, and probably more that I'm not thinking of--all of these are places where either I've had some personal experience working with them, or know people involved in them well enough to have a pretty decent knowledge of how they're organized. I don't know if this makes my point any more or less valid--I certainly recognize that the idea of having a paid staff of any kind is not where a whole lot of companies are, but I stand by my critique of training one set of people in performing arts, and another in arts administration. I have far, far too many friends who are talented performers, directors, writers, etc, and have no clue how to write a grant, or ask for donations, or manage effective PR of any kind--skills, by the way, I'm still very much in the process of learning; I don't see myself as an exception here--and who really can't see a way to take the step from a group of people who sometimes do shows at places like BLB, or do fringe shows (when they get in), to anything more.
posted by Subcommandante Cheese at 11:28 PM on March 30, 2009


If 55% of your members don't work all year your union is doing something wrong.

I don't see how this is fixable, given the huge disparity in the number of available roles and the number of available actors.

Subcommandante Cheese's solution to have performers and creatives do administrative jobs within the theatre is problematic for me, firstly because it doesn't scale well and secondly because competition for these positions is already insanely fierce amongst people who have trained for them and want these jobs for themselves rather than as a stop-gap or day job. I don't think throwing actors into the pool of applicants will solve much except in theatres small enough to not need full-time staff in the first place.
posted by the latin mouse at 1:07 AM on March 31, 2009


the_latin_mouse I think we absolutely agree. You need a theater community that reaches from the pink hairs to the grey hairs, from the punks to the pedants, and that adapts as the audience changes. When I started working with my current theater as a consultant in '92, we had an all-operetta season, because that was the musical theater of our grey-haired audience's youth. Now we're about 80% classic musicals (Rogers & Hart, L&L, Cole Porter) because that is the the musical theater of our grey-haired audience's youth. This is what I mean about responding to the audience. You can stick to your mission-- musical theater in our case-- while staying relevant to a changing audience.

The contortion that the business model pulls us into, is convincing the source of 20 to 40% of a our revenues, the donors and foundations, that there is a larger societal good from putting this on a stage (in a gallery, wherever art happens). I think this is one of the places where the OP's first link goes wrong. The policy value of the arts can be exactly a good reason why "it's not about me."
posted by nax at 6:39 AM on March 31, 2009


Hi all,

Have enjoyed reading this thread very much. It led to a few more thoughts on my end, which I've scribbled here:

http://chrisashworth.org/blog/2009/03/31/in-which-chris-says-hello-to-the-fine-folks-over-at-metafilter/

best,

C
posted by ChrisAshworth at 12:18 PM on March 31, 2009


Speaking anecdotally as an actor and former theater staff member, the most successful show we ever did--first at a grubby little theater, then at a famously grimy bar; it ran for nearly half a year--had the word "fuck" in the title. We ate off that bastard like nobody's business.

So my recommendation is this, American theater: produce more shows with "fuck" in their titles. Some off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions:

A Midsummer Night's Dream Fuck
Driving the Fuck Out of Miss Daisy
Fuck Cats


Success awaits you.
posted by Skot at 12:42 PM on March 31, 2009


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