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June 09, 2009

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Jodi SC

Amen.

Elizabeth

They also, for the most part, have a fundamental misunderstanding of exactly how to use new media and technology (not that any of us has a complete understanding). It seems like there is an opportunity here - where an exchange of ideas and information could take place between institutional theaters and independent theaters/artists. There are things to learn from each other - things that each do well and not so well. How can we foster that exchange?

freeman

To be fair, they could try to do a little better marketing. It couldn't hurt. There are shows out there that are good for younger audiences. They just don't come to see them.

Jason Grote

Amen, but also ditto Matthew. But the problem is far deeper than just simple re-branding: the problem is, "theater" itself has a bad brand. The vast majority of people associate it with the Tony Awards (i.e., Vegas/Broadway schmaltz), or lousy college plays they were forced to see for their intro to theater class, or the horrible play they had to go see because a friend was in it.

Everyone has their reasons for wanting to quit theater, but this is the big one for me: irrelevance. It's going to take at least a generation to rehabilitate theater in the public mind (and this includes scaling it down and repurposing it -- the Lear deBessonet/Lucy Thurber Quixote in Philly, which combined local with out-of-town and art with social work, is a great example of the future of the art, assuming there is one).

But the vast majority of theaters around the country don't even seem remotely interested -- they would just rather reframe the failed status quo (though I can name a handful of standout exceptions).

99

Reading through Isaac's notes, I think there's an interesting disconnect happening that I hadn't heard of before: it seems like the artists are saying, "You're not serving the interesting audiences," while, apparently, the theatres are thinking, "We're not serving the audiences who come." And that's where the system is breaking down. I should (and probably will) talk about this at my place, but here's a bit of an analogy: our field is like the Republican Party right now. There's a need for new blood, new energy and ideas, but we're stuck trying to maintain a base that's going in the different direction. Not a fun place to be.

Laura

I agree with Jason. In the non-theater world, the form is regarded as being silly and flaky.

Am I the only one who thinks that theater promo pics looks dumb? It's rare to see a theater company who can get good publicity shots. It happens, but not that often. Instead it's goofy staging and ham-driven stuff like Vegas, etc. Considering it's the visual image of a production, you'd think they'd try a little harder.

What's baffling is that improv sketch comedy is thought of as hip and cool. Wish theater had that vibe.

cgeye

Improv sketch comedy's traveling in a theatrical direction, as if it swallowed performance art in one for-profit, NEA-shunning gulp.

As long as if you give audiences beer and the right to speak back, in their way, the clingwrap over art seems to dissolve -- they go to their 'rock star' space, not their 'actor' space, in terms of what audiences allow in.

The smarter writers are with improv, too, because why wade through months of development with non-performers who can veto more than they approve, just to get a concept out there, in front of the people? Why not road-test work in front of audiences, then give them funny bits to keep them engaged? Why be saddled with responsibility to fill a regional theatre space, and pay for the physical plant upkeep, when a hole-in-the-wall's ideal?

If it weren't for zoning and parking issues, theatre would have moved to the bars already. The only thing keeping theatre in theatres is inertia.

Ian W. Hill

Laura: "Am I the only one who thinks that theater promo pics looks dumb? "

http://inaproductionof.blogspot.com/>Nope.


Nitpicker

I get why institutional theatres want to attract young audiences in addition to their middle-aged & older subscriber audiences--if they don't, they will die off when the existing audience (literally) dies off. However, when one is middle-aged, the constant drum-beat of "How can we draw in the young?" starts to sound like, "You are boring--we want your money, but not you." Indeed, 99 (above) describes the audience that the artists want to attract as "interesting"--which, by implication, the current audience is not.

One of the reasons my own theatre-going has dropped off significantly is that I read American Theatre for several years and concluded that too many people in theatre regarded audience members with something close to contempt--especially if they were not young. After enough of this, theatre-going began to seem downright masochistic.

isaac

Nitpicker,
Yes! I agree with everything you've said. I don't think that theatres should appeal to one audience group at the complete expense of another, I just mean if you want a diverse audience base, you have to do programming that has diverse appeal with the hope that people will begin coming to the things that appeal to them and then grow from there.

My issue that I'm trying to put into this post is a weird sense of entitlement to younger audiences. I don't think younger audiences are better than older ones or anything. If anything, as many letter writers to AT point out, older audiences are the ones actually, you know, going to see theatre.

Paul Rekk

You know what though? As I'm listening during intermission of yet another bland matinee of Hedda motherfucking Gabler and I'm hearing all the retirees around me talk about how good it is and how they are looking forward to the 2009-2010 season of Death of a Salesman, 12 Angry Men, and The Odd Couple (ed. note: Why the fuck is this still a true story in 20-goddamn-09?), all I can say is, yes, old audiences ARE boring. Is that universally true? Of course not. But it's true enough that it makes me want to look elsewhere.

99's metaphor is frighteningly apt. You say you want an institution? Stick with the older audience. You're fucked in a few years, but milk 'em for all their worth. But if you're looking to move forward, it's time to throw out the bathwater, even if a baby or two goes with it. Those older audience members that are not boring will pick new blood over *shudder* The Odd Couple. The rest? We don't need them.

Yeah, it sounds like something close to contempt, but the contempt is for shitty art, a little of which is bound to bleed over to the audiences that enable it.

malachy walsh

Relevance is probably the most important thing any art form can offer. And, along with Jason, I think there's more work to be done.

I'd only add resonance to that as an important wrinkle in that concept. Which to me means something that strikes a chord even if the subject of a play doesn't seem directly relevant to your specific situation. (I've never tried to write a screenplay with my brother, but TRUE WEST resonates with me every time I see it or even hear a passage from it.)

But so we don't all feel bad, that's just not easy to find - in any storytelling art form.

I work in advertising where people spend huge amounts of time and money and creative capital trying to be relevant and resonant enough to get someone to do (buy) something - and failure is way more common than anyone wants to admit.

It's good to remember, sometimes the right message comes in the wrong package - or it's timed badly - or the wrong people like it --- or the publicity just never gets anyone there.

But miracles happen.

And I'm glad to hear that the attendees at the TCG are trying to find the miracle... because trying is not only a way to get good. It's a way to get lucky.

Jason Grote

I've never had anything bad to say about old people or audiences (except once, on my blog, I railed against an audience at the Vineyard because they were rude and mean). There have been plenty of awesome older people at my shows and I've met and interacted with them personally. By the same token, anyone who assumes that young audiences are unequivocally great needs to spend more time at rock shows, especially the big festival kind. They won't seem so great after that. Plus everyone should know that NY audiences are way more provincial, starfucking, and narrow-minded than the regions (a lot of the regions, anyway).

The argument that it's about age is simplistic and facile. My complaint is, and always has been, that programming choices suck. I've actually spoken many times to 50+ people who used to go to theater but stopped because it was too frequently expensive and boring. I think it's really hidebound administrators who have contempt for their audiences, not artists making demands. I would compare the situation not to the Republican party in 2009, but to the Democrats from 2000-2005: risk-averse, listening to overpaid "experts" who rely on outdated conventional wisdom, and more interested in maintaining the status quo than achieving their stated goals.

Of course, many audiences really are conservative and/or just want dumb entertainment, in NY and elsewhere, but this just brings me back to what I've been saying for 5 years now: market-driven theater is a failure. Unless one wants everything to be Neil LaBute or Shrek the Musical, in which case it's perfectly healthy.

Jason Grote

I've never had anything bad to say about old people or audiences (except once, on my blog, I railed against an audience at the Vineyard because they were rude and mean). There have been plenty of awesome older people at my shows and I've met and interacted with them personally. By the same token, anyone who assumes that young audiences are unequivocally great needs to spend more time at rock shows, especially the big festival kind. They won't seem so great after that. Plus everyone should know that NY audiences are way more provincial, starfucking, and narrow-minded than the regions (a lot of the regions, anyway).

The argument that it's about age is simplistic and facile. My complaint is, and always has been, that programming choices suck. I've actually spoken many times to 50+ people who used to go to theater but stopped because it was too frequently expensive and boring. I think it's really hidebound administrators who have contempt for their audiences, not artists making demands. I would compare the situation not to the Republican party in 2009, but to the Democrats from 2000-2005: risk-averse, listening to overpaid "experts" who rely on outdated conventional wisdom, and more interested in maintaining the status quo than achieving their stated goals.

Of course, many audiences really are conservative and/or just want dumb entertainment, in NY and elsewhere, but this just brings me back to what I've been saying for 5 years now: market-driven theater is a failure. Unless one wants everything to be Neil LaBute or Shrek the Musical, in which case it's perfectly healthy.

99

I did post a bit longer on some of this stuff here: http://99seats.blogspot.com/2009/06/taking-it-away.html

malachy walsh

"Market-driven" theatre.

I think that's an interesting term to aptly describe a perspective that is definitely close to the heart of the problem. And it is one of the reasons I abhor mission statements that claim to "serve an audience" as opposed to the visions of the artists making the theatre.

"Serving an audience" is tantamount to "market-driven" and will never allow you to make theatre any differently than an audience will allow.

My job as a playwright is to take audiences in the direction I want to go in. It's my job to lead them to worlds I want them to understand, be amused by, laugh at, find anger in, enjoy or be horrified by.

Leadership is what is missing from "serving".

Make the theatre you want to make and the audience will decide for itself if it serves them. In the process, I may end up discovering an entirely new audience. And the audience may discover an entirely new theatre.

Serve what you think the audience wants to be served, you'll eventually lose your own sense of taste and wind up serving no-one.

While I personally don't know that LaBute falls into a "market-driven" theatre genre (his characters are simply too unlikeable to really be "market-driven" creations), certainly Shrek does. As do a lot of other Broadway shows and many niche offerings that are meant to "serve" particular groups.

Some might have merit, but, as I've said here (and elsewhere - as in the Steppenwolf conversation a few weeks ago) for me, I'm much more interested in those who clearly say what they want to say, enjoy exploring ways to say it and don't necessarily take short cuts to please audiences at the expense of the integrity of their message or they style they'd like to deliver it in.

Which is why I'll take more Clubbed Thumb any day of the week.

scott yarbrough

Something that has been pretty much left out of this post (and was completely left out of almost every session and conversation I had at TCG last week) is the issue of quality. If a show kicks ass, and I'm talking any show, the Greeks, Shakers, Ibsen, Neil Simon, doesn't matter, if it is done really well, you will have an audience. If it is done to it's potential and engaging and has the driving energy that every show should have (even Strindberg or Inge) then it will have an audience of all ages. Buzz, baby, buzz.

Personally, I think the whole programming argument is a crock. I run a theatre that does plays that 90% of mainstream audiences have never heard of. But we've built our audience because we go "all in" on every show as if it's our last. The don't come to see this or that particular play, they come to see "what are they going to do this time." Reflecting the previous comments about catering to the audience, we don't program for them, we program the shows WE want to see.

Granted, it's hard to hit a home run every time. But much more often than not, our audience wouldn't rather have thrown their $30 in the street than sit in our house for a couple of hours.

This also means that we can't (and don't want to) produce more than 3 shows per season. Quality control means we do what we're capable of doing well and nothing more. Our audiences wish we were producing twice as much, but if we did, i can guarantee they wouldn't be happy for long.

For me, the casting of a giant net that most large regional theatres do in order to provide a little something special for everyone is ultimately a losing proposition. I don't think they can probably survive too much longer with that model.

So the future may be with smaller, more specialized organizations who focus on what they do well. Who are you? What interests you? Find those people with similar tastes and plunk their asses in seats. Give 'em what they want as long as it's what you want first.

isaac

scott,

ah yes, there is the quality issue as well. It is amazing that that wasn't discussed once the entire conference as far as I could tell. It's almost like the assumption is there nothing one can do about that. It's this mystical process that no one can control. Which, on some level, it is, but there are things you can do to make sure you have as good a chance as possible of the show being good.


Oh, and I totally agree with this:

"the future may be with smaller, more specialized organizations who focus on what they do well. Who are you? What interests you? Find those people with similar tastes and plunk their asses in seats. Give 'em what they want as long as it's what you want first."

But then the question becomes, what do the already existing large companies do? And it's to that question I'm trying to address my post. I think they should be doing work they believe in and think they can execute excellently and specifically as well (as opposed to their current algorithym-programmed model).

Laura

I just need to thank Ian for that link. I'm glad I'm not the only one out there who finds many theater promo pics cringe worthy.

Mike Daisey

"Plus everyone should know that NY audiences are way more provincial, starfucking, and narrow-minded than the regions (a lot of the regions, anyway)."

I hate to disagree with Mr. Grote, but I spend a lot of time physically in front of NYC audiences, and I don't find them to be this way. Granted, they are my audiences--I attract people I'm in alignment with--but I've been on subscription at major NYC theaters, and in commercial runs as well.

I feel like the THEATRICAL INDUSTRY of NYC is quite provincial, star-fucking and narrow-minded...I'm just not as convinced that this is coming from the audience itself.

I think quality is never addressed at TCG because it is hard to quantify, and because everyone knows in a gathering that large there will be people who suck--and since few want to alienate everyone, why point fingers?

On top of this is the interesting nature of theatrical effervescence--as colleagues we can rarely SEE each other's work, so it's hard to establish a pecking order based on talent. This is unfortunate, because I think it leads to a lot of posturing and bullshit than other fields where the art is available to everyone at any time...comes with the territory, I suspect.

Eric Ziegenhagen

Regarding younger/older audiences: Much of the audiences that saw Laurie Anderson's United States Live in 1982, or a Mac Wellman play in 1986, or anything by Sam Shepard pre-1976, or some crazy Jean-Claude Van Itallie or Megan Terry play in 1969, are now in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. These folks could still get excited about something new. I wouldn't assume that all of them have outgrown provocative live performance, or have made an irrevocable shift from the counterculture to the culture, any more than someone outgrows responding to Beckett or Eliot, or outgrow craving a live spiritual service, whether it be church or live storytelling.

I talked with a guy in his late sixties here in Chicago a few years ago who told me that I had to see the production of Adam Rapp's Blackbird that was running here at the time. That single conversation reminded me that a theater company doesn't choose between targeting young and old, but between curious and incurious. Any denomination can appeal to young and old -- and assuming that this is aesthetically true as well is the start of figuring out how to draw an intergenerational audience. The starting place, though, as with any religious organization, is figuring out who they are there for, who they satisfy and who (by attending their shows) satisfies them.

malachy walsh

Isaac, maybe we should stop trying to "save" big institutional theatre.

Let them die by the way they live.

It might be a lot healthier to let them fail than to patch this or be frustrated that they're not doing that.

Something will take its place. Always does.

99

Malachy, while I share the sentiment in a lot of ways, there is a flip side to the argument. I take a stab at it here: http://99seats.blogspot.com/2009/06/million-dollar-question.html

cgeye

I said this over at 99 Seats, but I wanted to ask this here:

Well, then, why don't more theatre companies come out and say they'll program for an older audience?

They don't have to be dinner theatre to stick to the mid-20th century warhorses, with steady, older actors, without a literary office. If they can no longer cope with the noise of new play development, then don't develop them, don't fight for grants for them, and build a rock solid subscription base.

If there is this amazingly stable market out there, why not use it? The actors who make solid bank there can always do more radical work off-season.

Maybe we should no longer resist the tide, but go with it and see what happens.

Why reject the audience that will keep growing -- theatre aficionados who have had the decades to form their tastes? As said above, the hippies who saw HAIR or AC/DC or any Ludlam or Caffe Cino work in the original nude could school me any day about what out-there theatre can do. I *want* to be in an audience that could keep their asses non-numb during any Robert Wilson epic. Why the frak would I assume those silverbacks would only want Neil Simon? I want that dialogue they began when they were DFHs to continue with my work. Is that so wrong?

If I were a suspicious girl, I'd wonder whether this late-act stigmatization of gray-hairs would have something to do with some greedy, MBA-trained, more conservative theatre professionals coveting the jewelry box institutional theatre represents, and are just waiting for ol' Granny to die so they can take it and put in La Bute and other closed-minded rude boys on the mainstage 24/7. That or make regional theatres the permanent home of bus-and-truck movie adaptations.

And why the frak *don't* I see more Mac Wellman or Erik Ehn (hell, just try to find *reading* editions of his work) or Fornes or Ludlam? We've discarded our leading experimental playwrights, too, and then we wonder why our plays sound like TV episodes.

We don't need to go forward; we need to go forward, by going back to our roots -- the theatre that grew up beside the regional theatre movement as a response to it.

Jason Grote

Mike is right, the problem is more with the theatrical industry/infrastructure/institutions of NYC than audiences per se -- sloppy construction on my part. I have, however, seen pretty appalling behavior by bougie types (usually middle-aged and, judging by accents, native to the greater NY metro area), and heard anecdotal evidence of same. But it's not the majority.

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