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April 05, 2011


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Monica Reida

My biggest problem is that, living in Chicago, I can say that the "You'll pay more for a rock concert" argument is not really that strong of an argument. I have yet to pay more than $20 to see a rock concert, but they're not stadium shows, which I would definitely pay more for. Even as a student, chances are likely that I might pay more at the smaller theater companies in Chicago, and usually the larger ones, depending on if I can get rush tickets. But because of price, there's also the risk of being disappointed. If it's a band you really love, that money will be totally worth it. Same thing goes for sports: If you really love your team, it might still be a good day if they lose. But I at least find, and this is unfortunate as a playwright, that I have a hard time wanting to pay $18-$45 to see a play unless it's something that really interests me. Even if I love the company producing the play, there have been moments where I've left the theater really disappointed because the show could have been better and I wasn't fully engaged.

Which goes along with your point about the work our theaters are doing. If someone sees a string of plays that are disappointing or flat out awful, can you really blame them for being hesitant to pay lots of money to see your show?

Rob Kozlowski

I would have to say I've been a very active playgoer for the last 7 or 8 years, once I stopped being involved in Chicago improv. I'm now seeing less theater. Why?

1. Because now the plays that I've seen in the past seven or eight years are being produced again in Chicago.

2. Because if I see that there's a world premiere advertised by a playwright who's being produced everywhere, I am 90% certain I will be disappointed.

Once I eliminate the productions under #1 and #2, there are a lot fewer plays in which I'm interested. And I've only been a really active playgoer for about 7 or 8 years.

Rob Weinert-Kendt

Fair enough, 99. The rock concert ticket point is admittedly the weakest, which is why I didn't highlight it. What resonated with me in Sherman's post is the general point: that theater has never been for everybody, and that its liveness is what makes it all the more valuable in our digital age. (That last point may arguably be a fairy tale we tell ourselves, but it's one I find myself relying on.) I also agree with Sherman that theater seems essentially innate, especially as I watch my wee son as he relates to media vs. "play."

Scott Walters

I agree with you almost completely, 99. I found the piece the same sort of claptrap that the so-called "arts service organization leaders" at the NEA meeting I attended wanted to focus on. I say I agree almost completely because I'm not totally certain what you mean by "quality of experience." The difference I see between rock concerts and sports and theatre is that rock concerts and sports are participatory -- they don't tell you to sit quietly in your seat while we do the activity. The spectators at, say, a Seattle Seahawks game are called the 12th Man -- has anyone ever said something similar about a theatre audience? The interaction you describe between a fan and a performer would never happen in the theatre -- although it used to: it wasn't that long ago that actors were asked to repeat a monologue the spectators liked, and it was demanded of opera singers that they do some popular arias, regardless of whether that aria was in the opera being performed. Shoot, even church lets the congregation sing and pray.


How dare you question me?!

You know, I just liked the tone and posted largely without comment. It's nice to read a little reassurance with so much doomsaying around. That's about the extent of my thinking on the subject.

I do agree that theater needs to bring it's "A Game" more often to the audience. But, aren't there ever crappy concerts? Lousy bands? Bad books? CDs by your favorite band that are sort of not-so-great? About 1/3rd of Bob Dylan's music library is really not for everyone. Is it possible we are a bit unforgiving and merciless about plays, and far more forgiving of other things?

Or is that all about price, too?


It does makes you seem less severe when you use old timey, whimsical slang, like "clap trap" and "shenanigans." I like "fiddle faddle" a lot.



Some of that's probably about price. but in response to your comment, i think we really need to ask that question you're asking. Not in a "they should come back to theatre" kind of way, but in a "no, seriously now, what gives?" kind of way.

Why will audiences go to see a bad concert and keep coming back when they (often) won't afford the same courtesy to plays?


@Josh: Oh, pish-posh!

@Freeman: that's a very good point. Not every single thing is good or (h/t Rob) for everyone. I appreciate those points and the spirit, I do. This is a big discussion and an important one to have.

The price point part is key. Things work best when you find a price point that makes it okay to suck. Theatre is not there. At the price point we're at, for the audiences we want, it *has* to be perfect, if we expect other people to pay it. Theatre takes so much time and energy and focus to attend and follow, it has to come cheaper.

This kind of piece just feels like saying, "Everything we're doing is just fine! Clap harder!" (Even though Sherman says that's NOT what he's saying.) We can challenge each other without spitting in everyone's eye, you know?


@Isaac: I don't think they do, not really. Or rather, the tolerance for it is maybe a bit looser. A band can have an off night and kill the next night. But if they keep having them, people will stop coming. Same thing with bad albums. You'll forgive your favorite band a bad album, but not a string of them.

There's a part of this that's about how you build a fan base, what's different about a fan vs. a subscriber. A fan will buy your bad albums and see your bad shows. The audiences we build in theatre don't have that kind of loyalty. But I think it's because that loyalty doesn't go back to them.


"The theatrical exceptionalism in the idea that theatre is a "distinctly human" experience, different from a sporting event or concert, just makes my skin crawl. Like I said, something wonderful happens when you put people in the same room and take them to the same place. That counts for a Broadway show, a Knick game, a rock show."

I completely agree with you. And I think that this attitude is, ironically enough, what threatens theater most. Sherman's 'la di da, theater will survive, it's special' argument ignores that yes, while theater might be an innate human thing that is a special experience, no art form, or anything else for that matter, survives without evolving. To think that theater can simply keep doing what it's doing and will be fine because of what it is is ultimately reductive and dangerous; theater has always reacted to the changing world around it, engaging with the current technology and learning from its sports/rock concert brethren will not only ensure theater does survive, but theater will most likely be better for it.

Jeremy M. Barker

@Isaac--I think to a degree the issue is one of literacy. Or maybe that's more applicable to say, dance or opera: forms that have a distinct language that unless you're comfortable with, can seem off-putting. But even theater is a slightly different experience than a movie or a TV show. Part of the enjoyment and engagement factor comes from doing it. It's weird--it took me until my mid-twenties to make peace with theater as straight-up enjoyment. I spent so long in college trying to convince myself that theater had to differentiate itself by being Brechtian or absurdist or Artaudian or otherwise experimental that for a long time, the simple pleasure of seeing a straight play wasn't really there. And I think a lot of potential audiences have the same problem. For as much as everyone likes to complain that the theater is dying (and thanks to 99 Seats for, you know, taking the hyperbole down a level), the reality is that a lot of people go see theater very occasionally. The problem is that they don't come often enough. As a reviewer, I've always tried to be cognizant of that. If you can choose between a movie or a indie rock concert or a small play, all of which will cost you say, up to $25 (the movie still being on the cheap end), I always tried to write from the perspective of, is this a good way to spend your money this Friday or Saturday?

My point is that the more people see theater, the more some of them will become comfortable with it. The trick is that a bigger houses, where tickets can be $40 or more at a regional theater, that does SEEM like a lot of money if you're not a regular theater goer. There is an entry-cost into the world of theater that, if you can get more people through it, some of them are gonna stick around. $40 for a non-regular seems like a lot more than for a regular.

The bigger problem is what Monica gets at--what happens if after you sucker them in, you wind up disappointing them?


I'll tell you another reason why I'm forgiving of a bad album and willing to pay money to see a band that had a bad night: if I don't like the album, I can listen to their older, better albums. If I go see them in concert, it's virtually guaranteed that they're going to play at least some of the older, better songs. I know that I like the band, and even though I may not care for the current album, they do have some good stuff that is guaranteed to make an appearance. Why would I avoid that?

Theatre on the other hand is like Top Chef. You're only as good as your last production. If I go see Romeo and Juliet, and I love it, and then you put on King Lear and I hate it, well... I can't go see Romeo and Juliet again and relive that experience. It's gone.

My two cents.


Good thoughts all.

You know, as I was thinking about this a bit more, a weird contradiction hit me, and it's one that has been bugging me at the back of my mind for a while. Sherman describes theatre as being both a human, universal urge and something that's not for everyone, implying that only the aesthetes of any age "get it." Huh? How does that work?

Rob Ready

@ Scott Walters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_81zYyu7hnI

@ Rob Kozlowski: "Because now the plays that I've seen in the past seven or eight years are being produced again in Chicago." Word dude, word. Theater has got a hang up on the past much more than other entertainment industries - I've already seen/read a lot of what gets produced. However I think this is beginning to change - SF Critics Circle two years ago had 5 revivals (most recent was penned 17 years earlier, oldest were two Shakespeare plays) nominated for Best Play in an Under-99-Seat house. This year, they had 5 new plays (written within the last 5 years), a few of which were also nominated for Best Orginal Script.

@ 99 Seats: "Our theatres are failing and they're failing because of the work they're doing. Not just because the country is full of philistines." - Nailed it. Elitism is a big problem in the field, especially for an art form that is inherently about inclusiveness.


Well, as someone who's only been a regular theatergoer since 2007, let me give you some perspective from all the years I didn't go.

It wasn't because I was a philistine or because I was disappointed in the work my local theatre companies were doing, it was because theatre wasn't even on my radar. I didn't know enough about what was being put on to "be" disappointed.

I think part of it is that I didn't grow up going to the theatre, I never had friends who were interested in going. When we went out, we usually went to the movies, occasionally to a sporting event or concert. I probably would have enjoyed going to the theatre if someone had suggested it, but the idea rarely came up.

If I thought about it at all, I probably thought theatre was expensive, or something you couldn't go see by yourself or it was "fancy" and I'd have to get dressed up. On the few times I did go, it was more of a treat, a special occasion.

What changed is, an actor I wanted to see was in a Broadway play. Since then, I've become a regular theatergoer both on and off Broadway and in my hometown. I've realized theatre isn't the intimidating place I thought it was. I can go by myself, I don't have to get dressed up. And frankly, I'm at a point in my career where the cost isn't as big a barrier. Also, thanks to the Internet and starting a blog, I've been able to connect with theatre fans in a way I was never able to do before.

Maybe it's also just a process of getting older and finding that movies don't appeal to me as much anymore, or they're not made for me anymore. They seem increasingly violent and I can't take that. (I'll never see The Black Swan, for example.) Whereas theatre seems more inviting now.

I'm not sure what could have been done to get my 25-year-old self interested. I wish I had been.

Josh James

Great post, hit the nail on the head.

I have to say, I went through a time when I saw a whole lot of Broadway shows and hated nearly every one, and the same was true of Off-Broadway ... it was so expensive and so terrible (the exception, I'd note, was when I saw HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE when it opened, it blew me away) and as a result, I rarely trust that the shows will be worth the money, they seem like stunts more than real theatre that will mean something.

That being said, I just saw MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT last week and loved it so much, I can barely speak. I'd pay for that show (I was comped) and it really made me excited for live stage work again.

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