Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Business and Art

It was refreshing and somehow appropriate to see Mystery Dinner Theater spotlighted in yesterday’s Business magazine in the T-D. Laura and Jim Daab are a couple of really nice people who I’ve known at least since my lovely wife appeared in one of their productions. Jim is also a great performer, which you might not know unless you caught him in one of the shows he did at the Mill years ago.

I say “appropriate” because Mystery Dinner Theater more than anything else seems like a great business model. It’s been interesting to see the company succeed and continue to expand. It also brings out a bit of a conflict in me and perhaps in other people, as well. There’s a bit of a snob in me that thinks that the MDT shows should not even be considered in the same ballpark as “artistic” shows like the ones the Barksdale, the Firehouse, etc. put on. When I think of MDT, I think in business terms: they have a fairly generic “product” that they repackage regularly to keep people interested. And clearly people like the product and continue to buy it.

That might sound a little cynical or condescending. But then I reflect on it a little and realize that it’s really what every theater does. You can look at the Barksdale’s move back into Hanover Tavern, for instance, and see that the product they’ve decided to sell out there is family-friendly classics. And clearly, that product is selling. Theatre IV sells kids shows, plain and simple. And they do a great job and the crowds come in and have a good time. So why, I wonder, am I just a touch disdainful about MDT? Am I holding on to this vague and highbrow notion that “art” shouldn’t be about commerce? Does a production have to big words or complicated themes or pretty sets to count as ‘theater’ in my narrow version of what theater is? Do I need to come down off my high horse of critical distance and mingle with the people a little? Regardless of how ‘important’ a show is, if nobody sees it, does it still make a sound?

I've added Mystery Dinner Theater to my "Producers" list to the left there in an effort to get over myself.


Caroline said...

Great post. It's hard to decide what makes theatre and what doesn't.

I often compare theatre and paintings. Take a masterpiece by Da Vinci and put it side-by-side with a Jackson Pollock work. Which one is art? What if we toss in a canvas painted plain red with a white dot in the center? Are they all art, or is only the Da Vinci one art?

The same goes with theatre. The most simple, cute, easily-produced show you can imagine is just as much theatre as the dramatic, emotional, powerful play you can imagine. Sure, the latter might seem more "theatrical"...but theatrics don't make theatre!

I do, however, think that the moment a theatre begins to think more about the money than the art that priorities need to be resorted!

Frank Creasy said...

Look, even Stanislavski said theatre must first entertain. One great thing about Richmond theatre is the variety of productions and the programming directed at various niches, from MTD to Fielden's to Firehouse to CAT to Barksdale to Living Word and others. One man's poison and all that! Actors love doing shows that audiences love. That's the real compensation, because the paycheck ain't enough by far, my friends.