Friday, June 29, 2007

Petrified by the unknown?

I came home Wednesday night to the latest New Yorker and found a pretty provactive piece on theater. Oh, the reviews aren't particularly controversial (very positive marks for "Eurydice" and "Rabbit"). But critic John Lahr starts out the article with this sweeping statement:

"Producers, who live or die on the accuracy of their reading of the public mood, have registered the current climate of fear and exploited our need for succor. The glut of movies-into-musicals and refurbished revivals is a kind of “Pimp My Mind” of theatre. Audiences are happy to pay top dollar to see what they already know; it’s the unknown that petrifies them."

As both a patron and a critic, I'm a little taken aback by this statement. Maybe I'm not up on the very latest that's playing on Broadway, but I'd say there continues to be a steady stream of challenging shows -- like oh, Tony winning "The Coast of Utopia" and "Spring Awakening" for instance -- getting produced. I don't feel petrified by the unknown -- I relish every foray into new territory that I hear about.

What do you all think?


Unknown said...


I find it interesting that since I have become an AD/Producer, I realize that I have no idea what the audience "wants" or how they will react to any given show and I think it is good not to know. I believe it is our job to be slightly ahead of our audience and help guide their tastes. We are the professionals, we are supposed to have an idea of what is out there...if you ask an audience what they want to see, generally they will rehash stuff they have already seen or they are slightly familiar with. It just won the Pulitzer, but how many audience members out there are aware of Rabbit Hole? How many know about Doubt? The Coast of Utopia? One of the things that killed TVA was this continual pandering to an ever decreasing audience base throughout the 90's. I have produced 22 shows in Lexington and I am still surprised by what "hits" and what doesn't. Scott Wichmann in The SantaLand Diaries remains one of the three biggest hits we have had here along with Crowns, The Importance of Being Earnest and Ain't Misbehavin' (which you would expect) and a play by Tracy Scott Wilson called The Story and Love's Labour's Lost, which shocked the hell out of us. Shows that have underperformed that we expected to do better: All My Sons, Rounding Third, and Quilters...all of which we had high hopes for. At the end of the day, anyone who says they know what the audience wants is full of shit. There is a great Cameron Mackintosh quote were he basically says he produces solely for himself and when a show takes off, he is as surprised as anyone else. I have kind of taken that as a mantra. Of course, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong...


pnlkotula said...

I am by no means an expert, but I can see where the writer is coming from. While this year has shown a definite move in the right direction - developing new, fresh and vibrant pieces - recent years have had us begging for new works. Just the fact that the Tony Awards felt the need to add recognition for Revival categories is telling. And like it or not, the average subscriber wants to see the large-scale classics on the roster. Ideally, we get to work on a smattering of both.

Frank Creasy said...

I think I'm happy to be an actor and not a director or producer. I'm pretty open myself, but my time and money are valuable and I don't always go to see something new unless the buzz on it is really good. So, good luck to you producers and artistic directors, I don't envy you one bit.

Dave T said...

It's great to have your perspective Rick. I'm surprised to hear that Quilters didn't do so well since that ran for forever and a day here in Richmond.

It's hard to know what's going to generate buzz beyond just familiarity. I think Barksdale was pretty nervous about "Full Monty" last year but it got a lot of good word-o-mouth and ended up doing pretty well, I believe. In my naive view, I still think that -- or maybe just hope that -- like in "Field of Dreams," if you build a truly awesome production, the audiences will come. But I know in reality that's not all there is to it.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

I'm a big dreamer too and still like to put faith in that "Field of Dreams" esque dream. Rabbit Hole in particular I think needs to be seen in Richmond soon, especially considering that at least two of David Lindsay-Abaire's other plays (Fuddy Meers at Firehouse Theatre Project and Kimberly Akimbo at Richmond Ensemble Theatre) have been produced in Richmond.

Producers of course cannot "know" what an audience wants, but can certainly make educated guesses and since audiences sometimes can't know themselves what they want, I think it is part of our jobs as producers, directors, actors, reviewers, etc. to help show them what is out there, what is good, what is worthy of seeing and if we can establish a reputation of showing them good work and moving, entertaining, enlightening experiences in the theatre, they will trust us to guide them and will be more willing to see The Little Dog Laughed and The Wild Duck along with Guys and Dolls, instead of bypassing to fantastic pieces of theatre and buying single tickets only for the fluff. (based on Barksdale Theatre's Signature Season)

Then again, there's always that "packaging". How a theatre markets the show, a particular pain with a show like Rabbit Hole of Little Dog. A challenge yes, but not impossible.

At the end of the day, even if we're not making blockbusters and millions of dollars with pieces of...well..ya Wicked...and we know that we can still keep our theatres or careers going and have done something that changed the world a bit for the better then I think we can sleep well at night.

Naive? Optimist? Just plain stupid? Maybe. But it makes the days and career choice more bearable.

-Billy Christopher Maupin

Andrew Hamm said...

I share the writer's concern that, particularly with musicals, Broadway is extremely unlikley to produce work that does not conform to one or more of the following:

1) Featuring a star frommovies, television, or pop music with excellent name recognition.

2) Based on a movie with excellent name recognition.

3) Based on a book with excellent name recognition.

4) A revival of a previously-produced show with excellent name recognition.

Things have gotten better since Rent, but the main goal of the Broadway musical these days is a financial investment.