The article Rick posted last week (look about 4-5 comments down on this post) could be the grist for several posts. I have to admit I’m not qualified to speak to several of the points made – I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of theater management and the financial fine points. But the article did spur a few thoughts – and to the extent possible, I’d like to spill those out and see what other people think.
“She's a fantastic actress, one of the best in the city.”
There is a bitterness in Daisey’s article that seems to spring at least in part from feeling like great work is not getting fairly rewarded. I understand this bitterness. There have been dozens of times when I’ve seen an actor deliver a particularly awe-inspiring performance and thought, man, I wish everyone in the city could see this. Or thought, what justice is there in the world when Martin Lawrence is getting millions of dollars for getting hit in the crotch when XYZ is making $300 a week for redefining acting as we know it?
But I think on another level, you have to realize that in the weird intersection of art and commerce there is no justice. Sometimes talent and perseverance are rewarded, sometimes they are not. This is not specific to theater. I have a friend who has two great novels gathering dust in boxes that can’t find a publisher. It carries over into the business world as well: I worked with a freakishly smart programmer who had a killer website idea (and the smarts to make it work) who couldn’t get the site off the ground. This is not to deny that great work should be rewarded but, in our lovely capitalistic society, there are no guarantees.
“There are clear steps theaters could take.”
Daisey specifically mentions reducing ticket prices and I tend to agree with this one, at least on an intuitive level. I recently checked out the Virginia Stage website and noticed that tickets to their preview performances are $9. $9! It gave me a brief flash of excitement, wondering what would happen if all theater admission prices were on par with movies. I can’t help but think that attendance would grow across the board.
Now, I’ve read over at the Barksdale Blog that they depend on ticket sales for a larger proportion of their total income than the less than 50% Daisey mentions. So there are clearly limitations to this. But I’d be really interested in seeing a pricing / opportunity cost breakdown on this. Not to be crass about it but, after you get a production up and running, you have a fixed-cost commodity. If you have audiences at 70% capacity at $35 a ticket, might you get 85% at $25? Or 95% at $15? And what’s the profitability breakdown on that? I’m sure someone out there is running the numbers; I just have no idea what the results would show.
I think as or more important than ticket prices, however, is the “cool” factor. As was mentioned somewhere in the comments on this blog, kids will pay $70 to see a concert but not $25 to see a play. What’s up with that? More thoughts on this subject somewhere down the line.
“Corporations make shitty theater…Corporations don’t understand theater.”
I get what Daisey is saying here but I think he is also being disingenuous to say theater needs to innovate and broaden its appeal and then say corporations suck. This is actually exactly what corporations (good entrepreneurial corporations) tend to be good at. And where has the locus of some of the most explosive growth in theater been in the past decade or so? At Disney. I’ve done my share of belly-aching about the Disney-fication of theater but Disney has certainly brought new things to the stage and took what “Cats” started and ran with it in terms of appealing to a broad audience. And they’ve employed hundreds of singers, dancers, and actors in the process.
What I’m getting at is that I think theater needs to reconcile its commercial nature with its artistic foundation in a way it hasn’t done so far. I think the commercial has to be embraced – not simply endured – and then balanced with more challenging, interesting fair. I think people need to look at the success of a phenomenon like “High School Musical” and not dismiss it as dumbed-down teenie-bopper lameness but ask the question, if millions of kids will watch movies, buy CDs, and go to concerts – all of which celebrate the creation of a ‘high school musical,’ what can we do to get even a small slice of those kids in to see a REAL musical? For theater to remain vital and possibly even grow to reach its potential, I think it’s got to do whatever it can to bring in audiences. And if that means appealing to teenie-boppers who want to sing along with a Zac Efron look-alike, that’s better than hearing crickets in those empty spaces.