Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Empty Spaces

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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Dave. I actually did a study on this in college. As an economics major at the University of Richmond, I had to for a question that could be studied quantitatively. I took some sample data that I collected from arts go-ers, at the UR Dancers annual dance concert. My results were actually not numerous enough to really say with any certainty. But the overall feel was thatprice influenced the young and the old, more than the middle aged. And the groups rather than individuals. We already give discounts to groups, students and seniors. The problem is that there is not enough time to do it all. I think we might be better off working on making 30 hour days.

Anonymous said...

One other comment that I forgot about in my first post, was that there is a quality assumption based on price. I got an overwhelming number of people who would not go to free events because they (the theatre commmunity) associate quality with price. There is a happy margin where it maximizes attendance at some point, but no one knows wehre it is. Any other thoughts would be much appreciated. This study was done because I am in arts management and I love this type of discussion. So please agree or disagree, lets chat.

blogva said...

"Reconcile its artistic nature with its commercial foundation"? Why?
Let's look locally for a moment. I have heard repeatedly that the corporate donors want to tell theatres what to put on or have some some censoring power. But looking at program ads I would say that this is not necessarily true. For example, Ukrops, one of the most conservative corporate outfits there is, supports everything. The donate to Barksdale, Triangle, and Firehouse. I can't imagine anything that Ukrop's might see as more controversial than Triangle's fare and yet they donate to and support them all the same. This tells me on a small scale that compromising the art to exist (or even to make a profit) is not necessary.

Theatre has always been a gamble of a business- perhaps it is just more of one now than ever.

I hope this is a useful comment. Maybe I misunderstand your point, Dave, and your really mean that theatre should be corporate itself. But I can't figure this one out.

Andrew Hamm said...

Yes, that's the unspoken ticket price issue: people assume that they are going to get what they pay for. We have actually had patrons tell us "You should be charging more for tickets. We would pay it."

Anonymous said...

FYI, Barksdale does offer a rush ticket rate. I forget what the price is, but it's a low cost price for a limited amount of tickets available right before show time. TheatreVirginia used to do the same thing. It's pretty common.

Also, no disrespect Dave, but please don't compare Andrew Lloyd Webber's contribution to the American Musical to Disney's. Both are great but Disney did not spurn from Cats.


Dave T said...

No disrespect taken, Anon. But in my somewhat removed perspective, there is a line of trajectory in theatrical development that connects Cats and Disney. My impression is that aspects of the Cats phenomenon -- family-friendly, lavish technically, huge cash generator -- helped convinced Disney to try its hand at Broadway shows. Beauty and the Beast and Lion King didn't spring directly from Cats but they represent an evolution that Cats instigated, IMHO. I'm open to opposing views.

No disrespect meant back at ya, Anon, but I think there is a pretty large difference between a rush ticket and simply a lower ticket price. The regular theater-goer may know about rush tickets but I don't think the average person looking for a last-minute entertainment option does. It also strikes me a little like rolling the dice -- showing up and hoping for a seat -- something I don't regularly do with my evenings out.

Dave T said...

MB -- I'm sure I didn't express myself as clearly as I hoped to and maybe the issue is a little muddled in my mind. But I wasn't talking about corporate support. The article was talking about theaters becoming more like corporations and that corporations (or the new corporation/theater hybrids) are lousy at making "art." My point was that what corporations are often pretty good at is providing "product" that people will consume, reading (or anticipating) the desires of consumers and giving them what they want.

But I think theaters have a hard time thinking of what they do as "product." Not to pick on Rick, but he expressed his dislike for the word somewhere in this space. Ask most ADs and I'm sure they'll say the same. I totally understand this sentiment. What I'm saying is that succeeding in the marketplace means reconciling the desire to make art with the need to make money. I think theaters recognize this but most have been dragged to that reconciliation kicking and screaming.

Over the years, I have heard a couple ADs express variations of -- 'if we just make really good art, the audiences will come.' That may be true. But I think theaters will be more likely to draw audiences if they produce plays that people really want to see. It's a consumer-oriented focus versus a product-oriented focus. "What people want to see" encompasses a lot and I think theaters could learn from other realms of entertainment in generating consumer interest. As I said, embracing this versus tolerating it could make a big difference.

Finally, I should say I'm not by any means trying to pass myself off as an expert in this. I'm sure people smarter than I are looking at it and trying to find solutions. My inspiration was the line about corporations making lousy theater in the article. Instead of just bitterly ruing the corporate nature of theater management, some benefit might come from making use of what corporations do to increase ticket sales. And increased ticket sales means a flourishing theater scene and that, above all, is what would make me extremely happy.