After ruminating for over a week, I’ve concluded that I can’t posit anything even resembling answers to the broken LORT business model. I’m frankly too far removed from the details of how it works (or doesn’t work) to know why it’s broken or whether there is any realistic hope of fixing it. My feeling though is that there is more than a whiff of the same scent that dogs Detroit and the auto industry about LORT, that is, a sense that something fundamental needs to change or the whole structure might come tumbling down.
There has been a lot of spirited debate and well-considered commentary about government support of the arts, but even though the new President seems much more willing to consider greater support of the arts in general, an “arts bailout” as part of the current stimulus package being debated seems to me to be a fading hope. Even with a government boost of some sort, similar to other areas of the economy, I expect things will get worse before they get better.
From my removed perspective, most of the debate about LORT and government support concerns organizations bigger than most of the theaters in Richmond. My sense is that most local companies are not worrying about their shrinking endowments as much as they are concerned about scraping $5-$10K together to put up their next production, or securing a grant or sponsorship so they can pay to have any staff at all.
It gets increasingly hard to be a Pollyanna about this kind of thing but the only way to avoid complete despair about the current economic situation, I think, is to consider the situation an opportunity. And what I see in the troubled economy are opportunities for a new insurgency in local theater. What it would involve – IMHO – would be new and aggressive forms of marketing. Here is a scattering of my ideas:
-- Opposition marketing. There was a stink a few years ago when companies started naming the names of their opposition in their advertising. But personally I think it works and I think theater needs to do the same. But not necessarily with other theater companies but other forms of entertainment. Movie tickets are near $10. Concert tickets can be $100 or more. Theater needs to place itself clearly in that hierarchy. “Why spend $50 to hear a bad band play too loudly when you can be enchanted by a new musical for half the price?”
Another opposition tack would be the local versus regional/national argument. “You’d love to go to Broadway, wouldn’t you? Well, you don’t have to spend the money. We have Broadway caliber theater right here!”
-- Cooperation and partnership. While I think theaters need to be place themselves in opposition to other forms of entertainment, they need to work more cooperatively with other theaters. Joint ventures double and triple the reach of a theater into new audiences. And all of the local colleges, universities, and high schools have theater programs. You don’t think they’d love to have more visiting artists, more workshops, more interaction with working professionals in the theater world? I think they would.
-- New media. I think theaters are way behind the curve in terms of utilizing new media to get the word out about local theater. I’ve been turning the idea around about doing a weekly podcast about Richmond theater for months. Why isn’t anyone in the community doing this? WRIR has “Wordy Birds” and Tim Bowring’s show about local artists. Why is no one arranging a meeting between someone with a mellifluous voice like John Porter and a local high school’s drama program and saying, let’s do a weekly podcast and try to get it on WRIR? At least.
And video / YouTube. Is it just my impression or do theater people have some aversion to video? Yes, I grant that a video of good live theater can’t do it justice but it can sure whet someone’s appetite. Hell, movies these days will give you almost the entire movie in a one-minute clip. And people still go see the film. A snippet of a musical posted on YouTube with links mailed out to everyone on Facebook and/or through their Constant Contact list would do a lot more to generate excitement about a production than current print / email efforts, IMHO.
The latest unemployment figures just came out and they aren’t good. Times are going to be tough for a while. Survival during the next year or two is going to be tough. But the theater people I know are creative, hard-working and persistent. I would hope that some of them (some of you!) will find the opportunities buried in the current heap of bad news.