Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lottery Game

I’m happy to see that Mr. Miller “un-scrubbed” the Barksdale Buzz. I have no inside information on what prompted either the original cleansing or the restoration.

I’m happy because I have been mulling over responding to his “new ideas” post since he put it up last weekend. The truth is that I don’t know nearly enough about the administrative business of theater to know what it would take to make Richmond theater work better or draw bigger audiences or solidify its shaky financial ground. I have some ideas but I really have no basis for thinking they would really do any good.

For me, what these ideas amount to is a version of the lottery game. Do you ever play that? You think, what would I do if I won the lottery? What if I really could expend my energy doing just what I purely enjoyed or what I thought was worthwhile without any concern about whether it made money or furthered my career?

I have a kind of theater-world version of that game that I run through in my head. If I could use all of my time just to try to make Richmond theater more successful, what would I do? Here are some of the things I think about:

--> It’s my perception that there is a lot more that the state could be doing to foster a more positive environment for the performing arts. I’d find out in what ways exactly is Virginia less supportive of the arts than other states, I’d research appropriate mechanisms for changing that situation, and then lobby my hardest to implement some changes.

--> I’d walk into some enterprising high school or college with both a strong theater program and a strong media arts program and propose a joint project to produce a weekly theater-focused podcast. I’d bring theater artists in and interview them in front of a theater class, let them ask questions too, record it all and throw it out on the internet. I’d also try to get WRIR to broadcast it.

--> I’d try to organize theater-focused excursions / trips, like Barksdale/Theatre IV’s annual overseas trips only local. Summertime would be great to do a “Shakespeare in Virginia” tour – hit shows in Williamsburg, Richmond and Staunton, maybe even extend it to DC. How about a historic theaters tour that does Hanover Tavern, Lime Kiln and then the Barter in Abingdon?

--> I’d try to organize a series similar to Acts of Faith but with a topic that would really get some attention: the Civil War. Some people are convinced we’re still fighting it, that race is still as big an issue as its ever been. Bring it front and center and put it on stage. Shows like “This is How it Goes” or “Topdog / Underdog” would fit nicely; I’d hope to be able to find others. Doing it in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, would attract national media, I’d bet you.

--> If I had a space like Hanover Tavern or Willow Lawn at my disposal, I’d have pre-show dinner parties. It’d be like dinner theater only I’d merge in a “Coffee and Conversations” aspect, have the director or actors or designers there and open the floor for questions. I love the C & C’s but the audience is limited by their midday time.

--> I would make a push for “stunt casting.” I’d work with a company that has a role in a show that could possibly go to someone who wasn’t necessarily a theater vet and pull any and all strings to recruit someone famous or semi-famous. Doug Wilder? Rob Ukrop? Melissa Chase? Jason Mraz? Elliot Yamin? Lisa Shaffner? The media loves famous people and, love it or hate it, stunt casting draws audiences.

--> I’d work with theater companies and the administrators of some key public spaces to get permission to perform “teaser” scenes from their productions in prominent places where people meet or are mingling, such as James River Plaza downtown at lunchtime or Short Pump Mall or the Shops at Stony Point, or the middle of University of Richmond’s or VCU’s campus in the fall, etc.

--> I’d organize a Richmond Theatre showcase in the fall and invite every theater company in town to perform a scene from their fall show. DC does something like this at the Kennedy Center and it seems pretty nifty.

--> I’d petition the Arts Council or RAPT or someone to fund a person whose job would be "Richmond theater advocate" and do all of the things above and more. That person could also work with different companies to coordinate their schedules so everyone’s best shows aren’t all appearing in the same 3 week period in September and October.

As I said, I have no idea whether any of these kinds of things would actually do any good. But they seem like they’d be kinda fun just the same.

After looking over this list, it occurs to me that (not to counteract Mr. Miller), what Richmond needs is not necessarily more good ideas, but more people willing to make the good ideas happen. I’m not really sure where those people would come from.


Bruce Miller said...

I think these are great ideas. Even if they won't all work--and I'm not saying they won't--they're the kind of ideas Richmond theatres need. I hope your readers keep 'em coming. And you are absolutely right about needing not just the ideas but also the people to make them happen.

The only thing I'd add to your lottery list is this: if you have means and care about theatre, give as much money as you can to the theatre(s) you care about. In addition to having a shortage of state funding (and local government funding as well), Richmond theatre is only slowly building a tradition of major gifts from individuals of means. The Symphony, Opera and Ballet are WAY ahead of us in theatre. The national average of giving percentages at nonprofit theatres is 40% of total revenue coming in from contributions. At Barksdale and Theatre IV, the current total is 26%, and this is the best we've been able to do.

Dave T said...

Thanks, Bruce! Additional ideas continue to ping around my little brain. For instance... as far as collaboration goes, the wonderful dance/theater partnership between B'dale and Latin Ballet recently points to possibilities of two different performing arts coming together for the benefit of both. I wonder about the many opportunities to mix theater and music. Why not have an opening band for a show? Among the more delightful things I've enjoyed lately are the regular pre-show performances that Richmond Shakespeare does. A show like "Grapes of Wrath" could feature a folk duo performing before, at intermission and/or afterward. Firehouse could set up something with Camel so a band performing there later does a couple of songs before curtain. Many possibilities...all with the potential side-effect of broadening the audience.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I spent two years running the major donor program for a small non-profit in DC. It was not enough time to gain any real expertise but enough to gain at least some understanding of how difficult it can be to 'hook' major donors. Many of my lottery list ideas spring from the strategy of finding as many ways as possible to engage a possible donor; you never know what event/performance/trip is going to be the thing that finally spurs them to decide to make a larger financial commitment to an institution. Best of luck to all those out there trying to make it happen; it's not an easy row to hoe.

One thing in this realm, a strategy that was surprisingly effective for me twenty years ago: we did an annual report and sent it out to all donors (with a 'please give' response device included of course). Beyond a subscription flyer or other fundraising vehicle, an annual report allows an organization tell their story and also lay out the specific financial realities. The first time the group I worked for did this, the result was two major donations within the first two weeks of sending it out.

I'm not sure if this would work for a theater -- and maybe some are already doing this and I'm not seeing it -- but it's another idea to throw out into the ether for people to chew over...

Caroline Sumner said...

I think all these ideas are fantastic and I would be on board with them, each and every one.

Oddly (it's odd if you know me in person, since I have almost no patience for this topic anymore) I was most interested in your "Civil War" festival idea. My dad is a history buff and as such I have grown up hearing about the Civil War nonstop, as has just about everyone raised in Richmond. Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about it, having it shoved down our throats for the SOLs and in college classes.

I think doing a festival would help reinvigorate an interest for those of us who are a little history-weary and be a really amazing thing to do here, considering our city's history.

I'm up for it. Let's make it happen. Seriously...I will find a way!