10 things theaters need to do to save themselves: A response

February 26, 2014
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At the Seattle website, the Stranger a while back, writer Brandan Kiley, offered a provocative list of “Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves.”

Allow me to share his points, offer my own thoughts, and encourage theater pros, patrons, and especially those who stay away, to chime in.

1. Enough with the Shakespeare already. “It's time for a five-year moratorium,” writes Kiley, but I strongly disagree. While there seems to be a Shakespeare glut in Indy right now—this weekend, you could see both “A Winter’s Tale” at the Fringe Building and “A Comedy of Errors” at Irvington Lodge—there should always be room for quality work. There, though, lies the rub. On the plus side, Indy actors are getting more opportunities to hone their skills. On the downside, theaters are finding that the number of production entities are making it more difficult to pull together solid casts. More important, I think, is having talented folks working on pieces they are passionate about staging. If that’s Shakespeare, then so be it. (And as my actor friend Eric Rolland wisely said, "Not only is Shakespeare royalty free, but it's the best material ever. Win. Win.")

2. Tell us something we don't know. “Every play in your season should be a premiere—a world premiere, an American premiere, or at least a regional premiere,” writes Kiley, who surely would love the Phoenix Theatre, where that’s pretty much the case. But seeling new or lesser known work is very difficult (Just ask Acting Up Productions, which presented Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo" earlier in the season. If the Indiana Repertory Theatre or Beef & Boards took such an approach, they’d be gone before the 2015/16 season. That doesn't, however, mean that theaters should only play it safe. It's in the theater's interest to explore ways to bring exciting new work to its audience--and to present the kind of work that will attract new patrons. Kiley does, wisely, point out that it would be helpful if unions could wave some restrictions in order to make it easier for professional actors to work on Fringe and other small-scale productions where creative risks and experimentation are more likely to occur. Leaving the edgy work to avocational talent encourages mediocrity.

3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. Kiley puts on a pedestal a company that produced 27 plays—including 16 premieres—in a single year. I’m not convinced that more, sloppier work, encourages people to see more theater. There’s a serious risk of scaring off new audiences by offering them half-or-less-baked work..

4.Get them young. Duh. But, I’d add, you have to give them a worthwhile experience or they go away very quickly.

5. Offer child care. Perhaps the smartest rule on Kiley’s list. “People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games.” An after-effect: …it will teach children to go to the theater regularly. And they'll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups.”

6. Fight for real estate. “Push government for cheap artists' housing,” says Kiley. You tell me: Is that an issue here in Indy? Would more artists stick around if there were some sort of subsidy? The challenge here, I think, is the large gray area of part-time artists with day jobs to sustain them. How do you decide who would qualify?

7. Build bars. “Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests,” writes Kiley. “Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late.” While some theaters here have tried pre-show events, few offer opportunities to hang out afterwards. Seems like an idea worth exploring.

8. Boors' night out. “For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines.” Are we ready for a “Rocky Horror” approach to theater? Sounds like occasional fun but not something practical—or desirable—on a regular basis. This assumes that people stay away because they aren't allowed to text, talk back, etc. I don't think it's that conscious of a choice.

9. Expect poverty.  “Actors have to jettison the living-wage argument,” says Kiley. My response: Most of them already have. My secondary response: Why should actors have to accept poverty wages if others on the team are making money?

10. Drop out of graduate school. “Most of you students in MFA programs don't belong there—your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might be able to tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future.” I’ll let those of you who are students or teachers in theater programs debate this one.

Your thoughts?

  • Child care - YES
    The single biggest reason I'm not seeing much (if any) theater these days is my family. I have two small children. It becomes cost prohibitive with ticket prices + babysitting. Child care with theater people? Brilliant. I would love for my girls to find the joy that I did in the theater while I get to see live theater.
  • Child care, again
    Child care would be incredible. I'd easily pay an extra $10-20 per ticket for it. That could become such a hit that young actors would fight for a spot in the babysitting room. Well, maybe not. But it would be big.
  • Yes, and
    1. The invitation to heckling sounds like an old guy trying to guess what young people might like. But it does tap into the problem that too few people think theatergoing has anything to do with fun. That's a pernicious branding problem, and one that's exacerbated by programming and tonal choices. 2. Banning Shakespeare seems like more of a rhetorical flourish than a pragmatic idea -- we're never actually going to see a moratorium -- but, conceptually, he's not wrong. Shakespeare has such an irresistible center of gravity that lots of people who decide they feel like going to the theater will, if there's Shakespeare available, default to that. If Shakespeare weren't eating up so many programming slots nationwide, those theatergoers might decide instead to see something newer. That fostering of newer work would be healthier for the broader American theatrical ecosystem, which isn't terribly robust right now. (Of course there are also lots of people who unreasonably hate Shakespeare; identifying the theater industry too closely with 400-year-old plays isn't doing anything to pull those viewers in, either.) 3. I love the idea of upping the quantity of productions. I don't personally think sloppy needs to be a bad word, but neither do I think increased frequency of productions needs to be sloppy -- though it would probably entail fewer bells and whistles, and lower production budgets, none of which need to be bad things. The supersmart Mike Lew wrote on this subject more recently: http://www.mikelew.com/3/post/2013/05/six-actionable-steps-for-the-theater-1-triple-your-volume.html
  • Algonquin Talk
    #'s 1 thru 3 ... has Indy arrived to the place where they are willing to support straight plays and new works with the same zeal as musicals and the repetition that is Christmas? #5 Would parents be willing to pay some sort of ticket price for theatre baby-sitting? We would have to pay a potential salary to that person doing the theatre games & where they do them ... #7 It would be great to have more involvement from the existing bars, ie, Mass Ave, vying for the out pour (so to speak)after performances #9-10 Sadly, if you needs be livin' in Indy, yes, making a living on your theatrical experiences just may not be possible yet ... yet ... yet ...
    • Unreliable Source
      I was so outraged by this person's comments, particularly 9 and 10, that I googled him. His bio reads, in part "Brendan Kiley—who writes about theater, drugs, and more for The Stranger—has worked as a child actor in New Orleans, as a member of the junior press corps at the 1988 Republican National Convention, and, for one happy April, as a bootlegger’s assistant in Nicaragua." So he basically knows nothing about our business except that he participated as a child. I resent the notion that Acting is not a legitimate profession worthy of a living wage. And, as a working theatre professional who has also taught in theatre programs, I assert that he is just plain wrong. He is talking out of his butt about the theatre the way I do about sports. I think I'll start a sports column. Would the IBJ be interested?
      • I'd pay
        Bob - I would absolutely pay for child care at the theater (presumably less than I'd be paying for babysitting at home). Going to the theater would be a family event - dinner pre or post show with my girls and then they get to play with theater people? I would love that. Though my husband will never see Hair, so no need to test this with us for your summer production! :)
      • Professionalism and Mediocrity
        Lou, I'm not quite sure what you mean in #2: "Leaving the edgy work to avocational talent encourages mediocrity." Are you saying that "edgy" volunteer or semi-professional productions will be of lesser quality, or that professional companies will play it safe to preserve their cash flow and produce boring and passionless shows? I've seen plenty of both, but on the whole I'm usually more excited about the "edgy" stuff, even when rough around the edges, than the slickest production of Nunsense you could possibly mount. Also, there's a big difference between simply "non-union" and "avocational." But I know a lot of people who are better qualified to talk about that than I am.
        • Few good points, fewer good solutions
          For some theatres the child care might be a lead generator for their youth theatre programs. In those cases you could pay the actors running those theatre games, not charge anything additional for the service, and still end up financially ahead for your trouble. (Disclaimer: I do not run a youth theatre program, so there may be people way smarter than me with a hundred reasons why it wouldn't work out that way.) ... I think the arguments about doing new work (and specifically not doing Shakespeare) should really be reframed as finding something new in the material. A fresh, new production doesn't need to mean a brand new script, but how are you presenting the material in a new way. I know I don't like seeing a show and walking away with the impression that it didn't really need to be done.
        • edgy
          Brian, Excellence is possible across the board, of course. I simply don't want to see some of our finest actors kept out of the creative mix because of their professional status. I'm well aware that Indy is such a border market that talented folks sometimes need to make a difficult decision as to whether or not to go union. With a greater range of roles being offered by smaller theaters, some quality actors simply don't have enough incentive to give up their freedom of choice in order to join the union. Hope that clarifies.
          • Shakespeare
            Also, regarding #1 . . . Telling theatre companies "enough with the Shakespeare" is like telling a symphony orchestra to quit playing so much Beethoven or asking an art museum to mothball the Van Goghs. Sure, there are people who would rather hear or see some exciting modern works in music or visual art, but quality is quality, and disavowing the masterpieces of your art is as narrow-minded as refusing to try new works. There are plenty of companies that do no Shakespeare, or who specialize in new work, and many of them are wonderful - and there are others that focus on the classics. The marketplace of theatre has room for them all.
          • Clearer
            Yes, that does clarify. And yes, that's precisely the conundrum of a market like Indy. A handful of companies that can afford to pay Equity rates can't keep enough actors employed consistently enough to offer a good living through acting alone, and the much greater variety of opportunities with smaller companies is a tough thing to give up. Since most performers around Indy are going to have to have another job to pay the bills - as nearly every actor I know does, union or not - I wouldn't blame anyone for not getting a card.
            • Spendy and
              I don't take in much local theater because tickets are expensive compared to other night-out options, and I rarely feel like I get my money's worth. I've tried to be supportive, but after enough splintery chairs in drafty rooms to see amateur performances, I'm out.
            • Theater work could be more ubiquitous
              First off, the idea of theaters providing onsite daycare would be pretty amazing, providing they could figure out the economics. Anything to help with parents of younger children to get out and about would help to drive your business. Second, as a person who doesn't get out very often to see a play, one of the biggest barriers to me is knowing what is playing and what is getting good reviews/poor reviews. With movies, it's very easy to see what is showing and where to turn to find reviews. With theater plays, I never know what's considered worth checking out unless it's some very well-known product. It would be helpful if theater plays were more ubiquitous in both knowledge of what the play entails and also general reviews. Until that happens, theater attendees will generally only be made up of a small subset of the public who are 'in the know' of what's playing.
            • timely
              I was just about to post when I read this story in the times about the Annie tour which will feature non-union cast to "save costs". If a blockbuster show is resorting to this, what next? :http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/26/theater/tours-director-criticizes-new-annie.html?hpw&rref=arts
            • stranger things
              As a regular reader of the Stranger, I always keep in mind that they are an "alt" weekly that tries to be provocative.
            • And yet
              Good point, Brian. And yet: if every restaurant in the country offered only three to eight entrees, and if there were vastly more chicken pot pies among those offered entrees than anything else, then restaurant-goers might well eventually say: "What's up with all the chicken pot pies?" (And I like chicken pot pie.) Never mind the fact that one of the other entrees is highly likely to be figgy pudding. My analogy is going off the rails.
            • A new idea
              I'd love to be able to purchase a round-robin pass. One show at the Civic, one at the Phoenix, one at the IRT, one at No Exit and one at Young Actors (or something like that). The tix would be discounted in some form for each show, but would give theatre-goers an opportunity to decide what kind of theatre and where they enjoy.
            • Ms. Macy?
              Is this the fabulous Constance Macy? Love your work and happy to see you commenting here! Agree with your point although I do think a few of the comments aren't completely off-base (childcare being the biggest). Can't wait to see your sports column!
            • Not all the same.
              I don't think there is one set of rules for all theaters. Small town community theater can't be the same as professional, educational or experimental theaters. Each have a unique mission.
            • Post-show hangout? Yes!
              I'd love to be able to loiter over food and beverage after a show and perhaps engage in informal conversation with other patrons. While you can certainly go out and do that, it's tough to find a place where you can enjoy coffee, dessert, and maybe a glass of wine that is open late at night, one that isn't too loud to make conversation difficult.
            • Short on material?
              Lou - since when did reprinting someone else's silly article count as journalism? Enough with the lack of your own ideas. What this town really needs is a decent arts column and writer. Good thing I subscribe to the IBJ for the business articles. Let's see if you'll print that.
              • suggestions welcome
                Jeanne, Why the hostility? The above isn't a reprint but a point-by-point response to a duly credited story. Still, contrary opinions are most welcome here(no need to dare me to print them)and I also welcome specific suggestions on how IBJ.com/arts can improve. You can reach me here or directly at lharry@ibj.com. Oh, and thanks for subscribing to IBJ. Have a good weekend.--Lou

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