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

February 26, 2014
KEYWORDS theatet
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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.


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