Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, June 26, 2009

Theatre, Relevance and Hush Puppies

The back-and-forth between PianoFight head Carl Benson and me continues, having migrated from Chloe Veltman’s lies like truth over to the PianoFight blog. And now it’s getting interesting--we’ve essentially set aside Free Night of Theater (which was how the whole thing started: I think Free Night works, Carl doesn’t, and never the twain shall meet) and have moved onto ground where we more or less agree about the problem, if not the solution.

Our discussion now (as you’ll see, if you take a look at the initial post at PianoFight and then the subsequent comments) centers around what is driving down theatre attendance--essentially, what is precluding people from considering theatre to be a good way to spend their free time. In my mind, the issue is actually a series of smaller issues on a continuum, namely:

- People don’t get exposed to theatre in formative years
- They develop methods of interacting with other media (TV, music, even visual arts, to some degree), but don’t learn the (rather complex, if you think about it) mores of being a (even passively) participatory audience member at a theatre event
- When presented with an option to attend a show, they not only feel disconnected from the need for live performance, they feel at least somewhat worried/nervous about fitting in and/or acting correctly
- This feeling, coupled with the cost of attendance and what the WolfBrown intrinsic impact study is showing to be a significant lack of social networks interested in attending live performance, keeps people out of our doors--even though there’s a good chance they’d both fit in fine and enjoy the performance once they were there
- Rinse and repeat.

“This is absurd,” you might say. “Who doesn’t know how to behave in a theatre? It’s just like watching a movie.”

But it’s not, not really. People don’t dress up (not even a little) for a movie. They don’t mill in the lobby beforehand. They don’t pay an average ticket price of $35 for a ticket (which raises expectations of what’s going to be offered). There are no people that breathe on stage, and say the words, and change things up and forget lines and sweat and spit and move about. Movies are voyeurism at much more of a remove than anything theatre has to offer.

I remember seeing a production of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC (photo of that production at left) when I was in college. It was a school assignment, and I was there with the 15 or so students from my class and my hippie-dippie teacher. This is a space with maybe 100 seats, surrounding a thrust, and here suddenly are these two nubile, prancing, very naked 20-somethings with all the bits and pieces out on display--and here’s a man nursing on a girl’s bare breast, and yes, here’s some witty Albee-esque repartee, but who can remember that.

Of course, it’s not just nudity. Helen Mirren in The Queen was great, fantastic, all the accolades you can think of--but look at the words they’re using for her current turn as Phedre at the National in London. I can just imagine the energy, the crisp static energy that must be running through the theatre there--it’s something that is absolutely irreplicable anywhere except live on stage. And I would bet for someone who didn’t have much experience, it would be both electrifying and off-putting all at once.

More mundane differences--there’s no intermission in a movie (unless it’s Gone With the Wind, and jeez-oh was I glad about that). What’s the appropriate thing to do there? Do you sit? Do you go out and mill? Are you allowed to talk about what you’ve seen--should you judge it in progress, or are you expected to wait? When can you clap mid-show? What level of verbal reaction is appropriate, and when do you need to muffle? What if you really like something, but you’re the only one who gives it a standing ovation at the end? Is everyone just sitting there judging you? And why, oh why is everyone sitting around me so damn old? And after, what if you hated it, and everyone else is ecstatic? What if, as I’ve heard more than once, you “just didn’t get it?” Do you talk about it with your friend, or do you keep it quietly to yourself?

What is the acceptable reaction/interaction/action after, for example, seeing a man die on stage in At Home at the Zoo? What is the acceptable reaction to watching a dying woman give up and walk into the light in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning Wit?

Carl, in his latest comment, makes a great statement, with which I agree, but to which I must add a caveat. First the statement: “Theatre has got to take at least some of the blame for this drop in attendance, awareness and relevance. If we do not collectively take a long, hard look at our art and our business, Free Night of Theater won’t save us, it’ll just prolong the death spiral.”

I think there are theatres that are already working to address these issues--theatres, actually, like PianoFight, where, in Carl’s words, the audiences are “loud, raucous, and quite frequently (though not always) inebriated.” Not that drinking’s the way out of this particular hole, necessarily, but the sentiment is there: break all the boundaries, examine everything, and see what’s left. This, however, is the realm, mostly, of small companies, who are flexible and nimble enough to sample the latest Hot New Thing. Sure, ACT can allow drinks in the theatre, but it traffics in opulence and, somewhat, in familiarity. If you take the dress-up out of the affair, it loses something irretrievable and essentially valuable to that particular type of theatre. And even Berkeley Rep, the new-play-presenting brother company across the Bay, may do new organic work drawn from the community. They may even commission the stage version of American Idiot, complete with punk-rock craziness and the director that brought Duncan Sheik to a stage near you. But I promise you it’ll be a different (not quantifiably better or worse, necessarily, but different) experience from the inebriated experiences of PianoFight.

A study by Theatre Development Fund in New York (runner of the TKTS booth, but also a substantial research engine for arts nonprofits) recently noted that while theatre attendance is on the decline, overall audiences are actually more likely than ever to pay the exorbitant price of a Broadway ticket--once or twice a year. It’s a special event, often done at the same time every year, wrapped in amidst splurges like a nice dinner and a dress-up date. It is theatre as an event, and I think that’s fabulous. The downside, however, is that theatre as an event is special in the same way that the hush puppies I experience when I visit my parents in North Carolina are special: delicious, decadent and available for a very limited time. If I had hush puppies every day, well…you get the idea.

Where Carl wants to get to, I think, and it’s a noble place to be searching for, is a place where some portion of the theatregoing audience is going for a more, dare I say, minor experience--a little after-work way to blow off steam, less a full entrée, more an amuse bouche. There are only so many momentous events one needs in a day, a week, a year. Carl talks about how Shakespearean plays were originally done before rowdy restless groundlings.

I should also say, unequivocally, that I don’t think theatre is in a death spiral. I just think it’s changing. The rumblings in the rising generation of leaders are all about relevance, pertinence, theatre for the people. The Neo-futurists, the Civilians, the Rude Mechanicals, the (now separated) Tectonic Theatre Project (and here in SF, individuals and groups like David Szlasa, Banana Bag and Bodice, foolsFury)--we’ve had companies playing with form, function and relevance for years. And now the presenters are starting to follow--gay nights, young nights, pre-talks, post-talks, in-show texting, drinking, audience-driven narrative, Twitter plays…phew. Theatre’s not going to die, it’s just not going to be how it was. And that’s okay.

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At June 29, 2009 at 2:08 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Was speaking more about Free Night and the conversations we've been having, Clay, with a few people over the weekend, and wanted to get your thoughts on this.

At the end of this post, you cite these great companies saying that these are the ones playing with form and content etc and really blazing a trail for an evolution of theater (I agree wholeheartedly and would add local boys Combined Artform and Cassandra's Call into that mix of names).

You have also cited the price of admission as the "#1 barrier to attendance."

Which leads me back to Free Night via this way - if the Neo Futurists, Civilians, Rude Mechanicals and foolsFURY are leading the way, while charging on average $15 for tickets, and, as you say, the No. 1 barrier to attendance is the price, isn't Free Night more geared to the big pomp and circumstance dress-up companies who charge $60-$100 for a ticket?

At June 29, 2009 at 9:16 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Hmmm, I think there are two things to address there. The first is that small companies, by and large, can keep their prices low because they have lower overhead -- I think, for example, that all of those companies I mentioned are nomadic, so don't have space overhead, staff overhead, etc. They tend to pay their actors less etc. It's interesting, actually -- I just heard Steve Cosson speak at TCG, and one of the things they're grappling with is that they as a company have stayed fairly small, but their expenses continue to rise (and their income is stunted by the fact that they often have to be co-produced). They're looking into alternative money streams, etc. As companies get larger, the financial reality sets in -- which is part of the issue. It's not simply that we've priced ourselves out of the market -- it's that our overhead is so high compared to the number of tickets we can possibly sell in a night that there's only so far down in price we can go.

To address your other question...Free Night, honestly, is for anyone who wants to participate -- and the large companies do participate at a larger scale, since they of course have more tickets they can give. But because part of the issue is that we want to get already-attending theatregoers to attend MORE and DIFFERENT theatre, the incorporation of smaller companies is actually really important to the program. And the truth is, the peripherals of Free Night (the publicity for the companies, the level of outreach, etc) are more valuable for the smaller companies who couldn't necessarily spare the publicity budget.

At June 30, 2009 at 11:17 AM , Blogger PianoFight said...

Matthew Quinn's crunched some numbers and has some questions and more thoughts on all of this back the the PianoFight blog.

At June 30, 2009 at 8:29 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

I've responded at PianoFight.

At July 2, 2009 at 4:13 PM , Blogger Unknown said...


I'm not sure if this is the right place to post this. But PianoFight was very gracious to let me put up my reply to your last post regarding FNOT here :


Matthew Quinn

At July 2, 2009 at 4:21 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Here's it with HTML

At July 9, 2009 at 2:54 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Hi all, we've been having some trouble with the comments function, so this is mostly a test. One note if you're trying to comment (and please do!) -- we don't allow anonymous comments on this blog, so you're going to have to login with one of the following: Google ID, LiveJournal ID, WordPress ID, TypePad ID, AIM ID, or OpenID. If you don't have any of those, the easiest thing is to create a Google ID at It's free.

At July 13, 2009 at 12:39 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre, has asked me to post this comment for her:

I've been teaching theatre at CSU East Bay in Hayward for almost a decade, and I take students to see plays at local theatres each and every quarter. I've taken hundreds of students over the years, the vast majority of whom are non-majors taking the non-major GE courses I generally teach (such is the lot of junior faculty). Easily 75% have never seen a professional theatre production when they enter my classroom. So I think I have some measure of understanding of how non-theatregoers think about theatre.

I've never, ever seen the level of unease or insecurity that Clay speculates about. Honestly-- never, and I get students from all sorts of
backgrounds-- older people returning to school after years in the workforce, freshmen newly out of suburban high schools, freshmen newly out of extremely rough inner city schools, kids new to America, etc etc etc.

I have, however, heard quite a bit of resistance over the years. Here's what they bitch about, worrry about, and stress over when they find out attending theatre is part of the class:

1. That it will be long, stuffy, and boring.

2. That it's a pain in the ass to get there-- to find it, to figure out which BART station to use, to park. I think when something seems like it wont' be fun, getting there seems like a much bigger pain in the ass.

3. That it will cost a lot of money.

4. That they won't understand WTF is going on-- that it will be over their heads. (see #1)

In my experience, people care far less about fitting in and acting properly than they do about being bored to tears and charged an arm and a leg for the privilege. Guess what? I HATE THAT TOO. It's one of the main reasons I make theatre-- to combat that perception of the art form.

I don't think encouraging people to be loud or participatory, or letting them eat pizza and drink beer while watching the play, are answers in and of themselves. I think they can be fun add-ons, but not at all
necessary-- not at all.

The answer is simple, but simultaneously hard to swallow and painful:
Too much theatre is fucking boring and overpriced. End that perception (and the reality it's based upon) and people will come back to the theatre, whether they have to stay quiet and sober or not.

People like fun. Theatre is not medicine-- you shouldn't see a play because it's good for you. There's a reason why we call it a "play." So let's play.

At July 22, 2009 at 10:51 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Lana with Rude Mechs (Austin, TX) here addressing cheap tix and overhead 'cause we were mentioned as not having a space. We run a 10,000 sf performance warehouse space (5K is active right now, 1400 sf are undergoing renovation this summer and the rest will get renovated when money comes in... years from now). Five of the six artistic directors serve as admin staff, plus we have an outreach program director for Grrl Action - a year-round mentoring program we run. We keep our ticket prices affordable (every thursday and sunday are pay-what-you-can) because we would NEVER make a play we couldn't afford to see ourselves, and because we really do believe everyone should have access to the arts, regardless of their economic status. Our annual budget ranges from $300K to $450K depending on the year, whether there is touring involved, how many productions we mount, etc.

At July 22, 2009 at 11:06 AM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Hi Lana,

I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to imply you didn't have a space -- my original mention of you in the post was actually not about space or lack of space. Instead, I was touting Rude Mechs' incredible ability to do theatre that I called "relevant, pertinent theatre for the people" -- and in this case I'm not just talking about the pricing structures and outreach you mentioned in your comment. The work you did live-broadcasting your rehearsal process (see discussion of this, and maybe archives although I'm not sure, at the New Play Development Blog at is fascinating to me both because it is absolutely egalitarian and because it's so behind-the-scenes. I'd be interested to know how that went, how many watched, and how it informed both the creation of the work and the response to it.

I do also want to ask, based on your comment -- given your low prices and commitment to that, I assume that you have a fairly uneven contributed-to-earned income split. Is that the case? And how are things going in this new financial reality?

At July 22, 2009 at 11:24 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

No worries about the space thing - my intent was just to say we do have cheap tickets, and a space, and staff overhead - and all of the small to mid-size producing theaters in Austin pretty much do the same. It's a different economy here, for sure. And to answer your question, yeah, our unearned is usually around 60%. Our earned income sources include ticket sales, space rental (although we keep rental rates low because it's important, and because our space is a hole), and workshop/touring revenue when we go out (once a year or every other year). We have pretty much zero private foundation support down here. City of Austin funding is critical - really critical... and we're afraid for it. It all really does hang by a thread and we pay ourselves absolute crap as admin staff so we can keep it going.

About the livestream of I've Never Been So Happy. We were a little freaked out because we were working with UT students - who were awesome - but with whom we'd never worked before. So we were developing a play in front of whoever wanted to watch, on an ensemble of strangers, many of whom have never worked like that before. It was like showing your panties every day. I don't think more than 25 people seriously logged in and watched. We did have someone watch the presentation at the end of the workshop and chat in a question for the talk-back, which was bizarre and great. For me, the scariest part is that we create this work to be viewed LIVE and in person. We all know how horrible it is to watch a play on video, how much you miss. I think work can definitely be built for live-streaming, but we weren't doing that for the workshop - we were trying our best to forget it was happening so we could get the work done without self-censoring. I think people were probably curious at the idea of getting a behind-the-scenes look, but once they logged in they were probably bored to tears.

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