Friday, March 28, 2003

Stagesource Town Meeting

"Dramatic Possibilities," read the program for the Stagesource Town Meeting on March 10th, but somewhere between Jeff Poulous's inspiring opening statements and the start of the panel discussion, that title would show an insidious, double-edged nature.

Despite the listing of the numerous new theatre spaces which will appear in the next year or so, (and the optimistic introduction of the six panelists, all of whom are involved in some of those projects,) the meeting could not shake the feeling that something terrible is going to happen. Questions were asked and answered very tentatively, as if the panelists were waiting for somebody to swoop in and take their new theatre space lest they give the wrong answer.

Indeed, something terrible may happen very soon, and it going to have an effect on our nation and economy. Being the artists that we are, our concern is, "how is this going to affect us."

A few years back, Ben Cameron, Executive Director of TCG, stood on the stage of the Huntington and delivered a message about Value to virtually the same audience. Mr. Cameron is a powerful and articulate speaker, and many were impressed with his exhortation that theatre must be able to articulate its value to the community in order to increase market share. He also supplied a firm slap in face by informing us that, "the excellence of the art that you create does NOT count as value."

I remember being intrigued and confused by his remarks. On the one hand, I tried to accept it as practical and sound business advice. On the other hand, I was seeing it as an order to start trying to play to the masses. However, I think that Michael Maso, Managing Director of the Huntington Theatre Company, was able to clarify it at Monday's meeting by saying that companies need to find the community where they are valued and strengthen their relationship within that community. This seems like an easier pill to swallow, but it is not going to make it any easier for us to digest. What it means is that we can survive, but not everybody is going to be an IBM or GE. Or in the case of Boston's theatrical landscape: Not everybody will be an ART or a Huntington.

Two years ago we were wondering how to get more people interested in theatre, now it seems that we will be fighting over the division of what currently exists. Ben Cameron provided the springboard into this fray as well when Barbara Grossman introduced the Panel Discussion with the thesis of Mr. Cameron's current essay in this month's American Theatre in which he asks, "Are there too many theatres?" In the article he again asks a hard question - Have we saturated the market to the point where some theatres will simply fail? Prove your value, or die.

I am sure that Ben is a lover of theatre, but I think he belongs to a masochistic division of us who constantly question our relevance. One is reminded of the writings of Robert Brustein, who, in a life-long love affair with theatre has seen and reviewed productions from one end of the earth to the other. If you read any of Mr. Brustein's many books you will find, after all of his artistic introspection, he has come to the conclusion that 98% of theatre falls into the abyss which lies beneath the chasm between mediocre and outright crap. Statistics may be on his side. Go to any fringe theatre festival and you will probably find that out of the 100 or so productions, maybe ten will be intriguing, and I would guess that only 2 will be truly innovative and gratifying theatrical experiences. Actually, I will even extend the statistic to the work done at Mr. Brustein's own theatre. But more about the ART later.

Oskar Eustis delivered a fascinating keynote in which he talked about the origins of drama, and why innovation was actually at the birth of drama. (Having two people turn and start addressing each other on the stage was a radical departure from one storyteller addressing the audience.) However, Mr. Eustis proved to be no more cheery than Mr. Cameron when he predicted that what we will experience in the next few years is, "a burning-off of dead wood." "Theatres will close," he pronounced solemnly and he went on to cite the example of the ACT theatre in Seattle which is in the process of closing.

It was all disconcerting on the surface. Our prayers have been answered, and all of these new theatres are opening, but we are going to experience a pruning of dead wood? I think Mr. Eustis would have tied the doom and gloom into the good news perfectly if he were to have gone on to elucidate that the ACT is closing despite having recently moved into a new downtown performance space which was supposed to be what they always wanted. This is an organization that is thirty-five years old!!! It's downfall is chronicled a little more in this article in the Seattle Weekly - or here in the Seattle Times:

If one reads further into this month's American Theatre, they will see the account of TheatreVirginia and how they had to make the decision to close while waiting to move in as the resident company in a brand-new performing arts center. Growth does not mean value, and does not mean staying power.

In my day job, I work placing consultants for a very specific, rare, but necessary database. We service one technology, one type of consultant, and a very limited client base. During the IT boom times of the nineties many companies saw all the general needs out there and they went after them. What followed for them was incredible growth. Now, our industry, IT Placement, has suffered incredible hits and most companies have vanished or are on the verge, but we are still safely trucking along. Things are tight and certainly not as good as they used to be, but we are here. Why? Because we have virtually no competition in the world. Our value to the community we serve is incredibly strong and we have never abandoned them.

I think a fitting response to Mr. Cameron's question can be found in American Theatre's profile of the Director of the Roundabout in New York City. Basically, he took a theatre from Chapter 11 to the success it is today, and one of his inside secrets should serve as the battle cry of the value proposition---"SCREW THE SINGLE TICKET BUYERS." It may sound offensive at first, but let it settle in for a bit while we look at the American Repertory Theatre.

I have gone to see their shows on and off for years, and I am quite often stunned by the gushing response they get from both the audiences and the press. For years I wondered, "How can this happen? This is amazingly bad, amazingly expensive, and amazingly pretentious. How can this go on this many years? Why can't they do it right? Why can't they do something I like? I would love to take advantage of their subscription rates, if only there was something in it for me!!!" Suddenly, there is a pause of recognition...And I realize, that they don't give a rat's fart about me. I find no value in their theatre and I show it by not regularly attending their shows. Oh sure, I pop in now and then because something in their dramaturgy lures me there, or one of their expansive, Boston Globe pre-show articles contains a picture of a stunning set that looks like a must see, but in the end, I am an outsider. Why should they want to please me? Why should they suddenly start doing anything different for me? They have legions of subscribers and supporters that have bought their shows hook line and sinker for years. They feed that audience. They give them a great newsletter with fascinating articles about Checkov and Othello, they bring in world name directors, and have some of the most dazzling costumes and set designs. This is a perfect case of their worth not lying in the artistic excellence per se, but rather in the value they have to their community. I am a single ticket buyer. They charge me full price and kindly ask me to drop my comment card in a public wastebarrel on Brattle Street.

During the Open Mike portion of the Stagesource meeting a young woman thanked Michael Maso for the Huntington Policy of 35 and Under Pay Your Age. She said that she was glad that they were doing Breath, Boom because, "not everybody goes to Broadway Musicals." I think the Huntington has very progressive programs for getting young audiences into their theatres, but I think that a provocative follow-up question is needed to the young woman's statement. That question should be, "if you are only going to come to my theatre if I do a play like Breath, Boom, why should I be extending you a special offer?" Or even more provocative, "If you are only going to come to my theatre if I do a play like Breath, Boom, why should I even do a play like Breath Boom?"

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