Friday, July 21, 2006

For-Profit Theatre

Andrew Rhodes is giving an insider view of the formation and management of a theatre company in Boston, Mass. About a month ago, he blogged about Non-profit vs. Profit, and the struggle between the two has recurred a few times since. Andrew would prefer to be in charge of his company, rather than being lorded over by "know bests" who would sit on a board of directors and tell him how to do his job. I can't say I blame him.

I'm not sure why theatre "has" to be non-profit. I remember going through, looking at the whole process to establish a non-profit corporation back when the wife and I ran Children's Theatre of the Ozarks in college. In the end, we kept it as a sole-proprietorship because we just didn't want to dump the tidy little profit we were turning in favor of a shot at grant money and the "prestige" of being "non-profit".

There was a time in this country when all theatre was for-profit. Of course, that was back when theatre was more mainstream entertainment (before movies, radio and television.) Oh, to be back in the days of vaudeville!

I think it's possible to recreate a solid, "mainstream" theatre experience. An entertainment value on par with all the other options available (movies, television, internet, etc.) People look at me funny when I say this, but the theatre is more alive than these other mediums. Theatre has the distinct advantage of an instantaneous positive feedback loop, which is a fancy way of saying "live performers". I remember a story about the late great Jack MacGowran, Samuel Beckett's favorite actor. One night during a performance of Endgame, an audience member heckled the cast with something like "This play is so boring!" MacGowran broke character, turned out and yelled back "Yes it is, but it took me a long time to learn these lines, so please shut up and let me get through them!" When was the last time a movie heckled back?

What stumps me is that people will pay $15 for a car wash, but would rather stay home and zone out in front of the boob tube or the laptop rather than go to the theatre for $15. Which has the greater chance of being life-enriching? Okay, L.A. is just shallow enough that a good wash and wax could be a spiritually moving experience.

It's all our fault, really. I have a theory that theatre is where writers now go to send a message. It used to be if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Now its "write for the theatre". Audiences have been clubbed enough times over the head by Susie B. Theme that they eye anyone who does theatre with a mix of suspicion and fear.

Interestingly enough, there has been a sort of resurgence of burlesque shows out in L.A. Scantily clad women dancing around provocatively apparently cancels out the fear of being preached to. Well I say we need to shuffle off the overcoat of "theme" and "significance" and revel in the thong and pasties of fun and . . . well, revelry. We need to give the audience more burlesque-type experiences. We need a freewheeling, belly-laugh, open-arms theatre. We need to transcend the norm and become showmen again!

Please note, I'm not saying we should focus on slapstick or melodrama. I'm not endorsing Cheesey Theatre. I think the mentality of playing to the lowest common denominator is what started the collapse of popular theatre. I'm saying we need to get back to what makes theatre unique and powerful: Life. If we can only reintroduce a living, vibrant theatre to audiences, they'll come back for more.


Do you want to see Saw III or The Cherry Orchard tonight?


Are you kidding? I love Chekhov!

It's not just a pipe-dream. At least, I hope it's not.


Andrew Rhodes said...

The reason most theatres go non-profit is because they can't survive off of ticket sales. Theatre space in Boston is incredible difficult to find. What you do find is impossible to afford. You would have to makes your ticket prices $45 for a small amature production. Forget about trying to get peole out to see an orginal script. The risk is outragoeus.

They recently opened a brand spanking new theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA). It was the first new theatre built in the city for almost 70 years. The rent is 1800 a week for the main stage (seating 142) and 1300 for their black box (seating 90). Plus the deposit, plus the insurance, plus providing crew, and blah blah blah the list goes on and on. The BCA has 4 stages and a space for coventions and art shows and more.

The few small independent tehatre companies survive by using the smaller found spaces around the city fringes. Most asking 300 a night/performance. Needless to say the competition gets high.

I have been lucky enough to begin with children's theatre which has a built in audience. Plus There was an open market for it in this city. There was a lot of theatre for children by children, but barely any profesional children's theatre. So we found our market quickly and in one year have had theatres asking us to come perform instead of begging for space. These are just saturday morning shows. We have drawn crowds from 40-150. Eventually this will help fund our full length shows we plan to produce. But it is always a risk.

The best thing about starting with children's theatre is that we are educating the theatre goers of the future for the price of a movie ticket.

Hopefully the parents will remember what a good experence and notice when we produce full length plays and this time leave the little nose pickers at home.

Pamela Moore said...

I don't mind if the nose pickers come to the grown-up shows as long as they pay full price, sit their asses still and keep their fool mouths shut when appropriate. That goes for adults and kids.

Anonymous said...

Although a little late for this season, I just learned about a great program Alley Theatre has for families. They call it Family Night Out.

I think it is a brilliant idea and I look forward to attending in the 2006 -2007 season. Something like this would certainly help fill the seats, grow a love of theatre in children before they are ready for a full performance, and allow adults a chance to see a show and have educational childcare for a fraction of the cost of a babysitter.

They just announced the Theatre District Open House date - I can not express how thrilled I am. An event like this, that will generate excitement in theatre for the whole family, is so needed in a sports consumed Southern city.