Thursday, May 27, 2010

What About Them, Indeed?

Steven Leigh Morris offers an addendum of sorts to his April, 2010 LA Weekly cover story, "Why Theatre Matters" (see my response to that original article here) and all I can say is, "Good on you, Steven."

I forgot to acknowledge Morris properly in my initial response, but the man is to be commended for getting people talking.  It's not easy, putting yourself and your opinions out there and Morris certainly has a much bigger soapbox than li'l ol' me.  So I hope my criticism of his opinions and ideas aren't construed as a criticism of his fortitude.  Call it ass-kissing if you want, but we are very fortunate to have a guy like Morris covering the LA Theatre Scene, such as it is.  He obviously cares, and he brings a unique viewpoint to the table.

And you know what else?  He's right on the money in this latest article:
American behemoths of commercial theater, from Neil Simon to Christopher Durang, have openly expressed the influence that the decidedly noncommercial but fiercely respected Samuel Beckett had on their work, and the works of generations that followed. If our experimental wing is clipped, and we grow to depend only on what is popular in order to define what is relevant, we are actually consigning the art form to inevitable, eventual irrelevance. (Read: abject boredom.) Because it's risk that moves the art form forward; popular theater, and the economic imperatives that create it, have by definition an aversion to such risk.
We need to cultivate an upwardly-mobile meritocracy in Los Angele Theatre.  I believe we know this, and I believe we are working on this.  I know playwrights who have taken their successful Under-99 to Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway.  The Ford has their partnership productions, giving a leg-up to Under-99 companies who do good work.  And who knows what other programs exist that I just haven't come across in our jumbled, disjointed, industry-obsessed community?

I believe in the importance of the audience, but I don't believe that working for The People In The Dark is necessarily the same as chasing popularity at the expense of relevence.  Au contraire, it would be a sad world indeed if Nunsense was the only show going.  There is a need for innovators and early adopters in ANY industry.  Those are the entrepreneurs, the experimenters who seek out unexplored or under-explored territory.  More and more it becomes apparant to me that the Under-99 world MUST serve this purpose in Los Angeles, just as the Off-Off-Broadway world serves the same purpose in New York.

Morris goes on to write about LA Stage Alliance. Thank you!  I came out of my chair back in April when Morris decried the lack of an LA Theater Chamber of Commerce, having just attended a meeting with LASA regarding their work on PatronManager.

Finally, Morris ends by saying "How can the arts be part of the quality of our life? This is a question that's far more profound than filling theater seats or arguing that if it's good enough for the Pantages, it's good enough."  I believe that the Profound Question is intimately related to the problem of filling seats.  I believe if you answer one, you'll have the other well in hand. 

If it is a fool's errand to pursue popularity at the expense of relevency, then surely it is just as foolish to pursue relevency at the expense of popularity.  And here I rely on a far more archaic definition of "popular," "of or relating to the general public."  Theatre without an audience is no theatre at all.  We ignore this basic, fundamental fact at our peril.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Map Is Not The Territory, But Good Luck Hiking Without One

Yesterday I posted some rather random observations and a couple of theories from my trip to New York.  I went Googling for some sort of confirmation or falsification of my hypothesis:  That Broadway is theatrical tourism.  Right away I located the Broadway League, and their research report, "The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2008-2009."

"In the 2008—2009 season, approximately 63% of all Broadway tickets were purchased by tourists." That's nearly 8 million of the 12 million tickets sold. By way of comparison, Disneyland had total park attendance of about 16 million in 2009. Theatrical tourism, check.  I'm sure this point could be researched further, but I'm satisfied to move forward.

I blogged not all that long ago in response to Rick Culbertson's blog regarding "Good vs. Quality," picking out a comment someone left Rick:
A better analogy would be between Off-off-Broadway and L.A., in which case the two are comparative because of the variables. Indeed, off-off-Broadway (SMALL 99 seat theaters) provide a starting point. As shows move up the theatrical chain, and money is applied, they can transfer to off-Broadway or Broadway.
Wondering if someone had conducted a demographic survey of the OOB world, I found the New York Innovative Theatre Awards Off-Off Broadway Survey Program.  I haven't had a chance to fully process all this, but some interesting facts from their reports:
  • 84% of companies rent various locations, rather than find residence in one location (11%) or own their own place (5%).
  • A plurality of companies (22%) have production budgets of under $5,000.
  • A plurality of the companies (33%) produce 2 plays a year.  The next highest percentage (29%) produces 3 to 5 plays a year.
  • OOB plays run an average of 14 performances.
  • 56% of the shows produced are new works.
This is all very revelatory for me, and confirms both first-hand observation and sinking suspicions.

I heard an economist recently who pointed out that a wrong map is worse than no map at all. For instance, if you're lost in New York, depending on a map of Chicago to right yourself is futile, perhaps even destructive. Looking at the information provided by the New York Innovative Theatre Awards and the Broadway League, I can only half agree. If I kept my nose pressed into the statistics out of New York, oblivious to the scene in Los Angeles, yeah, I'd be screwed.

But Chicago and New York both have grid systems.  If I combine my observation on the ground with reference to a similar situation elsewhere--actually look for the similarities and differences--I may in fact better orient myself to where I am.
Friends, I've been president of a Los Angeles theatre company for two years.  We've had fantastic success, and continue to produce good shows that audiences love.  We've also (it seems) been busy reinventing the wheel.  I wonder how many other producers of Under-99 theatre in LA are in the same boat?
One last point about all of this:  It took me no time at all to locate the above information, and to confirm that the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers are too stingy to share their statistical data with the world-at-large (if you have that data, I'd be much obliged if you'd drop me an email).  The fact that it took me no time at all to locate the above information, and that similar data for Los Angeles is not readily available is telling.  (May Dionysus bless the LA Stage Alliance for getting the ball rolling on a survey project of sorts as a side benefit to PatronManager.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I recently returned from a short business trip to New York.  This was my first time to actually experience the city.  Previous trips were spent hanging out at JFK waiting for a connecting flight to Europe.  I posted this note on Facebook today, but as I touch on some theatrical matters, I figured I'd cross post it here.  I will inevitably come back to some of the topics I address.

48 hours is simply not enough time to sample a major metropolitan city. I know that my experience is lacking. I'm not, however, going to let that stop me from giving my opinion on the Big Apple. Pardon my ignorance, New Yorkers. The following are a few observations, first impressions and a couple of theories I developed while staying in your town.

- New York -- what little I saw of it -- was EVERYTHING I expected and more. My "idea" of New York was shaped by many disparate sources: Sesame Street, Serpico, Sex and the City, The Muppets Take Manhattan, etc., etc. It is all of that; a wonderful hodge-podge of inconsistencies. I suppose any big town is damned to be so gloriously varied and self-contradicting. Los Angeles is very much so, as the wife and I mused shortly before I left for the East. Maybe this is just the human condition writ large?

- New York has head room, Los Angeles has leg room. Talking to the receptionist at the office where we had the big business meeting, she runs into people she knows all the time. I've gone weeks without seeing friends. New York is tightly packed, like a European city (reminded me of Paris.) Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis, "72 suburbs in search of a city," as they say.

- Which leads me to a theory: Why is it New York is THE theatre town, and Los Angeles feels like a theatrical wasteland at times? In LA it can take you an hour to an hour and a half to get somewhere, depending on traffic and how easily you find a parking spot. You New Yorkers have an incredible subway system, an easy to grasp grid system (Avenues vs. Streets, in Manhattan anyway) and walk everywhere! In short, it's much easier for a group of actors to get together on the fly and rehearse stuff. It's easier to have a tight-knit community. Our "Theatre District" exists in a bunch of places.

It also helps that Broadway is theatrical tourism. Don't know why that didn't occur to me before. I've known people who go to New York on vacation to take in shows, just like people go to Disneyland for a few days or go on a cruise. Maybe it took standing in Times Square to fully grasp just how massive the industry is. Waking past Off-Broadway houses on my way to Broadway brought home a finer point: There is a pattern of advancement in New York that simply does not exist in Los Angeles. If I want Tracing Sonny or Pin-Up Girls to take that "next step" as dramatic works, it's not going to happen here. What TU does--what all the Under-99s do--is Off-Off-Broadway in a town without an effective Off-Broadway or Broadway.

I gave Steven Leigh Morris grief for missing the point in his article about "how to fix LA theatre." I'm afraid I missed this finer point myself: Yes, it is about the audience, but without some sort of meritocracy in place, where good shows can be promoted to bigger houses, we're pretty much pissing in the wind. So two things: TU needs to establish some East Coast ties, and we need to push the bigger dogs in the local scene to pay attention to what we're doing.

- New Yorkers love their bagels and pizza, yet in spite of all the carbs, there is remarkably little obesity. How so? You folks walk. And walk. And walk. I walk more than your average Angeleno, and I walked more over 48 hours in New York than I do in a typical week in LA.

There's much more to say, but I want to keep this brief. I hope to get back to NY with some frequency (This playwright's eyes are open, brother. There's gold in them thar concrete hills.) But LA is home. Looking out across the Mos Eisley-esque lights of the City of Angels from the window of an Airbus A320, I admit I got a bit ... sentimental. I was also operating on like, three hours of sleep, so if I got a bit misty, chalk it up to fatigue. Nevertheless, it's a great big world full of endless possibilities and limitless vistas. Every now and then it's good to get off your porch and go exploring.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Again, It's About the Audience, or It's About Nothing.

Again, awards are about money. Theater is about the experience—and how that experience stays with us after the rest of the noise fades away.
If theatre accomplishes the latter, the former takes care of itself.  That seems lost on Taylor, who advocates removing any hint of objectivity in awards shows; giving the brass ring to whatever show has the brighter marquee.

What, so we should honor mediocre works with stars so that they'll do more business?  What happens when the buyer's remorse sets in afterward, and the audiences find themselves wishing they hadn't forked over hard-earned money for "Quality, Bad" plays?

Ask anyone in any other industry on the planet what happens over the long term when you trade customer goodwill for fast bucks.  It's about the audience, or it's about nothing, and we should pack up our pageant wagons and roll off into the sea.  If we're not serving The People In The Dark, we're serving ourselves, and only the most depraved would pay to watch someone masturbate.

Friday, May 07, 2010

What Are We Shooting For?

I have spent a fair amount of time catching up on the Los Angeles Theatre Community, of late.  In my second term as president of "L.A.'s Most Ambitious Theatre Company," it seems about time to exercise a bit of curiosity about the landscape.  I've discovered Bitter Lemons, a community-based blog and critical aggregator; I've become more active in my appreciation for the LA Stage Alliance; and I've started reading Rick Culbertson's blog, "Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer."

A post from Culbertson on March 16th of this year, entitled "Good is Not the Same as Quality" has really got me thinking.  There is much food for thought in this post, and if I get the time I'd like to explore some of the issues he raises from the viewpoint of the shoestringiest of shoestring producers (i.e. Theatre Unleashed.)  But for now I'd like to diverge off onto a glancing subject.  Culbertson writes:
The first step is for producers to accept the distinction between quality and good.  It’s hard for us producers to look in the mirror, but we have to.  And we have to do it as businesspeople, not just as artists.

Once we accept this distinction, we then need to come together as producers.  We need to define the parameters of our work, and the goals of our community.  With those definitions in place, we can begin to control our brand, instead of having our brand control us.
Hear, hear.  I had just this argument earlier this year, regarding our production of The Unserious Chekhov (which closes this weekend!  Don't miss it!)  From an email to our Artistic Director:
The lack of money should be viewed as a challenge rather than a full stop.  The moment you decide to look at a problem from the point of view of, "How do I solve this?" it ceases to be a problem.

A few thoughts:

We may be broke, but we're resource rich.  We have an incredible, talented company.  We have an aggressive and effective publicity team.  We have a building.  The creative staff of Chekhov needs to find a way of using what assets we have to their fullest extent before bringing in new, costly assets.

It is possible to "play the obstacles," to take the hindrances and turn them into helps.  Think about this:  How can you use the fact that we're broke to sell Chekhov, to create an overall aesthetic that is exciting and engaging?  I don't know the answer right now.  Maybe it lies in striking a contrast between our scrappy production of Chekhov comedies and a "SERIOUS" production of one of his plays.

We've been toying with a certain aesthetic, a 99-Seat aesthetic that makes the most of what we have and narrows the focus on performance.  This is an excellent opportunity to crystallize some of the techniques we've used thus far into a manifesto of sorts, a 99-Seat Theatre "Vow of Chastity" similar to the Dogme '95 movement.  [...] The point is, the austerity of our productions can be a selling point.
(I'm really pulling back the curtain in this blog. Good thing nobody reads it!)

I am all too aware of the fact that Broadway quality is out of our reach.  Hell, West Valley Playhouse quality is out of our reach.  I drooled over the set for Broadway Bound at the ADA awards last December.  I sent a text to the set designer (an old college buddy), asking him if he'd be interested in joining TU as our Tech Director.  Heh.  His asking price is more than we spent on all of our sets last year (and he deserves every penny).

Production values, schmoduction values.  We concentrate on what we can do:  Write and perform good theatre.  We hit more than we miss, and that's good enough for me.

But -- and here's that glancing topic -- what the hell are we doing?  What exactly are we shooting for in our Under-99's?  What is our brand?

One of the comments on Culbertson's blog struck me:
A better analogy would be between Off-off-Broadway and L.A., in which case the two are comparative because of the variables. Indeed, off-off-Broadway (SMALL 99 seat theaters) provide a starting point. As shows move up the theatrical chain, and money is applied, they can transfer to off-Broadway or Broadway.
I hadn't considered what we do in relation to Off-off-Broadway.  It's a logical step.  From The Back Stage Guide to Broadway by Robert Viagas:
Off-Broadway evolved in the 1950s as a reaction against the rising costs and perceived lack of experimentation on Broadway.  The Off-Broadway theatre movement began in the bohemian section of New York called Greenwich Village (between Houston St. and 14th St.) and spread throughout the city.

In the 1960s, an even cheaper, smaller and more experimental movement called Off-Off-Broadway emerged as complete rejection of commercial theatre.
I hearken back to a conversation I had with one of our company members, a conversation I touched on in the third part of my melodramatically titled "Deadly Assumptions" series.  It's ridiculous for theatre to try to be film.  Perhaps, then, it's ridiculous for an under-99 theatre to try to be the Ahmanson.

Here's a well-worn passage from Peter Brook's The Empty Space.  I'm going to keep quoting this until someone tells me to knock it off:
It is always the popular theatre that saves the day. Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is only one factor that they all have in common -- a roughness. Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that's not in a theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theatre in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes -- that one generic term, theatre, covers all this and the sparkling chandeliers too.
Maybe it's not enough to merely embrace what under-99 theatre is.  Maybe it's necessary to reject what it isn't.  Find strength in the Off-off-Broadway tradition and see where it takes us half a century later.  Say, "To Hell!" with sparkling chandeliers -- with even the remote hope that one of our under-99 productions could ever cross over into a mighty Equity-LORT production.  Buckminster Fuller wrote, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."  Also, "lort" is Danish for "shit."

I need to let these thoughts stew for a bit.