Monday, October 04, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part one)

 [NOTE: The following is part-one of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation on the Under-99 World in Los Angeles, and to add in a few things I've since discovered.  This is my "The Things We Think and Do Not Say," and it had about the same effect for me that it had for Jerry Maguire.  Enjoy.]

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

Focus. Discipline. An enthused membership base that does not have to be cajoled into doing things. Front of House assignments that never go blank. High production values. Critical acclaim. Packed houses. Industry attention.

Professional and personal fulfillment.

Five years from now, will we still be scraping? Producing hand-to-mouth, depending upon the personal outlay of funds for production budgets? It is not difficult to imagine such a future. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” or so a poet once wrote. It’s not enough to dream big; efforts must be coordinated towards a desirable goal. That is the purpose of strategic planning, and it is what I have set out to do in this document.

It is necessary to step outside the day-to-day, and take a longer view on what we are doing and how we are doing it. To begin, let’s step outside of Los Angeles. 

THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY

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 we kept our noses pressed into the statistics out of New York, oblivious to the scene in Los Angeles, that would be cause for alarm.

But Chicago and New York both have grid systems. If we combine our observation on the ground with reference to a similar situation elsewhere--actually look for the similarities and differences--We may in fact better orient ourselves to where we are.

Broadway is theatrical tourism. I had always heard this, but it took actually going to New York for the idea to sink in. Hungry for some concrete facts and figures to either confirm or falsify the observation, a Google search led me to 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."i That's nearly 8 million of the 12 million tickets sold. By way of comparison, Disneyland had total park attendance of about 15 million in 2008ii. Theatrical tourism: Check.

New York and Los Angeles are very different towns. What drives tourism to Los Angeles is very different from what drives tourism to New York. We don’t have a Times Square, much to the chagrin of the developers behind Hollywood & Highland, LA Live, and other attempts to replicate the magic found at Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Certainly, using Broadway as a similar map would be foolish.
There is, however, a subdivision of New York City theatre from which we may draw inspiration and know-how: Off-Off-Broadway. Off-Off-Broadway shows are produced under the AEA’s “Basic Showcase Code.” This code is comparable to the Los Angeles specific “99-Seat Plan” in one significant way: It applies to houses of 99 seats and less.

Wondering if someone had conducted a demographic survey of the OOB world, a Google search brought me to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards’ Off-Off Broadway Survey Program. 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.iii
This is all very revelatory for me, and confirms both first-hand observation and sinking suspicions.

Under-99 theatre in Los Angeles is capable of fantastic success, if we continue to produce good shows that audiences love. But it seems we often occupy ourselves reinventing the wheel. I wonder how many other producers of Under-99 theatre in LA are in the same boat? It would be wise to avail ourselves of the hard-earned experience others have gained, even in a city as geographically and socially distant as New York. 

MOVING UP THE RUNGS

One interesting aspect of New York theatre is the way in which Off-Off-Broadway can feed Off-Broadway, and Off-Broadway in turn feeds Broadway. For instance, A.R. Gurney, playwright of Love Letters, frequently premieres his plays with the Off-Off-Broadway company, Flea Theatre.iv Shows such as Avenue Q and Spring Awakening made the jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway.v
In his book Theatre, David Mamet writes:
The currency of any new play depends on its reception in New York. If it is not staged in New York, it will not be published or awaken the interest of the stock and amateur theatres from which a playwright might derive continued income. If it is not well received in New York, it will fare similarly.vi
Steven Leigh Morris offers the following observation in a recent article regarding the importance of the audience:
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.vii
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 relevance. 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 apparent 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.

Theatre professionals in Los Angeles need to cultivate an upwardly-mobile meritocracy in Los Angeles Theatre. I believe we (the larger “we” of theatre professionals in Los Angeles) 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. Layon Gray’s Black Angels Over Tuskegee has recently re-opened Off-Broadway after a successful run in New York earlier this year.viii

Locally, the Ford has partnership productions, giving a leg-up to Under-99 companies who do good work.ix Circle X is one such company, who produced Lascivious Something at [Inside] the Ford earlier this year.x Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara made the jump from the stage at Sacred Fools to the Geffen in 2009.xi It can and does happen, and nourishing this meritocracy is as much our responsibility as it is the larger houses. If we do good work, they will take note.

Insofar as advancement based on merit is possible, it is incumbent upon us as a company to pursue it. Otherwise, we are largely wasting our time and efforts. Our productions should have a greater end goal in mind: Participation in Fringe festivals locally and outside of Los Angeles, publication (in the case of new works,) advancement of a play to one of the LORT houses locally or to New York, etc.

Pushing ourselves to reach beyond a four-week run will invigorate our membership and give much needed focus to our overall mission as a company. The status quo has us running in place. What I propose will give us a goal to run towards.

TO BE CONTINUED ...
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iThe Broadway League, The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2008-2009, September 2009, Web.
iiThemed Entertainment Association/Economics Research Associates, 2008 Attraction Attendance Report, April 2009, Web.
iiiNew York Innovative Theatre Foundation, Statistical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets, April 2008, Web.
ivErnio Hernandez, “Cast Announced for World Premiere of Gurney's A Light Lunch at Flea Theater,” Playbill, 11/12/08, Web.
v “What’s Off-Broadway?” OffBroadway.com, 2009, Web.
vi David Mamet, Theatre, 2010, pg. 15.
viiSteven Leigh Morris, “What About the Audience?” LA Weekly, 5/27/10, Web.
viiiAndrew Gans, “Off-Broadway's Black Angels Over Tuskegee Re-Opens at Actors Temple Theater June 5,” Playbill, 6/5/10, Web.
ixKaren Wada, “[Inside] the Ford helps troupes without homes,” Los Angeles Times, 1/24/10, Web.
xCharlotte Stoudt, “’ Lascivious Something' at the Ford,” 4/1/210, Los Angeles Times, Web.
xi Lawrence Vittes, “Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara -- Theater Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, 3/20/09, Web.

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