Arms Against a Sea of Troubles

03.16.10 | 14 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, development, ideas, major regional theatre, marketing, non-profit theatre, playwrights, presenting, producers, rabble rousing, social media, theatrical ecosystem

Full disclosure. I am by trade a playwright. I may be an artist-in-residence, producer, sound designer, graphic designer, voiceover artist and marketing department for my own theatre company, which, yes, I co-founded. Those are things I do and can do. But I identify myself as a writer.

With that in mind, you’ll understand why I spent Tuesday afternoon watching, reading and jousting with the Outrageous Fortune discussion hosted by Arena Stage.

If you’re reading this post, I shouldn’t have to explain Outrageous Fortune to you. Odds are, you’re familiar with it from any one of a number of the blogs listed below. In short, it sucks to be a playwright. Also, it sucks to be a major regional theatre. That does lose some of the nuance, but why sugarcoat it? If you’d like a good general overview of the book and its findings–and a rough approximation of the type of conversation–check out Paul Mullin’s coverage of the Seattle stop on their tour.

Before I go on, I would like to point out a pleasing irony. At the start, the authors gave shout outs to various blogs and websites that have been active in discussing and debating the Outrageous Fortune study, including 2amtheatre.com. As the talk continued and people wondered aloud why the theatre world is so slow to adopt new technologies, I couldn’t help but note that 2amtheatre and the #2amt tag didn’t even exist when they started on the book tour, let alone when they started the study.

And what is 2amt about?

2amt is a gathering place for ideas.

Genuine ideas seemed to be in short supply. We heard talk of maybe more open rehearsals or more mass mailings to draw people into theatres. We were told that there were no “one size fits all” solutions that would work. We playwrights were told that instead of letting cost and cast size dictate our stories, we should “write the play we need to write,” no matter how large. We were reminded that bigger is better sometimes, remembering the days of shows with 67 cast members for a straight dramatic play. We kept hearing how the theatre world has been slow to adapt to or understand new technologies and new ways of connecting and communicating. We were told that artistic directors have trouble finding new work and new playwrights.

Me, I need to write plays that will be produced. It’s that simple.

Do I mind a smaller cast size? Not at all. I like the creative challenge of keeping my casts small and my stories economical. Does that mean I skimp on the story? Well, last year at Riverrun, we produced a show that used five people to give a “rough guide to the underworld.” There were approximately 24 characters woven through storylines ranging from the tragic loss of a son to the pitching of a film based on Dante, from a marketing plan for Hell as a vacation spot to the soul of Clara Clemens searching all these years for her father, Samuel. There was a new understanding of Schrodinger’s Cat as well as a love story spanning much of time and space.

That’s only a fraction of the story. Doesn’t sound like cast or cost made much difference, does it?

Process this.

How about more open rehearsals and more mass mailings. “Maybe we should budget for four extra days of rehearsal.” No. Really. Not if the idea is for open rehearsals in that time. And mailings? Just no.

You may find it hard to believe, but most people don’t really want to watch us rehearse. I’ve been to plenty of open rehearsals. The last one I watched was during last year’s Humana Festival. People showed up to visit in the bar, to meet the playwright, to chat with each other. How many? Maybe fifteen. When it was time to go into the theatre, of that fifteen only three people went in, myself included. The other two left within half an hour.

I might be interested in that part of the process, but I come at it with a professional interest, both as a playwright and a producer. Most people see unfinished work, out of context, repeated ad nauseum. They’ll be able to do the lines with the actors when they come back to see the show. If they come back to see the show. That’s not a given. And from the other side, as a playwright, I don’t want an audience to see the work out of context; if I did, I would have written it differently. I want the audience to see the work as it’s intended to be presented. And that’s not even considering how the actors feel about it.

Yes, involve audiences in “the process,” but show them the process of making theatre in general. You can do that easily without damaging the impact of a play or disrupting a working rehearsal. Have craft events where you demonstrate costuming and prop fabrication. Tour the shops. Hold a 360 Storytelling event, which doesn’t just show them the process, it lets them BE the process.

All of these are more interactive, and all of them give the audience members a reason to do more than come to your building and sit. Best of all, the 360 can attract new audience members, depending on where you hold the event.

And yes, that’s a one-size-fits-all idea.

Size doesn’t matter.

We also heard about how we need to go bigger. Okay. How? Why?

Bigger is not the word.


More is what you want to do, what you need to do. More is what your audiences want. More events, more affordable tickets, more things to do and see. We’ve talked a lot here about the importance of becoming a part of your community. Here is that idea in its most basic form.

Your theatre needs to be a central, social space in your community. Period.

Think about it. How often does your average audience member come through your door? Once or twice a month? Once every six weeks? Is it a matter of price or a matter of scheduling? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get that person more often, to bring them through the door regularly? What if they just dropped by to see what was happening that day?

If I’m only coming through your door once every six to eight weeks, your theatre is not a part of my life.

Only connect.

The theatre world is slow to adapt. Whether it’s new technology, new social media, what have you. This is what we were told.

Tell that to the range of theatres that weren’t big enough to be covered in the study. That may be true of a lot of theatres–and I know plenty of theatres who are several years behind the curve on social media–but it certainly isn’t true at every level. We’ve adapted not because we’ve had to, but because we can. Because it’s easy. Because, in many cases, it’s free.

Resorting to old ideas and trying them again and again, that’s why “we’re” slow.

At the Q&A portion, I asked why they thought theatre was so slow to adapt, pointing out the number of theatres that have adapted but weren’t part of the survey. They didn’t answer the question so much as illustrate it. At that, they were amused by the idea of getting questions from “Twitter,” as if it were some clever robot creature formulating theatre-related questions. They dismissed one question briefly as being “too twittered to answer” just yet.

E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.” That’s easier today than ever before.

This website is proof of that.

So how do we get to more?

One person suggested that major regional theatres have plenty of money in endowments and grants, so they could take risks and lose money. The authors then took up that line of thought, and said no, “there is no room to fail.” You heard that right. “There is no room to fail.”

Two disconnects don’t make a right.

Yes, endowments and grants give major theatres a cushion. But you won’t get anywhere suggesting that it’s all right to lose money. We shouldn’t be talking in terms of “losing money” and “failing.” Instead, we should think about “spending money wisely.”

Right about then, on Twitter, Bilal Dardai posted this quote from Beckett:

If there is no room to fail, then there is no room to try.

What if you could boost your attendance and add more offerings without doing much damage to your bottom line? Better yet, what if those offerings drew different audiences, newer audiences, younger audiences into your building? And what if those offerings led you to new discoveries, new artists, new work?

Put me in, Coach.

I also asked a question about larger companies adopting smaller companies. They’d already noted that in this economy, the companies that are thriving most are the smaller theatres. My suggestion was that larger regional theatres might consider adopting and hosting smaller theatre companies in their auxiliary spaces as a sort of “junior varsity.” This would be a way for audiences to have more choice. It would be a way for the larger theatre to discover new playwrights and new work. It would also, in many cases, be a way to attract new and different–and younger–audiences into their building. So why not try that?

Well, theatres might not be looking for collaborators, and the smaller companies might not produce at the same level of quality expected in the larger theatre. Or they may have quality but not the same kind of vitality as the larger theatre.

I didn’t say anything about collaboration. I also didn’t imply anything about the relative quality of either company. I simply asked, why not host smaller companies? Some theatres already do–Arena, the Public, Steppenwolf, A.C. T. in Seattle. The Late Seating at Actors Theatre of Louisville does this to a limited extent.

Consider this. You’re a major regional theatre. You’ve cut your budget, which means cutting shows, programs, etc. But you still have a black box. Invite some local professional quality companies to play there. Don’t charge them rent, but take a small percentage of the box office. Advertise them along with your season–making a clear distinction between who produces what. Allow them to advertise freely to their current audiences.

What does that do? It supports theatre artists living and working in your community, it allows them to thrive. It gives more people more reason to come through your doors. It puts more events on your calendar. It allows for lower production costs and, depending, lower ticket prices which in turn attracts more people. It lets you get to know new playwrights and new work, and it gives that work a certain seal of approval for other theatre companies to take seriously. You’re a partner, not a parent.

Cooperation, not collaboration.

Yes, you’ll want a say in what’s produced in your building, and that’s only fair. Join the smaller company’s board, let them know you have a stake in their success. But beyond that, let the smaller company run free.

Look at the Steppenwolf Garage. You could have that kind of excitement in your space. You really could.

There’s your more. There’s your space as the beating heart of your community.

The tip of the iceberg.

I’ve heard that running a major regional theatre is like steering a large ship. You keep your hand on the wheel, and you keep it steady. Which is a lovely image. But a large ship is hard to steer, and some of us who think analogies through can see icebergs ahead.

Given the so-called 3-5 year process of developing a play, you’d think they’d have time to steer.

This little collection of ideas is only the tip of the iceberg. Better yet, after suffering the slings and arrows of Outrageous Fortune, think of them as arms against a sea of troubles.

And yes, 3-5 years is the time frame we heard about today. This is why some theatre is less relevant to today’s audiences. That’s a longer lag time than animation. It’s also, again, why some theatres appear to be slow.

The audience is out there. They’re not looking for transparency and a look at our precious process.

A window is transparent. A door is open.

Let’s welcome them in.

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David J. Loehr

David J. Loehr

Writer / Producer, The Incomparable Radio Theater :: Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana :: Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt :: Panelist, The Incomparable podcast :: Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.
David J. Loehr

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  • ericziegenhagen

    In addition to Steppenwolf, the Guthrie in Minneapolis is another example of a larger theater co-producing and sharing its space with other companies:

  • Really enjoyed this post. Love the point about rehearsals being both pretty boring and often necessarily protected.

    I didn't watch the conference, but your note about them being amused about getting a question from “Twitter” struck a chord. I can't prove it, but it feels to me like the disconnect illustrated in that exchange is sort of a fundamental issue here. What amuses me is that it's sort of frustrating to be on this side of that disconnect, but I'd much rather be over here than over there.

  • djloehr


    Yes, the disconnect in that moment was a perfect illustration of the difference in cultures. They see these new methods of communicating, as amusements. We see them as vital ways of connecting with other artists, other audiences.

    Why, one could even develop a virtual theatre company of people spread around the world…

  • maxepunk

    And say… create phone plays? Shows that at their core include an online element?
    Hmm.. Who would do these things?

  • Is there a balance between “Open Rehearsal” and slamming the door shut when rehearsing?

    Maybe just leaving the door open? Is it so fragile that leaving the door open would ruin a show?

    I'm not a fan of Open Rehearsals or Audience Talkbacks. I am a big fan of keeping rehearsals open, or rehearsing in the open, and talking with audiences. But if we're to leave the door open, it has to stay open, not just at the properly appointed times.

  • djloehr

    Good question. I don't know.

    I don't know that it's a matter of being fragile. But I really don't think there's any serious interest in watching open rehearsals.

    Think about the extra features on a DVD. They're fast, sharp, efficient little documentaries. If there were a raw, unfiltered look at their “process,” say three hours in the middle of filming one day, you'd skip to the next feature. It's just not that interesting. And that's in the comfort of one's own home.

    There's no harm in the open rehearsal, and yes, it might be worth seeing if the full open-door policy would work. On the other hand, if I go to a restaurant, I may be curious to see what they do, I love watching Iron Chef, but I don't want to taste my dish when it's half-baked. And I don't expect them to offer that.

    We need to open the door to let them in the building, we need to give them reasons to come in and see what's going on, but we don't have to open every door in the joint…

  • I walk past martial arts studios all the time that have widows you can look in or monitors in the window showing what's going on inside. I also always see people waking by stop and check it out. Not everyone stops, but enough do.

    I don't think any of them would watch an “open dojo”, but I've seen folks come back and sign up.

    I think there's an analogy there worth exploring. We've rehearsed in parks before and people would be curious and ask questions later. Sometimes they've come to see the show just because of that.

  • There's also a clear reflection in the openness or not to open rehearsals in the kind of rehearsals you're having and the kind of process you create through.

    Theatre “members” (a self selecting group of dedicated theatre goers) would be very interested in a process based rehearsal like we watched on the Saturday night of the Devised Work Convening… and they (and I) would never ever want to watch a blocking rehearsal or an iterative fix-the-line-reading rehearsal.

    They would also be interested in second circling some table work and dramaturgical and design presentations like Kate Foy mentioned.

  • djloehr

    Fair enough. Most of the time down here, when companies do “open rehearsals,” they are usually blocking and reblocking, running one scene over and over. A year on, I still have one whole scene of “Absalom” in my head. (Good thing I really liked the play.) But that's what I think when I think “open rehearsal.” That's what turns people off.

    But working in the open air is different. Being the second circle in a table read would be a lot of fun, it's just a variation on going to a play reading as it is. And yes, I think those kind of events would draw more interest.

  • Man. I don't want o go to my OWN blocking rehearsals…

  • I don't think I've had a “blocking rehearsal” as a director in a decade. There are few things that I'd more gladly chunk aside.

  • trishamead

    There's a really useful distinction you point out here: The passerby. In both the dojo and “rehearsing in a park” situation you have people stumbling accidentally upon a free spectacle that they can watch some or all of, and then move on without disturbing the participants or implying a judgement of the quality of what is being seen.

    I personally LOVE that kind of engagement… just like, as David suggests, wandering through a busy kitchen on the way into a restaurant can be a thrill.

    The difference is that the accidental audience gets a moment of discovery (rather than a formal invitation), has an element of anonymity (because of the glass window or the generally “public” nature of the park) and has the freedom to move on whenever they feel like it.

    Contrast that to an open rehearsal with an invited audience who is expected to stay for a specific duration of time and can easily assume that their decision to leave is being interpreted by the artists as a sign of boredom or disinterest. Totally different scenarios.

    So… How could we create opportunities for a “casual theater discovery” (in addition to the “rehearsing in a park” idea)?

  • That's exactly how the 360 worked. We were out in the community instead of locked in our space, people stumbled upon it and were curious, could listen in and yet didn't feel like they were intruding or interrupting a “rehearsal.” Then they joined in when they realized they could. Those people, who'd never been to a show here, they bought tickets on the spot for our next one.

  • Really like this train of thought.

    And, while I don't have a comprehensive answer to offer — and rather think that it will depend on the context of the organization anyway — I would like to suggest that pushing this idea forward could (maybe should?) happen in both the physical domain and the digital domain. Or, heck, even a mix of both. (If you can't get people wandering through the building itself, could you funnel an A/V feed to some location outside the building? A little observer station next to the box office? People could take a peek and come and go as they please?)