#Newplay: The Undelivered Rant

02.03.11 | 3 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, audiences, conversation starter, development, ideas, major regional theatre, marketing, new plays, non-profit theatre, playwrights, presenting, producers, rabble rousing, the process, theatrical ecosystem

Indulge me in a little rhetorical drama, I have, on occasion, so indulged many of you.

The USA needs theatre.

We are a potentially free and democratic people, but when the citizens become disenchanted and politically disengaged, we disenfranchise ourselves and cede leadership to those who can tolerate swimming in a political cesspool.

Theatre makes me a better citizen, both by directly confronting me with political and philosophical content and by reminding me of the diverse and powerful ways to be human.

That’s why when I hear Rocco taking declining theatre audiences as an inevitable fact I worry, and when I see a room full of theatre professionals accepting it I get confused. A declining audience means you get to improve fewer people.

By mid day on Thursday, I was angry that we were talking about ANYTHING except how to recruit new audience members. So many of the problems people were raising were driven by tight resources, resources that are only going to get tighter if audiences continue to shrink. I was distracting myself from what should have been an engrossing discussion of new theatrical forms. I saw the need to console myself, and like any man of faith, I took comfort in scripture.

Michael Kaiser describes a four stroke heart beat of arts institutional thriving. 1) Make great art. 2) Market it well. 3) Attract a family of followers and supporters. 4) Accept money from them in order to make more and better art. Repeat.

As you were all talking about improving relationships between artists and institutions, about bringing greater diversity into our workplaces and onto our stages, about exploring new ways to invent theater, on into yesterday talking about partnerships between organizations and technologies to help people find each other to form such partnerships, especially when you were just getting ideas from each other or discovering things you might work on together – through all of that you moving towards making greater art, working on step one, which is crucial and which is your primary role in the whole scheme.

But all of us who love the theater need to devote some of our time, and I know this is much easier for me than for most of you but I can’t let you off the hook, to direct efforts to grow the family. I’ll give you a few ideas:

First, know your audience, I don’t mean broadly and demographically and I don’t mean all of them, I mean some of them face to face by name. Ask them why they came. Ask them why they value the experience. Beg them to recruit more people into the audience. By the way, you’re likely to hear very nice things about your work and yourself during this process, and most of you could use that.

Second, force your way into the marketing of your plays and productions. Make it more likely that what people learn about your play before arriving gets them ready to have the most powerful experience of the art they can have.

Third, some of you and your colleagues write for film and TV on the side. Write some scenes in which characters attend and enjoy a play. Be self serving – write some scenes in which characters attend and enjoy one of your plays. Characters in mass art are role models. Make them model behaviors we need.

Fourth, invent and act on a thousand additional ideas that an amateur like me can’t think of, but get more people into theaters. Pull playmaking and playgoing back to the center of political life, where it belongs in a democracy.

We are here talking about new plays, but those new plays rely on a traditional art form with roots that go back thousands of years. I refuse to believe that we’re going to let it die on our watch.

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Pete Miller

IT and Arts leader, playgoer, board game player, home brewer.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.
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  • Pablo Halpern

    Pete, I was there and I do not think the room accepted Landesman´s edict. Quite the contrary, I sensed that the mood went rather sour. Maybe people were not vocal, but that is a different story.

    It is intriguing that somebody coming from the commercial sector promotes the notion that the NEA should be choosing winners and losers factoring in demand and supply in the arts! The days of central planning economics are gone. But no worries, the NEA does not have the power nor the financial strength to dictate the rules of the game. And yes, the arts need leaders that truly believe that things can change and improve not only marginally but dramatically. We did not see one of those leaders on stage last week. The true leaders were in the audience. This is very good news.

    • Pablo,

      Glad to hear you felt more resistance to the belief that the audience was inevitably reducing in size. I heard people taking issue with Rocco’s proposed response, but mostly agreeing with his base premise. I’m delighted there was more bullish sentiment in the room that I missed.

  • Pete, I am so sad that I’ve only discovered this now. It would have been a boon for my spirits the last few days. Thank you for sharing!