Just What Are We Supplying?

03.04.11 | 6 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, audiences, conversation starter, ideas, non-profit theatre, rabble rousing, supply / demand, theatrical ecosystem

Supply, Demand, and Quality in the American Theater
Or, Just What Are We Supplying?

NEA chair Rocco Landesman’s comments at the recent Arena Stage New Works convening – that we have a supply and demand issue in the American Theater, and that we should consider decreasing supply – has started a welcome controversy in the field. Thanks to Mr. Landesman for pissing people off, and sparking a much needed conversation.

I think that labeling the current crisis a supply and demand problem is slightly off target, but perhaps close enough to get out some more critical, considered ideas about the state of the field in the midst of this current economic climate. The biggest danger with this reductionist label is that it simplifies the situation, and perhaps guides us astray us in our response. But it’s not a bad place to start.

So, supply. There are two areas where I agree with the notion that there may be too much supply in the American Theater – or at least that we are in danger of supplying too much of something. I expect my comments will piss off some of my colleagues and perhaps even close friends, but I write these things in the interest of the health of the field – because I feel that live theater is critical to a healthy culture in many ways (articulated ad naseum elsewhere…).

First, what is the goal of your theater work? What is its raison d’etre? If the principal reason for your company’s existence is that you like to make theater, that you enjoy the adrenaline of the creative experience as a performer, designer, director, etc., then please stop. Please close up shop. Or at least, don’t expect larger audiences, more critical response, and greater funding than you are already receiving. You may be enjoying yourself very much, but you aren’t offering something critical to the culture at large. For the field to flourish, we must offer something essential. And we have so much to offer.

Second is quality. Where are you setting the bar for your work? If the bar is low, and yet you argue that your work is just as deserving of audience, of attention, of funding as other companies who are doing rigorous, top quality work, then you are weakening the field, and lessening the argument that can be made for the value of theater in our society. It is astoundingly hard to defend things such as the NEA budget, or the place of arts in education, in our market-driven culture with its very short-term outlook. As a field we can’t afford to present a bowl of lumpy oatmeal and argue that it is a five course Michelin-rated meal.

To be clear, I am not holding myself up as the judge of what good work is. I am not arguing for a specific aesthetic. Nor am I suggesting that Broadway or large regional theaters make better work because they have greater resources and “higher production values.” I am certainly not attacking your work, dear reader. All I know is that I see a lot of sloppy work out there, which turns off audience members not only to one company’s work, but to the theater in general. We can’t afford, as a field, to coddle ourselves and feel self-satisfied because we have done something creative. Whatever the size of our theaters, whatever the type of work we create, we must hold ourselves accountable to a high standard of effort, rigor, and quality.

If nothing else, as a field we need to get better at discussing quality. Because we simply don’t do it very well. In fact, we rarely do it at all. Just passing these pages around the office of my own theater company has caused some uproar — and if within the walls of a close-knit group of committed artists we have trouble telling each other when we aren’t doing our best work, I tremble for the field. Because I can think of no other serious field of endeavor that is less self-critical, that is more wary of feedback and the opportunity for improvement it provides, than ours.

* * *

As for demand, the idea that demand is static is self-defeating, and stupor-inducing. There is no doubt in my mind that audiences can grow. Many things have impact on this, from what we choose to make, how well we make it, and the way we market it, to the way we interact with and educate potential new audiences, young and old alike.

My most gratifying experiences over the years have been impacting those who are not theater aficionados, those who write to me that they’d never thought they liked theater before, but who are now avid fans. But this kind of response doesn’t come simply because a company has good marketing savvy. Much more than that, it is a question of supply. Not only the amount of supply, as Landesman’s remarks, and Econ 101, imply – but what it is that we are supplying. Because to talk about the field in such reductionist terms makes it seem that we are selling one particular product, “Theater.” As if we were all making the same thing. And we are certainly not all making the same thing. But from the audience perspective I suspect we need to do a much better job differentiating the various experiences they are likely to have when they go to a particular show.

We need to think long and hard about the question of whether what we are offering our audiences is of deep, irreplaceable value. What is it about the experience we are creating that absolutely must take place within this medium of live performance? Is it something about the show that occurs on-stage? Is in the framing of the way the audience interacts? The amazing location of a site-specific performance? The post show discussion? Because however we do it, we must create an experience that cannot be easily replicated in another, recorded medium. If we don’t, the vast majority of our potential audience will, quite rightly, stay in and watch something comparable on Hulu or Netflix, on their own schedule, in the warmth and privacy of their own homes.

We also, as theater practitioners spread across the country, need to be more responsive to our audience. This does not mean selecting a season of “crowd-pleasers” or “giving them what they want.” It means finding a way to be in dialogue with our audiences, giving them things that are relevant to them, helping create a space for discourse around topics which are importantly for your locale, your demographic, etc.

This is an on-going process; the needs and interests of the community change constantly, as do theaters capacities and ways of engaging those needs. Many theaters are already doing a wonderful job of this. But many, many more of us need to get better, and there is continued learning to be done for all.

If, through all of this, we can make what we supply better, I believe demand will increase. If we cannot, perhaps we deserve shrinking demand.

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Ben Yalom

Ben Yalom is a founder and Artistic Director of foolsFURY, a physically oriented theater ensemble based in San Francisco. Under his leadership, foolsFURY has recently been hailed as San Francisco’s “Best Theater Company (2008)” by the San Francisco Weekly, “one of the brightest stars of the San Francisco experimental theater scene” (SF Arts Monthly), and awarded the GOLDIE award by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Ben has directed many foolsFURY productions including the world premiere of Monster in the Dark, the US premiere of Fabrice Melquiot’s The Devil on All Sides (which he also translated), Don DeLillo's Valparaiso, the West Coast premiere of Martin Crimp's seminal avant-garde work Attempts on Her Life, and others. In 2005 he directed the controversial musical Bangers’ Flopera with Inverse Theater in the New York Fringe Festival and the New York Musicals Festival (“One of the top three musical of the NY Fringe” American Theater Web; “Outstanding New Musical” Talkin Broadway, Summer 2005 citations). With San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre he directed Naomi Newman's award-winning one-woman show Fall Down Get Up. Ben has also worked with A.C.T., the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, the Magic Theatre, Playground, the Aurora Theatre, and Encore Theatre (San Francisco), and ThÈ‚tre Ange MagnÈtique (Paris).
Ben teaches playwriting and physical performance at California College of the Arts. He has also taught at the Lee Strasberg Institute (NYU/Tisch) in 2009, the La Mama Umbria Director’s Symposium, Stanford University, the National Theater Institute, Vassar College, and the Berkeley Rep School of Theater.
Ben holds an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his fiction, essays and translations of plays have appeared in magazines nationwide. His play The Strange Case of the Jensen Files was produced as part of the 2005 FURY Factory festival of ensemble theater. www.foolsfury.org

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  • Well said.

  • I agree with this comment “If, through all of this, we can make what we supply better, I believe demand will increase. If we cannot, perhaps we deserve shrinking demand.”

    More important, now, is that we need to cultivate new communities and revenue streams to support the supply side and increase the demand side.

    See my Blog post: http://wp.me/pVjZw-78

  • During the meeting I wrote about a few days ago, Eric Booth expressed the idea that one good thing he sees from the current tension around funding for the arts is that it is driving people back to the question of the relevance of each piece of art. I’m just old enough to remember this as a huge talking point of the 60’s into the 70’s. It lost gloss when it was over interpreted to mean that ripped from the headlines subject matter was the only valid topic. Your post brings a more nuanced take to relevance that I appreciate you bringing into the discussion. Eric talked about hoping for a reduction in the notion of art for art sake and an increase in the notion of art for some declared purpose. If we want more brain share from the public, we have to earn it.

  • I agree. No where else in the arts are the creators so wary of criticism and so sensitive to feedback as in the theater. We need to rise to the challenge to create exceptional and relevant work.

    We also need to cultivate new audiences. Instead of just performing for each other in a closed circuit of adequate entertainment, the theater work must prove itself to be relevant in the community, engaging with audiences in the ways that make it unique as an art form.

    Dwindling grant funding makes it very clear that theaters must run like businesses- paying attention to quality, experience, and service. We must meet our audiences and deliver something exceptional, every time.

  • Hi, Ben. Good to see you here. We share a dear friend in common — Donna Oetzel. Funny to find you here…

    To your first point, I offer the following in strong agreement: http://www.suilebhan.com/2011/02/15/its-not-a-supply-and-demand-problem/

    If we are solely or even primarily focused on our own satisfaction as theater practitioners, we are off course.

    To the rest of what you’ve written: I could not agree more.

  • “I can think of no other serious field of endeavor that is less self-critical, that is more wary of feedback and the opportunity for improvement it provides, than ours.”
    That’s the best and scariest bit of your article. None of us want to think that we are part of the “uncritical” but obviously tons of us are. . . Great article. Anything that makes all of us re-evaluate our own contributions is worth chewing on.