On my own blog some time ago I wrote about smaller and regional theatres being considered “minor league” in the pejorative sense and the broken ideas around that vocabulary in a post called “Is this Heaven, No It’s Iowa”.
The happy upbeat ending for those of you too good to click through is the idea that rather than everyone trying to cram themselves into the most expensive cities on the continent to learn how to create professionally in the most expensive, least hospitable creation conditions we can muster, they find a comfortable place they like living with people they like creating with and get really good at being on stage rather than auditioning. Then rather than shipping all of our raw materials to population dense urban areas we can ship product.
A few generalities:
- Our larger, resource rich institutions cannot afford the risks of raw development and our smaller nimble indie and mayfly companies don’t have the resources to pay a living wage
- There is a general feeling that the theatres more on the ‘product level’ end of the scale below lack artistic ambition.
- There is a general feeling that theatres / companies on the ‘raw research’ end of the spectrum lack aesthetic polish and have an uneven talent pool.
- There is an audience perception that theatre outside of New York is ‘less than’ (else the question “Why don’t you move to New York?” wouldn’t be the frustrating runner-up to How did you learn all those lines in the cliché’-a-thon.
- Universities have been removed entirely from this spectrum as players at all in the development or production of new plays.
- Resources are disproportionately deployed in dense urban areas.
This is the spectrum I’m working off off when I say ‘spectrum’. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for by existing.
You have a thousand complaints about my generalities and the spectrum (and they’re mostly fair) but they’re a working set of assumptions so let’s talk about the ideas first and you can fix the specifics later.
There is no system in the theatre ecosystem. Every branch of this ungainly beast is trying to perform every function. Without enough resources to go around we need to improve communication and eliminate redundancies. This is actually why I remained supportive during the (over)heated discussion around Arena Stage’s submission policy. I think that finding a pod of like-minded, vetted partners to funnel texts and writers to development-minded venues who then pass off other texts and writers to producers is the dream not a betrayal.
But development folks talk to development folks, producers talk to producers, presenters talk to presenters, and the universities talk to almost no one. We need to at least smudge the lines. Let me spin a tale. It is, as most of my theatre pipe dreams are, a tale of relationship and communication.
My platonic ideal of this system rests on a foundation of dynamic local creation.The larger theatres in a given town, having a relationship with the local creators, curate their second spaces (oh hello #neverbedark) with shows that they love. The indie and fringe companies get a longer run to bash out problems in the text or production, broader exposure and they get to build a following of their own. The audience gets a chance to see more locally created theatre. The larger theatre get a low cost production in their second space that didn’t eat up all the available man hours of their staff.
And the world gets a play with a history ready for bigger things.
A forward thinking university could easily step into this sort of system and ask a new / fresh play to be brought in under their auspices for a semester of development (with the artists being paid as guest lecturers) with a production at the end of term.The students get hands on experience with development.
This sort of system eliminates the world premiere on Broadway. I have no solution for that. There is no cure for premier-itis. But the topical cream has to be narrative right? “This is a show that was born in the basement of a church in Austin into FronteraFest. After two and half weeks of buzz it got picked up and played for 5 sold out weeks on the second stage at [larger local theatre] and now it’s at a regional with some of the original cast and some actors local to the regional theatre. Regionals talk to other regionals and to the NY NFP’s…. and there may be life after closing for more new plays.
What do we get?
- Relationship between resource strata.
- Vetted plays we know have an audience.
- Spotlights on smaller local companies and local performers.
- Discussion on the order of prospect discussions in sports whether or not X theatre will have the space to call up that show from Austin we loved.
- More full productions of new local work
Is this how we’re going to populate a Broadway of the future? No. I don’t think so. But the product end of the spectrum needs vetted productions, they need sure things. So let’s make them. When Broadway says there aren’t sure things to fill those spaces for even limited runs let’s hold their feet to the fire with specifics. Let’s have a breadcrumb trail of audiences and artists banging the drum for the next Ruined that doesn’t even make the transfer. Let’s ease some resources down the development chain and let’s slide the overpopulation of talent in New York back to regional and micro regional hubs and keep creating truly great art on a community level that can be elevated to greater attention when it’s ready.