Bob McPhail 6:31 a.m., May 19
A message to theatre decision-makers and the audiences they are killing off
By Kevin Six
Yes, kids. The Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse are theatres. They are not the only theatres in town, unless you happen to sell advertising. No, there are about one hundred other theatre companies who would not only kill for the coverage these two behemoths receive, they would do better with it. Yes, I’m burning bridges at the only two theatres in San Diego that pay living wages to actors.
And pissing off all the second-tier theatres who won’t hire me either and are just copying the above mentioned theatres anyway. No, they are. So I lose income from acting and writing. No big whoop.
But in my career, which began in 1977, I’ve worked at exactly one of the top-tier theatres. For one night. I got the Equity minimum of $25 so I stand to lose $1.40 per year for the rest of my life. And that is freeing because the truth costs more than that and I can afford to tell you the truth, theatre decision-makers.
I can now say that the best theatre companies are the ones that actually do bad work. What? No, they’re not trying to do bad work; they are simply taking risks. And taking risks means that some theatre productions turn into steaming mounds of not-very-good theatre. Trust me, I’m working on production now and I can’t get coverage for it even though it has all the makings of a Class-A train wreck (or a runaway hit, we might never know because no one cares about a local phenomenon making scary new theatre right here under the noses of the media-hogging middle-of-the-roaders).
I will draw your attention to another phenomenon who was making excellent theatre when I was just starting out. Evel Knievel. That dude made a living by putting his body through a meat grinder in front of an audience whenever he could. And people came in droves to watch it (and here’s my point) because they knew he was going to fall on his face, slide on his face and ram his face into a truck, bus or statue.
Did you know that Evel Knievel’s son Robbie Knievel regularly does all the jumps his father never could manage and is successful at it 100% of the time? Of course you didn’t! That’s boring! Doing everything right and making it look easy is boring as hell and, in theatre, it’s killing off audiences. Large, medium and small theatres all over San Diego are jumping their mopeds over koi ponds every night except Monday in the form of “safe programming.”
What is safe about boring your audiences to death with the play that the other theatre did just last year? Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Miller, Williams – all brilliant, wonderful, talented playwrights. But they are also as dead! Dead as theatre audiences will be if theatres produce too much of their work. Next in line for killing off theatre audiences if theatre-producing sheep are allowed to make “edgy” (read safe) choices: Mamet, Letts, McDonagh, Shanley. I have nothing against these playwrights. I think they are all brilliant but if sheepish directors, producers and boards of directors over-rely on them, people will get sick of the “new, edgy” same old thing.
And don’t get me started on musicals! I love musicals. I think companies should produce them. I think audiences should see them and I think they should be (to paraphrase Bill Clinton) safe, legal and rare. If not, people will just watch movies and TV, which does all of it better and there’s more to choose from.
But to return to the Evel Knievel metaphor, only a precious few theatre companies are strapping themselves to a machine they have no business riding, pointing it at an impossible number of busses, sticking the throttle open, closing their eyes and just throwing their bodies onto a sure massacre. And audiences have no way of finding them because all the coverage in this town goes to one per cent of the theatre being produced in this conservative little backwater town.
The industrial theatrical complexes wield their power in many forms. Formidable budgets with enough advertising dollars to not only lock up all the prime advertising space but all the editorial space too. Their board members are also advertisers at the large papers so there’s another fear factor. Oh and everyone is scared. Least of all audiences who have to shell out large amounts of cash for mediocre plays. I believe that the less an audience member pays, the better the production. Because the real edgy work is being done by people who neither afford nor fathom a $50+ ticket price.
I could sell tickets to middle-of-the-road crap all day long if I could buy a five-figure advertising contract and guarantee a preview, and a review, of every play I advertise. But that’s not going to make it good. That’s not going grow audiences either. That’s going to make boards of directors happy while everyone waits for (and hopes against) that one kid in the audience to point out that good advertising and promotion doesn’t make a play great. What makes anything great is constant and renewed effort by the lunatic fringe out on the cutting edge. You know, stuff you can’t get grants for because granting organizations say they want “new innovative” programming, but really they don’t want to offend their own boards of directors and funding sources either.
A word on boards of directors. They are the least qualified (as individuals and entities) to run arts organizations. They are nice, generous people to be sure but, in most cases, they don’t write, act, direct, paint, build or, in any other way, create. If they did, they couldn’t afford the giving requirements attached with board membership. They are fundamentally inept at understanding what audiences want. Do you know who knows beyond a shadow of a doubt what audiences want? Box office clerks.
Yes, box office clerks. Most theatres pay no attention to their box office clerks, who deal with the general public night and day and, on their days off, are busy producing theatre that people actually want to see and can understand! Theatre decision-makers, you ignore your box office at the peril of: a) losing your audience; and b) losing your audience to the scrappy young theatrical entrepreneurs you don’t pay enough and who are actually doing the stuff you dreamed of doing when you were a wide-eyed theatrical newbie. Face it, theatre decision-makers, you’re killing the genre and the people you respect least will build the next generation of theatre goers over the steaming corpses you made of your theatre and its audience.
Is new work the answer? Actually, no it’s not. New work is only part of the solution. No, the real answer is engaging the audience by remembering that in most cases the audience does not have an advanced degree in theatre. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to afford the exorbitant prices most theatres charge. That’s the next part of the solution. Lower prices! No, don’t raise prices and then raise discounts. Again, go to your box office, theatre decision-makers, and you’ll see what the general public wants to pay to see theatre.
Movies cost about $12. Twelve dollars for a billion dollar production that is better than theatre because if a person doesn’t like a movie, so what! That person won’t quit going to movies because the risk was $12. If a person risks $60 or $110, he or she might start to take that personally if they keep paying to see boring crap. Lower prices, theatres, and do away with all discounts. Make it easy for your audiences. All tickets on all nights and in all areas of the theatre are $20. You know I’m right. Look at the average ticket price. Take every seat sold: subscriber discounts, senior discounts, preview discounts and the thousands of comps (yes, people, theatres give away thousands of tickets so you will think thousands of people want to see the show) and you will come up with the average ticket price.
That figure is 45% less than you’re charging.
Lower your ticket prices, don’t throw compost on the weeds to make them ranker, quit giving it away and eventually you will build a real audience. Oh, and hire a local playwright once in a while. I happen to know 20 in this town. Do you?