Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Diamond in the Rough

Recently I was reading an article on a blog called The Playgoer about the marketing of theatre. The writer was exploring the marketing of theatre in the age of mass produced culture. Essentially his point was that music, movies and visual art all seem to make their money in mass production. A movie, even an indie film, takes a lot of money to get made, but then can be submitted to festival after festival, licenced out to TV networks, sold on DVD and continue returning on its investments for years. The only theatre works that tend to do this are mass marketed musicals like The Lion King and RENT. How do we compete in a world where we take our culture with us? Where you can send a link to a friend on youtube or hand them one of the earbuds on  your ipod and say "here, this is that thing I was telling you about."
He finishes the article by saying "I'm not saying theatre will die if it can't reproduce itself.  I'm not saying it even can reproduce itself.  But it will basically always be a loser artform in this economy--i.e. this country.  And I mean "loser" in many ways."
As I was reading the article I started wondering if the solution might not be in embracing the difference. What if we thought of our art the way jewelers think of precious stones; the more rare it is, the more valuable it is. In that sense theatre might be the most valuable of all arts becuase the experience is one of the most rare. I like to believe that a theatre performance is a new piece of art every night. Every night the show is different, it grows and changes, the actors bring their emotions and their experiences of the day with them to the theatre each night. Every night something unpredictable and never before seen is around the corner. As a member of the audience you are experiencing something that will only ever be completely shared by the others who are in the room with you on that night. The bond created by the shared experience of going to see a play with someone is something that can't be cheapened by 1 million views online or parodies on SNL. It will never be overplayed on the radio or end up in the bargain bin at the used book store.
We need to find a way to market theatre as the rare jewel that it is. Here's an idea, please feel free to use it. I imagine an ad campaign with the heading "Theatre, you had to be there." The campaign could feature artists, directors, designers, actors and theatre goers talking about some of their favorite, most exciting, most unexpected moments during a performance. The point being, any night something unforgettably wonderful like this could happen, but in order to experience it, you have to be there.


  1. So, initially I really liked your approach of embracing the uniqueness of theatre, and honestly I think that's why so many theatre artists are drawn to it over any other art form. We like its immediacy and fleeting nature.

    However, I don't know that there's mass appeal in the idea of "Theatre, you had to be there." I can see an approach like that backfiring. I think in many ways, theatre is already thought of as an elitist art form, and marketing an experience the public has already missed out on could push them away more, in a sour grapes kind of way.

    Economically, theatre also tends to be elitist because it has to set prices higher than other "mass produced" art forms in order to cover the expenses associated with it's limited durations. Music and movies can set prices much lower knowing they will continue bringing in revenue over a longer period of time. So, theatre ends up being for the rich, while music and movies are "lesser" art forms.

    Anyway, that's the reality I see. I'm sure there are many ways things can be adapted to establish a different mindset for the masses, but it's something that would need to be implemented over a long period of time by a large group of theatre artists. Not impossible, just improbable.

  2. I can understand what you mean, that theatre can easily have a problem coming off as an elitist art form, so on some level the diamond metaphor might not be exactly the right one. And a "you had to be there" campaign could would have to take the exact right tone in order to not sound exclusionary and pretentious. I think there is a way to do it though.
    We certainly can't try to compete with music and film and youtube culture on their turf, we are going to lose. This is not to say that we can't and shouldn't use mass media tools to promote what we're doing, but I think we need to find a way to emphasize what makes us different. We need to find a way to explain to those who have never been, that the magic of a night of theatre is something that can't be replicated anywhere else.
    On that note I also think "pay what you can" nights, industry nights and student rush tickets should all be more widely used.

  3. At the CTAC this idea was explained much better by Roche Schulfer.
    It is impossible to miss anything anymore. People used to talk around the water cooler about a tv show and if you missed the episode, someone would explain it to you, now you just tell that person to go watch it on hulu. It used to be that you set aside time to watch your favorite shows, because if you missed it, you missed it. You don't even have to miss political speeches or sporting events, you can always look it up on youtube.
    In a world where it is impossible to miss anything anywhere, it is still possible to miss theatre. No matter how wonderful and magical a show was, once it is over, it is over. There is something unique and wonderful in that, and something that we should find a way to embrace.