Producing Problem Part One

I’ve got a multiple post set of theories that I want to get down, and this is going to be part one, which I’m calling “Why People Hate Seeing Plays”. In fact, let me see if I can get some HTML behind that.

Why People Hate Going To Plays

As you can see, I changed the title slightly, because I refuse to believe that people hate seeing plays, mostly just that they hate going to them. Here’s why


A play requires a several hour commitment, during which you have to behave a certain way. No, you can’t walk around during it, you can’t receive a phone call, you can’t open a piece of candy, you can’t discuss stuff with your neighbors and you aren’t allowed to pee. There is a strict call for behavior during a show that, in our world now, seems pretty outrageous. You can bemoan all you want about the current attention span or whatever, but you’re itching for a world that you’ve never actually known, so I won’t do that here. Audience members have a two-plus hour commitment to be in this theater, and during that time you are a prisoner to social consequence.

Think about it. If you were sick, let’s say, and your doctor said that he could make you well, but you would have to come to his office at 8 pm and spend two hours there paying attention to his instructions, and by the time you were done you would be well, you wouldn’t go. Right now, if you go to the doctor and have to wait half an hour, during which you are allowed to read or watch TV or talk on your cellphone, but that’s half an hour you’re giving up, you still complain.

We’re just not in a world now where time is something we are willing to give up. You work all day, and then you have a certain number of hours to rejuvinate, and then you have to sleep. Your rejuvenation can sometimes be going to the gym or whatever, but more often than not, we need something that we can be totally passive about. As an audience member at a play, you are expected to participate. I’m gonna address each of these problems later, for now, I’m just going one at a time.

Inconsistent Quality

If you sit down to watch a TV show, you pretty much know what you’re getting. And if you don’t know, chances are you aren’t gonna give something a chance. Again, bitch somewhere else about people needing to be adventurous, they aren’t, they’re never going to be, so I want to deal with what *is*. The fact is, we generally don’t opt for the unknown, we don’t think “Well, I’ve been working all day, I’ve been eating crap all day, I have an hour for dinner… maybe I’ll try that completely forboding unknown Vietnamese place on the corner where the waitresses are all in burkas…”

People have only so many minutes for their evenings, and they don’t want to walk away from something feeling worse than they did going in.

There is an important distinction here, and it might be the only insight that isn’t totally obvious, and that is that people aren’t willing to bet on the unknown, but they really enjoy the challenging, the insightful, the mature. If I were to stick with the sitcom model, then I would say people really enjoyed Cheers and, later, they enjoyed Frasier. Cheers had a tough first year, but the complicated relationship models, the strange characters with real back stories and the misery of constant romantic failure kept people tuned in, the same could be said for Frasier. People like difficult stories, and they like mature looks at the world, they aren’t scared that something will be difficult or unpleasant. They’re scared that it will be bad.


When you look at forms of entertainment, the ability for a person to be able to take in what you are dishing out is dependent on their state of mind. Theaters have theatrical lights and, almost without exception, uncomfortable chairs. These rooms are painfully hot, and the seats are terrible. I avoid seeing Broadway plays because the seats are so terrible. I’m talking about every Broadway theater I’ve ever been in.

On our level, it’s even worse. It’s often metal folding chairs, or sometimes it’s benches or pews. I love the idea of theater as church, but I really don’t want it dreaded as such. At least if you’re in a pew, at some point you might stand up or kneel.

As each show goes on, either the AC is running and the actors have to scream over it, or the AC is off and the theater is sweltering. It’s worse in the winter, when most of the theater going public is in New York, because buildings are heated to the point of loosening soldered joints, and every single person has worn eleven layers of clothes and brought their big ass jacket, all of which has to be kept on their laps. There’s even one theater that has solved this problem by freezing the theater, bringing the temperature down into the 50s, so that by intermission the theater is only slightly warm, and then they re-freeze the theater during intermission.


A large percentage of the people I know complain about how hard it is to produce theater, and about how it costs so much. This is true. We just found out that we lost far more money on our last two shows than we realized. Fleet Week, which was such a success? It will have ended up being the biggest money loser for us ever. And yet…

When compared to other art forms, it’s not that hard or expensive to produce theater. Imagine the money lost on an art exhibit. How much did it cost you the last time you went to look at sculptures and paintings? Each painting on the wall took that artist as much time to create as it took us to create a play, in terms of producing the work. And you walk into a museum or a gallery and there are hundreds of pieces of art, each a singular expression, each being produced at massive cost in terms of time and materials, and each not earning their producers a penny unless it sells.

Movies? C’mon. Our biggest money loss was somewhere around 7 grand. Can you imagine a filmmaker even thinking of the world in terms of $7,000? Ballet? A symphony orchestra? Think about how much money these people must lose.

(As an aside, it’s interesting the way small theater producers look at themselves. We see The Symphony Orchestra or The Ballet as these vaulted artistic worlds, whereas we’re mostly just trolls writing obsessed personal stories, but the truth is, all artists are trolls. I grew up with the symphony orchestra, these people are basically OCD-driven bastards with drinking problems just like we are. We’re all trolls.)

What this means is that a lot of theater is produced on our level. A lot. My mom was saying yesterday “I love going to the theater”, and I said, “It’s Tuesday, I bet there are about 180 shows going up in New York *right now*, and I bet you I could find a show that was less than two hours long that we could get in to for under $10. But you still don’t want to go…” This feeds back into the “unknown” thing. My mom’s answer “I would go, if you could promise me it would be as good as “Hail Satan””. There are too many plays being produced for any one of them to make more than a passing amount of noise.

The Big Hit Myth

Many of the people who are in the theater community in New York made a decision at some point about whether to go to New York or LA. I’m not just talking about actors, strangely, but writers as well. Directors.

As if the film industry, which New York is behind *several* other cities including Wilmington, and the theater community, which Los Angeles is behind most of the other large cities *in California*, are identical industries. As if they don’t require MASSIVELY different skills. I mean, as an actor one could argue that truth and motivation and whatever are required no matter where you are acting, but for writers? For directors? It’s absurd to think that a writer who’s medium is television or film, areas where your work is driven far more by visual language than dialogue, should be writing for the stage. Even more ridicul
ous to think a film director has anything even in common with a stage director.

But many sitcom writers are putting up theater here in New York. Many night-time drama writers are produced here. You go and see these plays and you think of how inspiring they would be to the right editor, the right film director.

Y’see, there’s nothing inherently better about writing for the stage. It’s a different craft, having the restraint and the inspiration to know where a picture will tell a thousand words. And there is a lot of visual language in the theater.

But these people are looking for The Big Hit. For Money. For Fame. For the thing that will get them out of this perpetual winter and into a place where the palm trees wave over your tennis court. That is NEVER GONNA HAPPEN IN THE THEATER. People come here and slowly they begin creating works that are funnier than the last one, more frought with sexual tension than the last one, more obnoxious than the last one because they actually want to land a deal with a network. My brother and Sister-in-law wanted to write for TV, so you know what they did? THEY WENT TO LA WHERE TV IS. Now, they’re gonna write for TV. They had about twenty amazing ideas for stories they wanted to tell, and they both knew the language they wanted to tell it with, and it wasn’t the stage.

So, there’s a better chance the play you’re gonna go see is a sitcom. But not a good one, because you don’t have the network deciding which one is good. There’s been no test for these shows, no sitting down and discussing the good and bad points. It’s a sitcom, produced for 3% of what a regular sitcom is produced for, and you’ll get some laughs, but not nearly as many as you will watching “My Name is Earl”. Which is really funny, by the way.


There is no theater community. Not on this level. You have friends, and you have friends of friends, and on top of that, you have people who owe you, but that doesn’t make a community. A theater community should be a group of people inspired by each other’s work and philosopy, not a cult of personality or a loosely affiliated smattering of people too terrified to express outrage or disgust at their friend’s work for fear of retribution.

You think we don’t know? Seriously? At the end of a show when someone comes up to you and says, “congratulations on all your success!” or “it must have been a lot of work to get that on its feet from the page!”, it sounds exactly like “one hears such notes and what can one say but… Salieri!” You are talking to actors and playwrights, words and subtext are our bread and butter.

God, what I wouldn’t give for someone to come up to me and say, “It feels unimportant. Yes, I was shocked, but to tell you the truth, I was hurt as well, and in the end I just didn’t think it was worth it. For me, you are swinging too blunt an instrument.” Or, even more, how much it would have meant to me to hear, “the lack of coherence made it hard for me to have as much fun as I wanted to.” God, anything is better than “congrats on your success.”

I want to be supportive of my associates, and I walk into every play trying to figure out what they are trying to do, and then I try to figure out if they did it. It’s a somewhat afterthought about whether or not I respect what they are trying to do, but I would love for that to be part of the discussion.

We have become a culture of critics, spending our hours in the theater trying to figure out what is wrong, then hiding it from the artists themselves while picking away to our associates from the outside. Meanwhile, around us the world continues, unaware of our theater and even more unaware of what we think of our theater.

Perceived Cost

This is the sum total of everything I’ve already talked about. It’s gonna take time getting to and from, and then there’s the two hours of sitting on my hands in an uncomfortable chair while the theater around me slowly goes from joint achingly cold to wetly, oppressively hot, all the while I am being forced to watch a hauntingly similar play to the one I saw weeks ago, where the producers have opted for light romantic 30 something comedy (who’s only message is that it’s tough to be in a relationship in New York) because they fear that anything other than “Funny” won’t bring in any audiences, all the while knowing that, in the end, I can’t discuss the play or its shortcomings with anyone because it just might mean that these same people will boycott my next play.

All for somewhere between $15 and $40. Unless it’s an off-Broadway or Broadway play, then it’s more.

Large groups of insects have learned to cross rivers, streams and even lakes by forming a giant ball. Most of the ball is underwater, but the ball is constantly rolling, and the insects that are underwater just hold their breath until the ball rolls to the point where they can breathe. This is what we feel like, producing theater in New York. Each show one produces means a loss of at least $2000, but every show you go to is a loss of $15 and an evening, and we are just desperately trying to con one another into coming to our show, into holding their breath and going underwater so we can breathe for a minute.

I believe there has got to be a better way. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, your comments are welcome and encouraged.