You’re Not Talking To Me

Boy. The shit has really hit the fan.

See, most of you out there don’t know this, but a lot of theater professionals have just been informed that The Theater is no place to make a living. Now, I could very easily mock the crap out of this, and I will mock it *a little bit*, but before I do, I need to point out that some very, very smart people put in a shitload of work looking at our industry, and that is really cool. They could very well have looked at an industry with far more economic impact than ours, but they didn’t. They spent their time in our ghetto, and that’s really lovely.

Although, to be fair, they didn’t actually get very far into *our* ghetto. If you want to know what our place is like, one of the best places to start is James Comtois’ blog, but the book that has created all the stink doesn’t actually get even close to us.

The book is called “Outrageous Fortune”, and the view from institutional theater is very dire. A lot of playwrights don’t make any money from their plays. A lot of theaters are trying really hard to hold on to their 10 to 15 thousand person audiences, and aren’t sure how to expand them. Many companies won’t produce new plays, except many companies also won’t produce plays that aren’t world premieres…

Jimmy just wrote to me, quoting our friend Abe, who said, “It’s a classy set of problems to have.”

Oh, and, yeah, I haven’t read the book. It very well might be helpful to me, but right now I’m reading “Free Range Kids” and watching “Damages” on my little TV, and so I don’t think I’m getting to “Outrageous Fortune” any time soon.

Now, I’ll be honest, I feel that too many people disrespect the arts too much, and I think that is largely because of how we treat ourselves and what we expect. My friends laughed when I went off on a rant about buskers on the subway, but I’m genuinely annoyed that someone can figure out Brown Eyed Girl, play it for free and beg for change – it sorta makes Van Morrison out to be a fool if he claims people shouldn’t be stealing MP3s of his music.

But, on the other hand, on our level of theater, the highest cost we have is space. So, in a way, aren’t I doing the same thing? I mean, right now, I have to pay three grand a week for a performance space, and I charge $18 a ticket… what if I used a park and passed around a hat? Since the cost-to-return ratio is better in the second model, doesn’t that actually make sense?

Big theaters can’t do this because they have designers and playwrites and actors and administrative assistants who won’t do all of this for free. But on our level, the only thing preventing giant profits is the price of real estate. If I got free rehearsal space and free performance space… shit, the only real concern of mine is if I have enough *time* to do everything I want to do. Our level of self-respect is so low, none of us expect to make more than a couple hundred dollars for several months of work.

But it is a thrill for me to be able to do this, because we have always judged our success entirely on whether or not we’ve told the story we wanted to tell. Some shows I feel good about, some I don’t, and very little of that has anything to do with money. Reviews, blog-reactions, audience reactions, ticket holders (which is different than ticket buyers, I promise you), these are all important to me.

But James has a piece of advice on his blog that we all adhere to, although probably none of us has passed this around. “Only put into a show what you are comfortable never getting back”. If the larger artistic institutions saw ticket revenue as “found money”, I wonder how that mindset would change their structure?

We have had some wonderful successes in our past. The two shows that lost the most money? “Fleet Week” and “Viral”. Also “Dirty Juanita”, but I’m not counting that one because that was our first show and we were idiots. But, a lot of people think we’re very, very successful, and the truth is, all we’re successful at, right now, is telling stories that we like telling.

Everyone who’s talking about the economic downside of theater, they aren’t talking to me, and they aren’t really talking to anyone who’s producing alongside me. And yet, we’re all, actually, pretty happy. And none of us is broke.

I don’t want to do theater in the park. But I do want to just say, just so there’s one voice out here, “we’re still doing it. It can be done.”