Theatre Binge: Trends

Last month I spent 72 hours in New York immersing myself in the kind of theatre and visual arts not readily available in Phoenix. It was a whirlwind: four shows, one of which was an eight-hour affair, plus the Cindy Sherman and Print/Out exhibits at MoMA.  Somehow I also found time to visit with family and friends, and stroll along the Highline too. Three of the four shows had recently opened on Broadway, Clybourne Park, Once, and Peter and Starcatcher, while the fourth, the one that drove my travel dates and scheduling, was the return of Gatz to the Public Theatre.  In seeing all four, I noticed or was affected by several trends.

FORM: All four of the shows I saw were ensemble in nature.  I’m not sure if this is a trend in the theatre generally, or a reflection of my taste.  I’ve never really enjoyed theatre that features a “star” over an ensemble.  Although Once clearly has two leads, the rest of the cast, also the band, also the townspeople, are on stage almost throughout the entire production.  The transitions they made between characters, like those made by the actors in each of the other shows, were done in a transparent, or in some cases, foregrounded manner.  Granted, the character shift the actors make in Clybourne Park happens primarily, though not exclusively, at intermission.

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble-based work and seeing four extraordinary and diverse examples thereof gave me hope that such work is more broadly accepted by contemporary audiences.  But who is that audience really?

AUDIENCE:  I was struck that at least three of the four audiences of which I was part included a large number of other theatre people.  Maybe it was because the shows had recently opened and, being the last week of April, it was Tony voting season.  My fear, though, is that even though there are a large number of insiders seeing these shows, there won’t be the general audience needed to sustain them.  The audience at Once (a matinee) included several actors I recognized but do not know personally. Following that, I ran into playwrights Tony Kushner (with whom I went to grad school) and Craig Lucas, who was himself seeing Once evening.  The next day, in the smaller Newman Theatre in which Gatz was playing, I knew four other audience members.  Intermission conversation revealed that this really was a significantly insider audience.  Theatre people seeing extraordinary theatre people doing extraordinary work.

PRICING: Gatz was also, seemingly, the hottest ticket in town. Or, at least for me, the most expensive by almost a factor of two.  I was a victim of dynamic pricing.  My trip was scheduled in large part to catch the penultimate weekend of this show, which I had missed in its orginal incarnation.  Two hundred ninety-nine seats move fast and I got the last one – literally, the availibility chart showed only the one last seat on the end of the last row. I paid dearly for it; almost twice as much as each of the Broadway shows, where I had reasonably good seats.  Not everyone seeing Gatz had paid what I had because the Public Theatre has a dynamic pricing system in place, prices go up as the seats fill and performance date approaches.  Dynamic pricing is the law of supply and demand in action. Fortunately, the very kindly usher moved me to a far better seat when there was a vacancy in the middle of the fifth row.  Having seen ¼ of the show from the back corner, I can tell you that the experience is substantially different (not better or worse, but different).  I’m not sure I would have minded the higher ticket price for the much better seat, had I in fact paid for it.  What I found interesting about the experience (of ticket buying) was that I was paying the highest price for the ticket at the nonprofit theatre.  One could argue, I suppose, that at six hours (without intermission), one should pay three times what one pays for a two-hour production, but theatre is not usually priced by the hour. Ultimately, to be clear, I do not regret buying my ticket to Gatz, it was one of those transformative theatre experiences that don’t happen all that often.

NEW YORK:  A native New Yorker, I visit at least once or twice a year.  This time, the city was CROWDED! I don’t just mean in the theatre district, which I ceased to be able to walk through about ten years ago; the whole city seemed crowded.  Not a good thing or a bad thing, just a thing. [Pictured at left, Clybourne Park is set in Chicago, not New York.]

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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6 Responses to Theatre Binge: Trends

  1. Pingback: The mildew of ignorance | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. Hey Linda,

    Sounds like you had a great trip!

    I had some questions on your assessment of the audiences you shared your viewing with. I’m sure you have encountered the recent Kaiser article The Huffington Post about audience engagement. This always seemed like a positive direction to me, but it had to mean more than filling out surveys. From your description of the audiences you shared your experience with, a significant portion WERE engaged. They already were invested in the Theatre because they were Theatre people themselves. Insiders.

    To me it seems obvious that the more connected an audience is to an art form being practiced in their own daily lives the more they also serve as the audience that supports it. But if we can only depend on other professionals to keep things afloat we will be in deep trouble.

    The difficulty I see is that there is no real middle ground between the art professionals and the public who have no experience or vested interest in an art form. If they don’t in some way practice that art themselves they will never come to value it deeply.

    So, my question is whether we are doing enough to keep our audience connected to these art forms by giving them a taste for it themselves? It seems that a person will be more likely to care about it if it isn’t just a form of passive entertainment. As entertainment the arts get into trouble competing with much lower hanging fruit, and there is no real investment. But if our audience remembers what its like to be a part of a production, that experience will create a value that cannot be duplicated from the couch. Hobbyists and amateurs need to be where our audience comes from if the arts are to stay afloat. If this is true, then the only demographic that truly matters in the long run is that audience who has their own art experience in their own background.

    As a potter I’m still trying to figure out how to make this happen, but I see the difference in an audience that has taken a few classes, or whose kids are making mud pies at camp. Engagement seems to make the biggest difference when it involves real insight and attachment to the artistic process.

    I don’t know the Theatre world, but I’m curious if your practitioners do the kind of outreach that brings unexpecting audiences to the process. Do you folk run impromptu skits in public places? Is there much guerrilla Theatre going on these days? Do the audience get to participate? Do you run inexpensive kids camps? Offer puppetry in the park and ask kids to be involved with the story? If theatre folks ARE doing these things I just don’t know about it. I remember that opening scene from the film The Imposters, and I think of what COULD be.

    And I worry that if the only way I get to experience the Theatre is buying a ticket to a professional production, then I will never be motivated to dig any deeper. Without any personal attachment I will have no lasting commitment to theatre going. If I get to choose between going out to a performance and a ticket to the latest blockbuster movie, why would I choose the Theatre? If its all just entertainment, what is the argument FOR the theatre? Have I even heard this argument? Has the Theatre even tried to talk to me? Am I not in the right demographic? Just what is the Theatre trying to communicate to ME?

    If the Theatre is more than entertainment then its not necessarily competing on entertainment value. It stands a chance of being chosen instead of that blockbuster movie. If it matters more than just entertainment I have more reason to choose to support it. Different reasons. It just seems that we have tried too hard to keep the audience separate from the performers, and that this is now costing us. We have put them in their seats, and the ambivalence of their lethargy makes them less than enthusiastic supporters. Its as if we are content to put them to sleep as long as we get to pilfer their pockets. Maybe its time to wake them back up. Maybe its time to get their blood flowing, clear the cobwebs…..

    In the end, it seems true that we care the most about the things we ourselves do, not what strangers do, no matter how famous or brightly lit they are. The truth is that we are engaged in the things we ourselves do….

    These are problems for every art form. I’m just curious what we are going to do about it.

    Any thoughts?

  3. annsachs says:

    Love your perspective as a native New Yorker, Linda, coming in for “the binge”. You make me think I should try it too, the way I used to decades ago as a visitor to the city. Currently, as a Manhattan resident, I am all too relaxed about seeing stuff. (The only show I’ve seen of your four is Peter and the St★r Catcher.) Thanks for inspiring me to pick up my pace!

  4. Great choice of shows. Love your insight into the theater crowds and pricing, particularly for Gatz. Did you enjoy the show?

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