Monday, June 18, 2007

Eyes on the Prize

In the Tonys/Sopranos fallout, much has been made of theatre's waning image and innovative ways to revitalize our audiences, to the point where I have to ask: what exactly are we expecting?

Certainly it's good to shoot for the stars; I am just as big of a proponent of high hopes as the next guy, but let's not lose sight of what we do have [slash] are able to currently achieve. So Broadway can't compete with David Chase -- here's a little tidbit: neither can the rest of the world. Chase is on the top of his game right now and as such is riding high on the hog of media consumption. It's like trying to fuck with Pete Jackson cruising on LoTR in 2002 or (dare I say it?) Jonathan Larson in 1996. Wanting theatre as a form to match the numbers of the shining star of cable television history is beyond unfeasible; it's a guaranteed failure. Let's keep in mind that the Tonys did still average six and a quarter million viewers. Hey, that beats the hell out of UPN.

No, Broadway's doing fine. (Commercially speaking, that is. Now, artistically? This is neither the time nor the place, Paul. Ok, maybe the place, but definitely not the time.) So what to, oh what to do about the nitty gritty? The stuff that makes my life go 'round -- small beans Chicago storefront theatre. How do we divert the Chicago Shakes patrons from the Pier to Live Bait? Pull the Steppenwolf crowd out to the Chopin? How do we pack these houses night in and night out?

Short answer? We don't. Don't mean we can't try. But 95% of the time, we end up somewhere on the spectrum from slightly to sorely disappointed. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're failing for the form, allowing it to die a slow and protracted death. Say what you will about the Art vs. Entertainment argument or the Highbrow Alienation Effect (also not the time) -- theatre is an art form. With no pretension or judgment of other media/cultural outlets, I say it again: Theatre is an Art Form. This simple fact is enough to guarantee that we are always going to be left wanting more as far as audiences are concerned. Art is a niche market in today's society, and theatre is but a niche of a niche. At what point do we pinch ourselves, wake up, and stop counting empty seats while overlooking the seats that do have asses in them? Selling out a five week run: a nice dream to have. Raising a house average from twenty to twenty-five: a major fucking success.

By all means, we need to strive to have every couch potato in America repent their ways and come to love the inherent joys of theatre (and more tomorrow on how that has more to do with American Idol than The Sopranos). But bitching about small houses t'ain't helpful. At best, it's ungracious. At worst (lest the audiences actually find out exactly what words are exchanged upon these Internets), it's going to alienate what we do have. There is a support base that is happy being challenged by 'by the bootstraps' theatre. But we gotta show them love to expect more in return. The last thing they want is to be relegated to the B team as we discover bigger and better ways to attract a bigger and better audience. Yes, expansion and innovation are important, but they aren't the only issues on our plate, nor are they higher-ranking than whatever it is that has attracted our current audience base. Besides, I'm sure that current base has friends worth co-opting. Exponentiality is the name of the game. That and baby steps.

There's much more I meant to include here and much more I mean to include tomorrow but as Monday has long ago rolled into Tuesday, so has my brain rolled into a coma state. There's your cautionary message -- if I got some 'splaining to do, you'll get it soon.


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