What is safe in the theater?

A week before I departed Arena Stage, some in the community were up in arms about the announced future seasons in our city’s regional houses spurred in part by Peter Marks’ story in the Washington Post titled “In new seasons, D.C. theater companies will present the extremely tried-and-true.” Soon charges of “playing it safe” were coming from the Twittersphere. I even fielded one call from a press member who said “wow, three musicals next year! Guess you needed extra cash cows.” I guess it didn’t matter to that particular journalist that Arena Stage was in fact only producing two musicals in addition to three world premieres, but I digress. 

“Safe Theatre” ©Joe Brack

I’ve always been fascinated by the accusation of playing it safe in the theater. In my opinion, the words “safe” and “theater” are diametrically opposite. There are very few things riskier than the theater business. Even the most commercial productions on Broadway only recoup their investments 20% of the time, and are considered alternative high-risk investments.

That said, I guess “safe” can be levied on certain artistic choices, however, I have never had an artistic director express to me that they wished to present a safer season. Although I have never led season planning, I do know that a great deal of thought goes into play selection. Do we have the right balance between new and classic? musical and non-musical? popular and challenging? Presenting a balanced season is a healthy approach for artists, theaters and communities.

Popular programming can serve as a gateway drug ushering in new audiences. I myself can thank a production of The Pajama Game for a lifelong addiction to the theater. On the other hand, theater aficionados need something to sink their teeth into, and are usually fed by experiencing something new, either in terms of genre, content or approach. Twenty years after Pajama Game, I find that I need a challenge to be engaged. I enjoy the work of Richard Foreman, Peter Brook and Meredith Monk, but if I would have been fed the Wooster Group as a novice, it would have gone down as well as giving a child caviar for dinner. We provide entry points, and cultivate artistic palettes.

In getting back to the business of theater, “playing it safe” becomes a little more farfetched. I’ve developed revenue projections, marketing plans and financial models my entire career, and if after all that time I could predict with any certainty what individual show was a safe bet, I would patent my system and sell it to commercial producers. We are in the business of live production. Things happen all the time. Theaters can mitigate financial risk across an entire season with prudent budgeting, but no one can predict which shows will hit, and which will miss (with one exception I’ll discuss below).

From a marketer’s perspective, here are my thoughts on the risks of various types of productions:

Musicals. In my view, they are the riskiest of all theatrical ventures because of their cost structure, particularly for large resident theaters. In many cases, musicals lose money. For a classic musical to make money, you need a trifecta of brilliant marketing, good word of mouth and flawless critical response (not to mention a great production). Often times they are included in seasons not as “cash cows” but as audience development tools.

Classic dramas. Have you tried convincing a subscriber they need to see their tenth production of Death of a Salesman? It is a myth that classic, well-known dramas sell well on title alone. Audiences come to look for a “special take” on the production to draw them in again. Or perhaps they want to see a particular actor play an iconic role. How many times have we seen Shakespeare reinvented?

New work. In terms of financial risk, it comes down to the playwright. Is the playwright well-known to your audiences or not? Are you presenting a world-premiere by a Pulitzer Prize winner or by an up-and-coming new artist? For years it was thought that you could slap “world premiere” on a play, and that hordes of audiences would come running. This partially explains premieritis as discussed in Outrageous Fortune. But it is simply not true, particularly in a tough economy. This however is a catch 22. For the health of our industry, we must aggressively cultivate and produce work by new and unknown playwrights, which is why I admire the work of the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Commercial Pedigree.  Peter makes the point in his article that plays with a commercial background are easier to market and sell. He’s correct—sometimes. The three toughest productions I have had to market came with commercial pedigrees—Tony Awards, Pulitzers, New York Times reviews, etc. What worked in the commercial New York market doesn’t always land well in other places. I remember being told once by a New York producer than when we announced the casting of a particular actor who had a tremendous Broadway career sales would spike and we would sell out. That day came and went without the slightest uptick in sales, despite a nice feature in the newspaper.

One factor trumps all – casting. If you can cast A-list talent in any of the above, all bets are off. Iceman Cometh could be difficult to swing, but not with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy. Or a completely retooled Porgy and Bess without Audra McDonald. Or for that matter, the world premiere of every tongue confess without Phylicia Rashad or Phedre without Helen Mirren.  Perhaps the only productions that could be considered somewhat fiscally safe are small cast comedies with commercial pedigrees and casts of A-list actors or mega-musicals with overwhelming Broadway demand. But these productions are the Holy Grail for more commercially minded venues with massive theaters to fill. Given that authors are paid by royalties, the rights for these productions don’t often fall into the hands of resident theaters.

I’d like to conclude by making a challenge. If media outlets are encouraging theaters to take more risk, then I’d like to request that they become an ally in that pursuit. Have you ever tried pitching a journalist on a world-premiere play by an unknown playwright with an unknown cast? What are the chances that production will end up on the noon news or as a lead in the arts section, especially before it is reviewed? But watch what happens the moment you have a commercial production with a star. Media opportunities fall from the sky. It isn’t a matter of skill or effort on the publicist’s part, it is just the world we all live in.

News outlets must sell advertising. Advertising depends upon viewership and readership, and therefore what is “newsworthy” to a mass audience gets coverage. You see, in part, the media incentivizes theaters to do what they later chide them for doing. I am thankful that I live in a community that respects and demands arts journalism, and for the dedicated work of the many journalists that cover theater. I am also thankful that journalists take theaters to task, as it makes us all better. But in doing so, dear colleagues, please try to reward the behavior that you encourage.

Comments

  1. I am a member of the media, who studied marketing in college. I have never been contacted by any theatre companies about upcoming shows and so-far my attempts to reach them for a pre-show story have been less then successful. This may be a lack of name recognition or simply getting lost in the pre-show shuffle.

    I disagree that musicals are not necessarily safe, but popular musicals are. The ones that are constantly being revived due to the knowledge that they WILL make money (though that didn’t stop the world premiere of  ”A Shovel in the Dirt” from seling out for its full run – TWICE). This season alone had two versions of “Godspell” and a production of “Into the Woods.” Heck even classics aren’t always winners either: while my showing of “The Rivals” was sold-out, I sat through a nearly empty production of “Epiceone” at Mobtown Players.

    Which brings up another point of marketing that you missed: “Into the Woods” and “The Rivals” were critical sensations because of the reputation of the theatre presenting them (Centerstage), while “Epiceone” failed because Mobtown has nowhere NEAR the marketing budget NOR the subscriber base of its larger cousin (and hence the ONLY review posted of it was mine).

    In regards to your “challenge,” that’s the sole reason “Aisle Pass” exists (and was the philophy of my previous gig at “The Baltimore Guardian”), the Baltimore theatre media often doesn’t cover (i.e “passes”) the smaller shows chosing to cover only the bigger names like Everyman and Centerstage while ignoring Spotlighters and Mobtown Players in favor of something called ”Arena Stage” (not to be confused with Arena Players which they also don’t cover). Regretably, I, as one writer, can’t live up to my own mission, but I put EVERY effort into doing so for my reader(s) and for their valuable time\money.

  2. Susan Galbraith says:

    You make many good points, Chad. It’s made me reflect on my own experiences and responses, wearing the many hats I do, which include writer-director-producer of new music-theatre as well as sometime theatre reviewer.

    Admittedly, I have been known to clutch my forehead and groan as I read announcements of new seasons. I do wonder how Molly Smith can speak of her mission to present “all that’s bold and dangerous” when what she has on her menu is “The Music Man.” I’m also curious at the funding trends that come and go. How and why did companies like Shakespeare and Arena join Signature announce their producing new or newly coined musicals a couple of years ago? And what happened to that funding of new music-theatre that seems to have just as suddenly dried up? 

    You are correct to suggest that no one in theatre ever is “safe.”  But there is “safer.” 

    As for the responsibility of writing on theatre and theatre productions, I think the best writers work hard to understand a work on its own terms.  None of us gets it right all the time, and it’s always humbling when colleagues experience a work completely differently from what you do. But I struggle to address the intentions and the efforts of the artists as well as express how I experienced a single performance. I am also proud that Washington has a number of reviewers who express very different points of view.  

    DC Theatre Scene has taken collegiality one step further by printing not only its own reviews but side by side the reviews of other media. This may not be “safe” but it’s “smart,” and the comprehensive coverage helps audiences find new theatres and new artistic expression.

    You’re a thoughtful colleague.  Keep these in-depth pieces going.

    Susan  

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