About a month ago, Washington Post critic Peter Marks announced “The Summit,” a special series of three panel discussions. Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, had offered Marks the opportunity to create and moderate the series as he saw fit, so on Monday night he began by bringing a quintet of local artistic directors to the Kogod Theatre at Arena Stage, before a house just a couple rows short of full. Projected on a screen were the words “An In-Depth Exploration of D.C. Theatre in Three Acts.” ( Arena lists the next two ‘acts’ featuring actors on March 24 and directors and playwrights on April 28 as sold out.)
Later in the program, Smith would say, indicating the audience, “The fact that a couple hundred of you wanted to come in and have this conversation is fantastic.”
Marks offered some of his intentions for the series. “We talk at each other a lot, but we rarely talk to each other,” he said. Referring to the artistic directors onstage with him, he said, “Rarely do I get a chance to engage with them in public about topics that are pretty vital.”
Marks and the artistic directors exchanged some good-natured jokes about the relationship between theatre artists and critics, and then Marks introduced the five panelists. The artistic directors were Smith herself; Paul Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre; Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre; Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre; and Paata Tsikurishvili of Synetic Theatre. Michael Kahn of Shakespeare Theatre had originally been scheduled to attend as well, but had to drop out due to a conflicting engagement.
“My notion was I wanted to talk about… where [DC] is going as a theatre town,” said Marks in his lead-up to the first question of the night, “and the best place to start with that is the leadership people, who make the decisions… about what we see.”
Attendance at American Theatre
Marks’ first question concerned “where this industry is headed.” He cited the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts , specifically the statistics that attendance at musical theatre dropped by 9% between 2008 and 2012 and at ‘straight’ plays by 12%. Marks also reported that over the decade, attendance at plays overall has gone down 33%.
Marks said that it is “important to grasp the future of this business and what this means for all of us if this trend continues. So I ask all of you – what is going on? Is this a function of what you’re doing? Of what we’re not doing? Or is it a combination of both?”
Smith answered that “one of the structural deficits we have” is a lack of bringing in young people. She said that people attend theatre when young, stop coming during their child-raising years, and then return in their 40s. Discussing the importance of showing young people theatre starting in grade school, she said, “For me that’s a big piece of it.”
Smith also challenged the NEA’s numbers. “I’m suspect of them in Washington, D.C. because ultimately we’re seeing the audience growing here,” she said. “I’m suspect of how they’re doing the counts.” Marks suggested that the numbers could be seen as a “snapshot” of the energy of the culture and attitudes towards the ‘serious’ arts.
To Marks’ original question, Schaeffer first noted that Signature has had their “biggest audiences” since August all year long, and then responded, “For me it’s the cost. The cost of producing theatre is really expensive, and I think people don’t understand how expensive it is to do.” He suggested “because it’s too expensive” people are driven away. He described a Catch-22 situation that theatre producers are in – the audience’s expectations for high-quality theatre means that tickets won’t be sold if that high quality isn’t reached, but that high quality requires high costs which also keep tickets from being sold.
Rilette concurred, saying, “Are we being asked to do more with less? Yes.” He agreed with Smith that kids have to develop “a habit” of going to any art form and noted that arts education has been cut for years. He also described how changes in the media culture mean that nowadays, “You have to actually find the audience, and find what type of media they’re looking at” in order to reach them. Rilette predicted that attendance is going to get worse because the Baby Boomers are growing older and his own generation, “in the middle of raising kids right now” but soon reaching the theatre-attending age Smith described, is smaller. (Rilette is 40.)
“It’s a very very complicated puzzle,” said Rilette, “and I wanna say I don’t think it’s gonna get any better.” He did suggest, however, that we are going to see more immersive work such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 going forward.
Later in the program, Tsikurishvili responded to this question, agreeing that “early education for the kids” has to make theatre a habit, because “after that you grow up and you go to theatre and you love it.” He also noted that TV does not cover theatre whatsoever, saying “that’s a big drawback.” He said that theatre “is not commercial, it’s art, and art needs nurturing and art needs help.”
“What we do – it matters,” said Tsikurishvili.
Marks praised Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s September 2013 production of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, but noted that top ticket prices were $105. “You start to wonder about these numbers,” he said. “Are we getting out of whack in what we charge these lovely people to come see these shows?” He asked the artistic directors what effect they have on ticket prices.
Responding, Tetreault said ticket prices are one of the trickiest things he and his colleagues have to deal with. “We all have a commitment to… keeping tickets affordable,” he said, mentioning, for example, how prices might be $105 for regular tickets on a Saturday and $20 for student tickets on a Tuesday, and continued, “I think that range is critical.” He also explained how dynamic pricing structures can mean that a good review will cause prices to go up, saying that while all the artistic directors “have a commitment to affordable tickets… that doesn’t mean we’re not going to push the top end when we can.” He asserted that the panelists’ theatres produce work as good as Broadway’s but still cost less than Broadway.
Concerning dynamic pricing, Smith stressed that subscribing is “so important” in order to lock in prices.
Marks responded to Tetreault, saying, “If you’ve got a huge hit, why not keep the prices low” to show the art to the world, to which Schaeffer said, “We don’t look at it per show, we look at it per season.”
“We’ll be giving plenty of tickets away per season, trust me,” said Tetreault, referring to discounted ticket prices.
Season Programming and Subscribers
Marks continued the discussion by asking the artistic directors if they look for hit plays for their seasons, or perhaps one hit to fill the coffers and pay for everything else; or if they instead simply try and do the best work.
“Balance. You have to balance,” said Tetreault. “None of us I think are programming hits, we’re programming a mix.” Schaeffer noted that he doesn’t look for hits, and got a laugh from the audience when he said that he doesn’t listen to the marketers.
In response to Marks bringing up the question of programming entertainment first and foremost, Tsikurishvili said, “Synetic is very specific… it tends to be more entertaining at the same time as it has depth.” He described how if he works from his heart, the result works, but when he goes from his head, it fails.
“Something that’s very interesting to me, in our season planning,” said Smith, is that “Arena has four different audiences now.” She named a “classic audience” for plays by Albee and the currently-running Mother Courage and her Children starring Kathleen Turner, an “event-celebrity driven audience” who love the big American musical (which also, she said, brings in a lot of young people), a “large African-American audience” and, finally, the “smallest audience is for new plays.” She said Arena does new plays all the same because contemporary work is important – “it’s right here, right now, gotta do it,” she said.
Smith also described the Arena audience, which she counted at 250,000 to 300,000 a year, as broad in taste, but argued in reply to Marks’ contention that this would seem to argue against the subscription model that in fact it doesn’t, because of numerous benefits subscribers get.
Schaeffer discussed how passionate his subscribers are, saying “they feel like they’re part of it.” He talked about how Signature recently celebrated their fifteen 24-year subscribers with a lunch and gave them free subscriptions for the upcoming 25th anniversary season, which was jokingly called “Eric’s Oprah moment.”
Including Women Playwrights
“When you talk about inclusion, Molly,” said Marks, leading into the next point, “something came up recently that really fascinated me.” Marks told of a recent discussion at Schaeffer’s house that led to the creation of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival which will occur in the fall of 2015. Notably, many of the Summit attendees in the audience seemed not to have heard about the Festival prior to Marks’ bringing it up.
Marks said, “Let me just play devil’s advocate for a second, because in 2014, the fact that you have to go to this length to feature” plays by women seemed, perhaps, outrageous to him. He mentioned a statistic that women make up 60% of the audience in DC and 2/3 on Broadway, but only 1/5 of play productions are of plays by women.
“Why does this persist?” said Marks. “Why are you guys not producing more work by women?”
Rilette responded first. “We made a commitment to equality in playwright selection in every season going forward,” he said, adding that approximately 6 of 13 plays upcoming at Round House will be by women.
“It’s really hard,” he said, “and here’s why it’s hard. I think it’s hard because there’s not enough in the pipeline right now. …There are a lot of new plays that are getting produced by small theatres that are by women.” He went on to discuss how there are not enough plays by women produced in New York City and not enough in London (although he credited London with doing a great job), and said that a theatre needs something that’s going to help sell any play they put on. He said one can’t choose a total unknown, and that to find three plays a season by female playwrights would require them to have name recognition or something else to draw audiences, if one is not going to go the route of using star actors. He said there are “not enough yet in the pipeline” and that “it’s gonna take a couple of years… a decade… before it’s going to shift, but it’s going to shift.”
Smith chimed in, saying that the classics contain few works by women because women were simply excluded in previous eras. She added, “one of the ways it can be balanced, as well, is by having more women directors,” or fantastic roles for women.
Rilette followed, saying, of some female playwrights of the past, that “classic plays that do exist, the great playwrights that did get produced,” such as “Caryl Churchill”, wrote “feminist” plays that now seem “dated,” meaning they can’t be remounted as easily.
Marks asked if it might take more work to find those plays by women of the past. He referenced Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, which Marks had previously praised and which Irene Lewis had pulled out of obscurity to perform first at Baltimore’s CenterStage and later at Arena, and asked the artistic directors if they do not have time to find similar under-produced gems.
Tetreault said, “I don’t think a lot of these plays exist,” and added, “I think commissioning is critical.” He talked about how he has sought women playwrights for Ford’s Theater’s Lincoln Legacy project, saying that the community has “got to get works [by women] in the pipeline.”
The Next 15 Years
The notion of the approaching generational shift was raised again, as Rilette said, “There’s going to be a radical shift in the next 15 years or so” as Baby Boomers who founded theatres retire, which will be followed by “a big influx of” women and people of color into leadership positions, changing the dynamic.
Marks asked if white people are overrepresented in theatergoing audiences, considering that, as a portion of the national population, white people are in decline. He said, of the potential problem of plays only appealing to a shrinking number of white people, that “it seems to be, it’s gotta be thought about.”
“Something is happening in this country big picture wise,” said Smith, later. She said that society is going to change in the next 15 years and that people are going to want to be “on the other side of the footlights.”
“I think creativity is just going to keep evolving in really fantastic ways,” she continued. “We’re going to see work that is much more experiential… We’re human things. We want to get away from the computer, away from the box, because it’s a cooler medium. We want to get to something that’s hotter.”
The Cooperative and Welcoming DC Scene
At one point, after recognizing that frequent Synetic actor Dan Istrate is currently appearing in Arena’s Mother Courage, Marks considered how the theatre producers in town talk to each other in order to make connections like that. He mentioned that theatre producers from other cities, when told about the collaboration behind the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, wished they had as much inter-theatre communication as DC ones do.
Along similar lines, Schaeffer said at a different point, “The audiences in Washington are fantastic because they’re smart and they’re supportive and because while every show may not hit it out of the ballpark, they appreciate what you’re trying to do,” and went on to describe how the writers for Signature’s upcoming show Beaches (opening this week) feel very safe in DC trying out their new work.
Marks asked how the artistic directors manage their cooperation, considering they are, in a sense, competitors.
“I think part of it is that everybody recognizes… if you just fight over the” shrinking slice of pie, said Rilette, that won’t work; “you have to work to grow the pie as a whole.”
Smith added, “the truth is that great theatre begets great theatre, great theatre begets great audience.” She repeated a quote that she found apt: “Wonderful theatre towns grow in bunches like grapes,” and talked about how DC has tiny, midsize, and big theatres, whereas most cities are missing at least one of those sizes.
“Quite frankly we all steal from each other,” she said. “We bounce off of each other.”
To this, Marks asked, “Do you look at each other’s work and go-“…”
“Oh I could’ve done that better,” interrupted Smith, and the audience enjoyed a big laugh.
Marks laughed and then continued, asking if the artistic directors look at each other’s seasons and “counterprogram.”
“We may be going after the same works sometimes,” said Tetreault. Smith and Schaeffer concurred, and discussed picking up musicals that the other’s theatre had dropped. Rilette said, “I actually kind of love that” accidental confluence when multiple theatres in town produce different works by the same playwright, for instance. He said he actually tries sometimes to “bounce” something off another theatre’s season.
Adding to the thoughts on DC theatre’s qualities, earlier, while talking about purpose, Tetreault had said, “It’s still to change the world. I mean why else do we get into this business? … I think that’s why we’re here producing theatre in Washington.”
Before opening up the floor to questions from the audience, Marks attempted to get the artistic directors to talk about what their dream projects might be, asking, “[What] is the largest grape that you want to pick… is there something out there that you want to do?”
The artistic directors largely demurred, referring to potential upcoming productions they weren’t at liberty to reveal. Rilette discussed how “Round House has always been an actor’s theatre,” and said that “the work is what keeps everybody excited.”
Tetreault said, “Next year is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination,” and revealed that a new play is being created for it, one which, he noted, features roles for eight women.
Tsikurishvili did mention a dream project:
“I want to do Nixon without words,” he said, alluding to Synetic’s practice of doing plays such as Hamlet and Twelfth Night completely without speech. “A very Shakespearean character.”
Smith, as well, talked about how she used to improvise a lot of big theatre pieces that would “take 6-8 months to build” while she was in Juneau, Alaska at Perseverance Theatre. She remembered using improvisation to build theatre pieces based on the Odyssey and other works. “I miss that,” she said, and considered how the standard is a comparatively shorter rehearsal process of 4-5 weeks. “That’s part of why we’re not getting to some of the creative work audiences are wanting to see,” she said.
In the time remaining, Marks drew six questions for the panel from the audience. The first asked what the artistic directors do when they receive a review they or their audience disagree with, which Marks self-deprecatingly rephrased as, “What do you think of having to be reviewed by… idiots?”
“If I wasn’t running a theatre I wouldn’t read reviews,” said Schaeffer, adding that a lot of actors don’t read them. He added, “We’re artists and we do it from our heart and our soul.”
Marks offered some words about criticism. “It’s much easier for me now to interact with readers, with audience members, who have very valid judgments to make” via social media. He said that he tries to “let go of any arrogance that being at a major newspaper” can give him, earning a laugh from the audience by saying that while the theatre business is shrinking, the newspaper business is disappearing.
He added, “The reviews I write are not for” the artists, they’re for the audience.
Question: DC’s Reputation
The next audience member asked what the panelists thought DC’s theatre reputation was nationwide.
Rilette replied, “When I was applying for the job” at Round House, he was coming from San Francisco, which locals claimed was the number three theatre market in the country after New York and Chicago, and when he arrived in DC, locals here said the same thing – or that DC is number two, before Chicago. For his part, Rilette said he thinks the four major markets are New York, Chicago, San Francisco and DC. He mentioned particularly that DC’s reputation should include Baltimore.
“One example of how I think we’re perceived,” said Marks, is that the Broadway producers selected DC to do tryouts of the show If/Then because they felt DC audiences would benefit the show. He added, “I think you’re seeing more and more work done in Washington” go to other places, listing several DC works that have gone to New York – “Not that’s that the be-all,” he said.
“This is a city that’s moving up…” continued Marks, “Because the city has ambition, and theatre people here believe in themselves… it’s still a hard city for actors to earn a living.”
Rilette responded to that, saying, “It’s hard for actors to earn their living anywhere” and that the presence of ancillary work (such as film or TV, or service industries) is important.
Three Short Questions
Time began running out, and the responses to the next three questions were relatively brief.
First, in response to a question about the social role of theatre, Rilette said, “Our work is more and more important than it ever has been… in a world where our government leaders can talk and talk and never reach any sort of compromise.” Tetreault followed after, saying, “I only want to do political work here, I don’t want to do partisan work.”
Another audience member asked about what the large theatres represented onstage could do for smaller theatres in town, saying, “Could you talk anything about the smaller theatres, places for them, rentals… you know the issues. Their sustenance.”
Tsikurishvili said, “I always try to find a way to support the new beginners, who is the next, who is going to shake up the town,” and described how Synetic has had difficulty finding space. Smith noted that “it can be really complicated financially” to give other companies space during times when the theater spaces are unused.
The penultimate question of the night was from a 27-year old who talked about how his peers feel that the theatre is closed to them, particularly due to ticket discounts being unknown to them. “How do you combat this perception that theatre is for the rich?” he said.
“It needs to be advertised,” said Smith, concurring with something the audience member had said. Rilette expanded on that, saying that discounts don’t always work. He said Round House has been experimenting with having parties, giving away wine, encouraging singles to attend, offering free tickets to Montgomery County (where Round House is located) teenagers, and other programs to get young people in the door.
“The hardest thing is actually getting them to take us up on the free tickets,” said Rilette. “I think part of it is creating more of a sense of an event,” and added that it’s important to make the young people not feel like “a minority in a sea of gray” – to which Marks playfully interjected, “Not that there’s anything wrong with seas of gray!” The audience laughed once more.
One Question and One Hundred Tweets: #TheSummit
The final question of the night was prepared by Elissa Goetschius, Artistic Director of The Strand Theatre Company in Baltimore, with unnamed collaborators. As well, Goetschius and others live-tweeted The Summit event (posted quotes and reactions to Twitter as the event went on).
An at-times heated discussion developed on the social media site over the course of the night, under the hashtag #TheSummit, with many respondents criticizing some of what the live-tweeting audience members and others defending what was said; Rilette, among others, would later join in. Of particular controversy were what Rilette said about certain plays with feminist themes not being remounted easily and the context thereof, and the notion of the “pipeline” of plays from New York and London that some felt was implied not to currently include works by diverse playwrights.
(Due to the controversy, an effort has been made to include as much direct quotation as possible, particularly in the relevant sections, within this recap, for the sake of the record. The forum was not audio or video recorded. You are encouraged to comment if you want to know if or why anything was left out or paraphrased.)
Goetschius later publicized the text of her question. Since she appeared to have read it directly from her computer screen while asking it, it is reproduced here in full:
“I’m encouraged to see a growing number of artistic directors in the community publicly address the lack of parity for women writers on our stages. I hope this effort continues and extends to directors, designers, and other artists as well. However, several statistics give me pause.
– At Signature, since the 2005 season, only 10 of 90 credited writers have been women, with women directing 2 of 54 productions.
– Since Ford’s reopened their space for the 2008 season, 2 of 29 productions have been directed by women – the same woman.
– At the Shakespeare Theatre, since opening the Harman in 2007, they have produced 51 shows – none of which have been written by women. 3 were adapted by women, and 9 were directed by women.
– At Arena, since the 1998 season, 44% of productions have been directed by women. However, three women account for over half of those woman-directed productions, while 49 different men have directed here. The plays and lyrics that have appeared on Arena’s stages reflect the work of 110 men, but only 35 women.
I’m hoping you can speak on two points. First: How do you plan to use the Women’s Voices Festival as a platform for improving the parity of female artists in your regular programming? Second: Similarly, how will you address the lack of racial equity for writers and directors of color, who are frequently less represented than women? For example, Ford’s has hired three writers of color out of 40 credited writers since 2008, and the last time the Shakespeare Theatre hired a director of color was 1991.
Schaeffer responded, “That’s the whole reason” for the Women’s Voices Festival; “we all want to do better.”
Tetreault, as well, replied, saying, that the League of Resident Theatres has been talking about diversity for the past 30 years, in artistic positions and in administrative ones. He reported that a LORT conference is coming up soon, to talk about diversity, and he said, “I actually think there’s a movement now and maybe it takes 30 years – to actually move this needle.” He earned applause from many audience members by concluding, “I think there is a movement… if someone wants to just throw stones, they can look at our track record, look at the past 15 years, but we want to look forward… we’re not looking backwards.”
Marks, for his part, appraised the first Summit event the next day in a discussion on Facebook. “The feedback I’ve gotten all day was that the event was lively and enlightening,” he said. “Some views have been aired on Twitter on one aspect of the discussion, prompted by my questions (and also, by the forthcoming Women’s Voices Theatre Project) that I’m still digesting.”
“I think what the reactions indicate is that there is a passionate desire in the theater community for artistic leaders to speak directly and more often to artists and interested audiences, and address the issues they care about head-on.”