The Playgoer: Who Needs Subscribers?

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Who Needs Subscribers?

"Whenever I hear an artistic director say they'd love to do a play but their subscribers would hate it, I want say--get rid of your subscribers!"

Gregory Mosher said this at the kickoff panel for CUNY Prelude Wednesday, and defititely raised some eyebrows. Me, I was nodding all the way.

But contrary to those in the crowd who thought he meant liquidating people, there was important distinction he meant between subscribers and an audience, and the dangers of conflating the two, defining the latter only in terms of the former. To paraphrase him, something is deeply wrong with a system where theatre companies are doing less and less of the work they want to do, and are more and more beholden to what their subscribers will accept. Don't you have to wonder why you got into this business after a while?

The defense, of course, is why pick on people whose only crime is loving the theatre. But the target of the criticism is not the individual but what happens to the individual--and how the company sees that individual--once they become a subscriber.

Mosher cited as a particularly disheartening moment from his experience when he heard a man asking his wife as they took their season seats: "And what are we seeing tonight?" What wonderful blind faith in the magic of theatre, you say? Maybe. But in my experience these are the same people who write angry letters saying "My wife and I don't pay $300 a year for some awful play like this."

Theatres tell us they're dependent on subscription income. But that just empowers the cranky subscriber to hold disproportionate sway. If your business model depends on such factors...get another business model.

Food for thought, eh?

13 comments:

Dominick Balletta said...

Kudos to Greg. Your supporters should trust your judgement - if they don't like what you do, they will leave (and you'll get new ones). But don't pre-censor yourself (or hold yourself hostage)by only programming what you think they want.

What was that old saying about 'when you assume....."

David Cote said...

Amen to Mosher's remark and your post: It's the overcautious perception of subscriber taste, not the subscribers themselves, that is the problem. No doubt running a theater is a horribly difficult, high-pressure job, but a truly resourceful, intelligent and charismatic AD can reach out to the subscribers, explain what they're about to see, and embolden them in the face of difficult, even insulting art.

Mark said...

Mosher put his money where his mouth was when he ran Lincoln Center. If I remember correctly, he instituted a policy that the theater would have "members" who got a certain amount of admissions to any show of the season--they could bring friends to shows they were excited about, skip ones they weren't and the theater still got the upfront cash. (The importance of the latter can't be dismissed.)

Malachy Walsh said...

I didn't see Mosher make the statement, but I think it's wrongheaded to blame subscribers for the current state of anything in theatre. Cote is more on the money for me: "...It's the overcautious perception of subscriber taste, not the subscribers themselves, that is the problem."

Artistic Directors who do not take the time to explain, set the stage or mentally prepare an audience to see a show - or a season of shows - are the ones truly responsible for whatever is happening in the theatre. They're the ones in charge. They're the ones who have to set the tone.

They have to lead their audiences (subscribers or members or single ticket buyers). Not follow it.

Anonymous said...

"Mentally prepare" audiences to see a show? Who "mentally prepared" audiences to see Picasso, to read Faulkner, to see a Fellini film. Why are theatre audiences always spoken of as they though they are demented children?

Rdavis said...

When I was at the Lincoln Center Director's Lab in 96, Mosher shocked everyone there with the same ideas about subscribers. It's obviously something close to his heart.

Malachy Walsh said...

To anon - I wish theatre audiences were demented children. It would be a lot more fun to go to shows.

Me, I was "mentally prepared" for all those big names namely by teachers who taught from an accepted canon of work in literature and the arts.

It's interesting that you use Faulkner as what I believe you are saying is an example of an artist that an audience needs no mental preparation for. But Faulkner needs lots of help to be understood, much less appreciated. And until he won the Nobel, he didn't get that kind of help: Most of his books were out of print prior to his accepting the prize and he was practically unheard of in his own country.

Dr. Cashmere said...

Remind me again: Why isn't Mosher running a major theatre these days?

The Playgoer said...

Cashmere-- Why isn't anyone hiring Mosher to run a theatre? Maybe because of statements like that, right?

Dr. Cashmere said...

Fair enough, good point.

He may also be tired of the game.

I agree, in any case, that the theater scene would be healthier if there were more ADs (particularly at large institutions) walking his talk.

Scott Walters said...

I agree with Mosher -- the biggest disaster for the American regional theatre movement was the publication of "Subscribe Now!," which sold everybody the concept of a subscription audience. This bad idea cuts two ways: the theatres try to create a "balanced" season in the hopes of "pleasing" their subscribers, with the result that they create a bland mish-mash; and audiences are forced to see productions that suck. Bad theatre should close, and good theatre shoudl stay open -- but a subscription season prevents both of those from happening. We should all listen to Mosher, and quit worrying about "upfront money."

Mark said...

Easy for you to say, Scott: you aren't running a theater. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to put on a play and not one dime of that comes from ticket sales until almost all the expenses have been paid out. "Upfront money" of one sort or another is 100 percent necessary for the production of plays. How to get it is what we're discussing here, not whether to get it.

Anonymous said...

Shitting on the subscription model is completely immature, if not one of the lamest and laziest ideas imaginable.

The failure of theatre isn't caused by someone buying a ticket - even blindly. It's the directors and artist directors who have done nothing to alert people to why they are seeing it, why it's worthy - even if they may hate it.

And by the way, I'm not talking about a letter from the director and artistic director in front of the program about why they love a play. That is also lazy.