The Playgoer: Theatre vs Theatre Companies

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Theatre vs Theatre Companies

The often provocative Douglas McClennan draws some interesting inferences for the arts from the current troubles of large scale cultural institutions in general:

There's lots of debating to be done about whether we need large institutions to report news. But a similar question can also be asked about the arts. The 1990s was a decade of arts institutionalization in America. Smaller theatres became larger theatres. Mid-size museums became bigger museums. And symphony orchestras expanded.

The internet has decentralized the arts. People make art online, compose and record music and make movies in home studios, Massive online multiplayer games have changed the ways we think about narrative. Personal digital players have changed the ways audiences consume art.

Concurrently, the institutional arts are finding their business models eroding as corporate funding dissolves, foundation support erodes and endowments shrink. Perhaps things will bounce back when the economy improves. But maybe not. We increasingly distrust the institutional voice in favor of individual or community collaboration...
So in theatre, the question is: do we hitch the artform itself to the fortunes of a small group of nonprofit institutions?

Now more than ever, we need to make it easier for a lone director, or playwright, or actor to simply book a hall and put up his or her own work. (And, ideally, use the resources to get people to come see such work.) I'm not for storming the institutional theaters Bastille-style. But we need more alternative venues.

Why must every play be part of a "season"? Why must every audience be dominated by "subscribers"? I'm convinced that what's left of the core theatre audience today--especially those under 40--just don't care about all that anymore. When they hear something's good, they just want to be able to go buy a ticket and see it--wherever, whenever.

What this means in practical terms is the necessity for more easily rentable spaces, that are unaffiliated with theatre companies. New York's Theatre Row and 59E59 are good starts, but still too expensive for many. Still, that's a model that has been working, in that they get audiences.

It also may mean breaking away from the nonprofit model as the only way to produce "serious" theatre. It's that very funding apparatus that forces many artists to form unnecessary companies when all they really want is to put up some occasional work.

Any other suggestions?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you in that it needs to be easier for playwrights and directors to show their material more easily

one place you can find plays (and other types of productions) here in NYC, is at

StageBuddy is effective because you can search what kind of plays you want and how much you want to pay.

check out I highly recommend it!

great post!

Playgoer said...

Hmm. Your off-topic post, Anon, smells of spam. But because your link is at least theatre related (as opposed to the usual baldness cures and such) I'll allow it.

Austin Barrow said...

I started a non-profit in 2003 in LA for this very purpose. We are no longer active, as I don't live their anymore. However, I must say that the non-profit status is actually quite helpful for those interested in the occasional productions. It allowed for us to garner much more monetary support then what would have come without it.

No one (okay maybe there are a couple of folks with more money than sense) is going to front the $1800 - $2400 theater rental fees for a 99 seat house on a three day weekend without a little payback (tax relief). Now add on some production expenses and AEA fees, and you are talking some big cashola.

I do believe that more and more should start this option however. Some of the best theatre I saw while living in LA was done by small production companies with no season or subscribers. They would set up guest books to sign, ask for donations, and produce work once or twice a year, maybe. Occasionally you would get a, "Hey remember us," email and go see something new.

Slay said...

Yeah, we're absolutely right to question the whole model even more, given the catastrophic failure of so many arts (not just theatre) orgs these days.

But is there a way to create sustainability for without an ongoing "business" of some sort?

Does running a for-profit involve a lot less overhead and leg work?

Austin Barrow said...

My non-profit was set up and maintained by myself and my wife. There was no overhead. It was simply used as a tool to allow us to generate funds for work.

We did have a "vision statement" that was utilized in our productions that made us cause worthy of the status. Oddly enough it is really not that much extra work.