The Playgoer: Supply, Demand, and New Plays

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Supply, Demand, and New Plays

So, speaking of the NEA, what has Chairman Rocco gone and said now...

“You can either increase demand or decrease supply...Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”
“There is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” he said. “That’s a discussion nobody wants to have.” Foundations and agencies like the endowment should perhaps reconsider re-allocating their resources, he said, perhaps giving larger grants to fewer institutions. “There might be too many resident theaters — it is possible,” he said. “At least we have to talk about it.”
This is of a piece with Rocco's earlier controversial pronouncement, early in his tenure, that maybe the NEA should be focusing--more like a European culture ministry, frankly--on the best art America has to offer and leave Peoria (literally) to the local level. Or to put it another war, in a time of such scarcity, an agency like this is going to have be more selective--so let's make sure the funds are going to A-List talent.

Well I do certainly bristle at the thought of local arts scenes being left out in the cold completely, especially considering many are in states and townships that will probably be axing their arts funding entirely soon.

But-- I do think his introduction of the terms "supply and demand" are worth mulling over--just not necessarily in the context he means.

First we need to remember the context of these remarks was about new plays. (They were delivered at the Arena Stage's big new play festival in DC.  Awwwk-ward...)  So while this will even further anger playwrights out there, it's not as if he's saying "eliminate half of all theatres."

I, for instance, have long wondered whether even such a mecca as New York City can sustain ten or more mid-size nonprofit subscription-based theatres devoted to new plays. There clearly is not enough audience "demand" (in numbers) to buy that many tickets and/or subscriptions a year for New Play X, up front, no questions asked. Maybe enough to fill 2 or 3 such theatres year-round.  Maybe enough to go to 10 or so scattered productions, buying single tickets along the way. But otherwise: I will go on the record saying that new play supply has outstripped ticket/subscription-buying demand in nonprofit Off Broadway land.

By qualifying this by stressing the ticket and subscription sales, I mean: " these prices."  I might as well also add: "... at these production expenses."

Notice no one talks of a supply/demand  problem for movies. Or bands.

That's because when the expenses are low and talent just keeps doing its thing, there is no such thing as "too much supply."  That only becomes a problem with millions of dollars are spent on supplying the supply.

Maybe this used to be a problem with movies. But what made Indie Cinema possible and flourish--especially in the last decade--is the sudden cheapness of the equipment and the viability of Digital Video. And Netflix. The monetary investment that goes into making a film does not dry up the moment of the first screening--as it kind of does on the stage.  The DVD copy of the film can be marketed and shown in perpetuity in a variety of venues and platforms.

Supply is only limited in an industry where the cost of supplying becomes prohibitively high.

Which leads to Rocco's follow up remarks in a (worth reading) blog post of his own:
There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist? Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often?
Now, not to scapegoat Arts Administrators once again. And, I'm sure there's every reason to question his figures there.  (How many "artists" don't necessarily identify as such on whatever census/poll he's citing?) But--worth thinking, again, about the expense of the supply.

In brief: how do we make the performance and "distribution" of new plays as (relatively) easy and inexpensive as shooting your own DV movie or circulating MP3's of your band?

In other words...eliminating the middleman?

I'll leave the rest to you. For a full account of the events at Arena check out their blog that recounts all the rowdy back and forth.

Oh, and by the way, NY Times? A statement posted on that official Arena Stage institutional blog by one of the session participants does not count as "the blogosphere" (let alone "reverberating through the blogosphere"),  especially when posted by "the public relations and publications manager at Portland Center Stage."

No, this is what the blogosphere looks like. (i.e. people with blogs!)


Christopher Pineda said...

I spent my entire college career wandering between the Theatre and Business departments before finally settling on degrees in both. I always hated how people initially find this decision to be insanity, but come to the conclusion that it's quite smart after just a bit of thought.

Part of the problem that Rocco is addressing has to do with the fact that Arts Administration and Artists have always been siloed into two separate areas. My dream is to one day see artists as educated and empowered to utilize modern business practices as they are educated and empowered to impact their art. The more you learn about each system, the more you can become efficient at each, thus, you will gain the capacity to do both ... and do them well.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for including me in the reference about real bloggers. The Times doesn't quite get it, do they?

I agree with Christopher above -- artists need to seize control of the means of production, rather than rely on institutions. But they also need to know enough about business and economics to create a sustainable business model that doesn't rely on extensive subsidy to survive.

Alisa said...

So how many is too many? Or stated differently, how many people have to want to see new plays to make them worth subsidizing? Are art forms only "worth it" if they have mass appeal? Perhaps the wrong metric/ wrong mindset is at work here. Not that the regional theater model may not be anachronistic in many ways now -- but more because they think and operate in the way that leads to supply-demand reasoning than because they do too many plays. Change the model (and the overhead and the ticket prices, etc.) But doing lots and lots of plays for a devoted if small audience is justifiable. That's part of the principle of non-profits, aint it? Or will theaters go the sad way of the publishing industry (expecting EVERY book to reach millions, instead of using the best-sellers to help float the literary novels, translations and poets...). Yes, the regionals need re-thinking, but the way Rocco is framing the issue cannot lead to good policy.

Playgoer said...

I quite agree, Alisa, that we can't let the marketplace completely dictate the quality and quantity of our theatre.

I only find the "supply/demand" schematic helpful in diagnosing the financial problems our theatre companies are having--being that they ARE participating in a capitalistic marketplace.

But, yes, the right--nay, the necessity--of theatremakers to keep putting up work that maybe only a relatively small "market-share" will turn out to see...must be defended!

At the risk of bringing in even more capitalistic language into the discussion, I do think this is what they call a "niche" appeal. Something which film and music has demonstrated can thrive in this climate. THIS I find a helpful business-minded analogy, not necessarily corrupting.

Edward Einhorn said...

5.7 million administrators? 2 million artists? Where do those numbers come from? What is he defining as an artist--I feel we could find a good 1 million in New York City alone...