The Playgoer: SPF Panel

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SPF Panel

Some delayed reactions to the Summer Play Festival panel I attended Monday, "Where Have All The Audiences Gone? The evolving world of Off-Broadway."

Congrats to moderator Adam Feldman (from Time Out) on assembling a smart mix of smart theatre folk. It was good to see this topic finally bubble to the surface after much discussion on this blog and other "backchannels." (And after pieces in such unlikely theatre sources as "Crain's New York Business.") So even though Feldman began by admitting the question was a "pre-supposition" it was immediately clear that the panelists--and many in the audience--have already been grinding their teeth about the viability of commercial off Broadway, and the potential to sustain the audience that there is for nonprofits.

Jim Houghton from Signature Theatre (and now head of Juilliard Drama) was especially valuable to the panel in explaining how Signature's new $15 ticket policy came about. (An idea I'm much more excited about than the Public's dreams of more "free" theatre.) Yes, Signature will now be beholden to Time Warner, their main sponsor for this. But who knows. Maybe in future seasons some other corporation or billionaire will want to take the credit. Houghton explained the significance of this to his company as "taking that piece [the economics of ticket sales] out of the puzzle" so that they can concentrate more on other things. The relief in him was evident. He claimed that when top ticket there rose to $65 (now an Off-Broadway nonprofit standard), even a full house "only gets you 60% there" in terms of recouping costs. So having most of that covered up front by Time Warner makes things less insane.... Houghton was rightly proud that "We're not giving anything away free. All tickets are $15." Which I took to mean, no other discounts or variants. Or giveaways to donors beyond their subscription? Signature will now actually be the one company where subscribing costs you more. (The $15 per show plus a fee.) Houghton also remarked that this more democratic approach was especially appropriate for his upcoming August Wilson season. Indeed, Wilson lamented--in his controversial "Ground on Which I Stand" speech--that when his plays were scheduled as the one "black play slot" at a subscription theatre, it made his ideal audience of low-to-middle class African Americans have to either buy expensive single tickets, or even more expensive subscription packages to see his work.

(The Signature policy, it's worth pointing out, is explicitly only for initial run, allowing the company to hike the price in the case of a "by popular demand" extension.)

Houghton's most pungent comment on the contrast between the healthy nonprofits and the atrophying commercial Off-Broadway scene was to take a poke at the Shuberts, in whose "Little Shubert" we were sitting in. Signature's big hit last season--Trip to Bountiful with Obie-winner Lois Smith--wanted badly to transfer, and looked at the Little S., but it would've cost $1.2 million. "That's why this theatre is still empty," Houghton added.

Houghton also suggested what might be an unpleasant truth about the Off-Broadway biz, profit or non. There may be too much of it. Too many theatres, too many shows competing for a fixed (if not diminishing) audience pool. I'm not sure Houghton was right when he ventured there may be more activity going on now than, say, in the 50's. (Yes for downtown. But remember B'way seasons used to feature hundreds of shows a year.) But you gotta ask the question at some point: How many theatre subscriptions can someone buy in a year? God knows what's the solution to that one...

Lisa Kron--still clearly burned from her experience transferring the downtown Well to Broadway--passionately warned us all of a "broken paradigm" in the commercial theatre, at least for non-musicals. "We keep working at something that's become totally economically unworkable." As a symptom she stressed the reliance on celebrities (any kind of celebrity) to sell tickets. Nothing really new there, of course, but she argued it's now so obligatory and desperate as to be prohibitive. She claims that Well (a more woman-centered play than any out there) could not get an interview on even "The View" since no one involved had done TV or movies. "Theatre is just considered 'local interest' " by the national media now, says explained. Meanwhile, she said she knows of many good shows currently stuck in commercial theatre "turnaround" as their producers frantically court name (or face) actors to sell the product.

Kron hushed the house with an impassioned assessment of theatre's growing irrelevancy, mainly because of how much we have to go out of our way (whether geographically or financially) to see it. If I may paraphrase: "It's understandable that when people pay $60 to see theatre they're less forgiving if they don't like it. It would be nice if they could take away one great scene, for instance, and appreciate at least that. Because theatre can't always be perfect... But you know, most TV shows aren't perfect, aren't that thing. Most movies aren't that thing. But movies and TV happen to always be on our path in life. Theatre, unfortunately, is not on our path. The infrastructure of theatre is not on our path in life."

The purely commercial perspective was represented by Beverley MacKeen, a Canadian producer who now runs the "New World Stages" complex on West 50th St. (formerly Dodger Stages) She pointed out that for the for-profit, taxable sector, the killer is the classic New York overhead issues--real estate, taxes, even air conditioning. For an Off-Broadway commercial run at just the 350-seater at New World, a $900,000 capitalization is required, apparently. And that's not including the intimidating marketing capital one has to put out there to compete with the "Tarzans" (i.e. the shows the suck but sell because they're on B'way and they're everywhere). Off-Broadway, in short, "can't afford to market what they're doing." As another panelists, director Bartlett Sher, pointed out: "You might as well raise $1.5 million and go to Broadway" and reap all the benefits. Hence why we see so many great small shows (yes, like Well) move into huge houses they have no business being in.

MacKeen got some laughs and nods when she railed against the propaganda coming out of the Broadway machine, like always reminding people (on the Tonys, for instance) to "Go see a Broadway show!" As opposed to "Go see a show." "Broadway doesn't mean hit," she suggested. Plus, it doesn't help that the very phrase Off-Broadway "sounds like sour milk. It's 'off.' "

Will Frears was another journeyman director there, and could speak to the issue of the generation gap, being a thirtysomething hipster himself. And a Brit, who admitted that at home, even when he goes to the stodgy National he's comforted be among "my people" in the audience. Not the alien territory of older subscribers you see at the resident theatres here. In response to prohibitive costs of print-ad space in "Arts & Leisure", he rightly retorted, "Do we even want the people who read the New York Times to come anymore?" He didn't mean we want uninformed spectators. He meant most younger people read it online.

I especially welcomed the Atlantic's Neil Pepe for putting a damper on the ticket-price cure-all approach by reminding everyone that New Yorkers today seem to have no problem dropping $80 for a Knicks game if they care enough about going. He suggested "what do we have to say" is the more pertinent question we need to ask ourselves, as opposed to just "what does it cost." (I do give TCG's Ben Cameron for always stressing the value issue over price.) ...I'm getting tired of the way we keep insisting that it's pricey tickets that's keeping away "the young" from theatre. As if there are no rich young people???

What does it mean if even the rich elites don't come to theatre?

So given that commercial Off-Broadway is unsustainable, given that even the head of the League of American Theatres and Producers admits "the straight play" is endangered on Broadway...what do we learn?

Suprisingly, I guess the nonprofits look in pretty good shape these days. But then again, so many are probably just one or two unrenewed grants, or dying donors, away from extinction.


TlalocNYC said...

"I'm getting tired of the way we keep insisting that it's pricey tickets that's keeping away "the young" from theatre. As if there are no rich young people???"

Excuse me - but what kind of reality do YOU live in? A glib statement like that completely underscores that there are social-economic-cultural-generational issues that ABSOLUTELY determine whether or not one wants to go to the theater. Of course 'value' takes importance over 'price' - you're preaching to the choir. But when that content is determined my artistic leaders (across the national level) who are predominately white, middle-class, well-educated and yet at the same time continuing to produce pedestrian, safe and routine revivals (perhaps couched and directed by 'hot, young director' with an interesting take ... please)- and then it gets turned around against the next generation because we're more interested in a Knicks game, or a concert, or opera singing in the back of bar - the whole thing becomes disingenuous. The 'youth' of America is just as interested in CONNECTION as you are - and they do place a 'value' on what you're selling (damn the price).

For the record, I didn't know any rich young people where I grew up; but when I did, it was though a social event - which the NY commercial theater has yet to fully comprehend beyond the 'content' and the dollar signs... T

Anonymous said...

and as we see across all forms of entertainment - if it isn't any good it doesn't matter if it costs $10 or 100, if you can watch it on your iPod or not - if it ain't interesting I ain't going...maybe that's what we should be looking at as well

Ben Kessler said...

If I were you guys, I wouldn't look to Lisa Kron to offer cogent reasons why the theater is in decline. Her play Well is part of the problem. Its ending dissolves mother/daughter conflict into a mushy, faux-urgent plea for liberal "acceptance" of all Otherness. After 100 minutes of feebly attempting satire of downtown theater's ideological/therapeutic commonplaces, Kron ratifies all those 21st-century boho truisms. She's not even up to the level of discourse upheld by the ladies on The View (whose real-life Star Jones/Barbara Walters drama holds more fascination than Kron's work).

This is indicative of the problem with today's theater, which boils down to ideology. Our culture is desperate to prevent the kind of societal and moral examination that theater naturally provokes. Even when watching a bad play, we are face-to-face with actors who are doing their best to faithfully represent human conflicts (unless they're directed to do otherwise, as they apparently are in Pig Farm). In order to continue its happy strut towards Armageddon, our post-9/11 culture must relegate this art form to the margins. Unless we commit to reminding our audiences of the truths they'd rather jettison, thus living up to our responsibility as theater artists and claiming our place within the tradition, we will continue to suffer declining relevance. And this crisis of relevance, unlike the related crisis of declining ticket sales, has the potential to do mortal harm to theater as we know (and love) it.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. The Signature is eroding and process of "New Plays" by doing a season of a playwright that's been in the history books. Will they dare do somethng from an Unknown...a SEASON of unknowns ? I doubt it.

2. The SPF Festival. I'm glad to see some forums, but let's look at the plays folks. Anything, that's reflecting our culture?

Also - rumors I'm sure, or bitter people rejected, but I hear the system of how the whole SPF is put together is a bit of a Nepotistic ordeal in some cases. Ihope this is wrong. Has anybody else heard the same rumblings ?

Anonymous said...

P.S. I count TWO.

TWO SPF plays that in the words of Neil Pepe:

He suggested "what do we have to say" is the more pertinent question we need to ask ourselves.

Have something that actually says something. Everything else falls under Lisa Kron's viewpoint:

Kron hushed the house with an impassioned assessment of theatre's growing irrelevancy,

M. Alice said...

My play was in the SPF festival this year, and I can guarantee you that NOBODY on the judging panels knew who the hell I was. All the other playwrights had some signficant credits to their name, but I had next to nothing.

I can only speak of my experience. I'm used to getting rejected from things like SPF and I only submitted something because the application was free and a friend suggested I submit this play I gave up on years ago.

I've got my own concerns about the state of modern theater. I attended the SPF panels and was suitably disheartened by them. I'm not even sure what happens to my career now, if anything.

But... I need to say that EVERYBODY at SPF was so generous with me over the past several months. It didn't matter to them that I didn't have a lot of credits under my belt. They didn't know who I was but they liked my play and they welcomed me in this year. I'm as "bitter" as the next person, and honestly I probably wouldn't have gone to see any of the shows this year if I didn't get selected... but I've gotta say, those SPF folks are genuinely good people, and they're all just trying to support the artists.

Playgoer said...


Point taken. Plays' value should not be assessed based on blurbs. (Though I've enjoyed holding up particularly insane blurbs for public scrutiny before.)

While the SPF is a commercially leaning venue, I recognize many of the playwrights as serious. I managed to see one play, and respectfully enjoyed it. (Though I may not review out of respect for the no-press policy.)

But overall, anything that gets 15 new plays up, in productions not readings, at an affordable ticket price, is a good thing. Ari Tepper is good people, even if she is (gasp) a Broadway producer. There once was a time the American Theatre benefitted from smart producers with good taste (Kermit Bloomgarten, Hal Prince). So let's have more by all means.