The Playgoer: The Work of Theatre in the Age of Mass Produced Culture

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Work of Theatre in the Age of Mass Produced Culture

notes toward a longer essay

In an age of mass-produced entertainment and culture, the work of theatre will always be disadvantaged in the marketplace because it cannot easily reproduce and commodify itself for mass consumption.

Movies, music, and even the visual arts, survive in our economy because their products can endlessly sell.  A film may play two weeks in a cinema, but it then sells tv/cable rights, then dvd rentals and sales.  A consumer can go to Blockbuster (or, more often, click online now) and own the movie.  That work of art that was labored over for so long by so many artists (whether it's Transformers or the latest Lars Von Trier "arthouse" product) can be perfectly commodified, and hence sold alongside any other product in the marketplace.  (Just browse through Amazon.)

Music, like theatre, originates in live performance.  But ever since recorded sound was able to isolate the audio from the experiential a century ago, an individual song can become a "hit single," endlessly circulated (i.e. sold) on the radio, on discs, and basically throughout an entire entertainment/broadcasting complex that needs constant music to underscore its programming, advertisements.  Sure, people still like to go to concerts.  But the music "industry" wouldn't exist without the ability to package the music experience in unlimited shrink-wrapped CDs for individual sale--or, of course, now in quickly downloadable digital bytes that are even more endlessly reproducible in that they are totally noncorporeal.

They say the downloading of music will ruin the music industry as we knew it.  But it will only replace that older model with another.  Someone is still profiting off of digital downloads--it's just Apple ITunes and not a "record" label.

As for how the artist profits, that's not really the point here.  For the survival of ones artform in this economy depends not on whether you make a profit.  It depends on how big a profit others can make off of your art.  How does your art feed the economic gears of the culture industries?  Can your producers sell "ancillary" rights to your art to other media?  Can newspapers, tv shows, and websites generate more ad revenue as a result of mentioning or sampling your art?

If not, then the economy will simply ignore you, and you might as well be strumming your guitar in Astor Place collecting loose change in a hat.

The visual arts have particularly thrived in the current economy.  Paintings and sculptures, for instance, are ready-made commodities, ready to be sold.  (To owners who are then paid to lend them out to be exhibited.)  Even if they cannot be mass-produced, their uniqueness enables a much higher price.  And while not mass produced in sellable units, media outlets can virtually reproduce their images to attract their own advertisers and audiences, so they will want to photograph your paintings and sculptures.  And you will have a gallery and/or press agent to mediate those transactions. 

Of course the "old masters" make most of their money through outright reproduction: postcards, posters, t-shirts, and, yes, "reproductions."  That profit, of course, usually goes to museums in their gift shops, where they conveniently shrink and commodify all the "live" art you just saw. 

And lest there be any doubt as to visual art's value to the culture, just look at the coverage of them in our more cultured newspapers.  Most articles are about auctions, letting us vicariously experience the pleasure of consuming something one supposedly cannot put a price on.  The New York Times, for instance, tells us why Van Gogh matters today: he can generate a seven-figure sale.  No matter that he'll never see his percentage.

And while it's been easy enough to commodify such pre-modern forms as painting, that accomplishment is nothing compared to a whole corpus of art created for the modern (or postmodern) marketplace--art that is always already reproduced and further reproducible.  Photography, video, digital media, etc.  Even Andy Warhol probably didn't foresee the ease with which the visual arts would adapt to an economy of endless commodification, and how thoroughly it would be built into the art itself.

So.  Where does that leave the art of the theatre?

Theatre can still make money, of course.  And there are still "commercial producers" who bet their fortunes on it doing so.  Even major entertainment conglomerates like Disney think the artform's relatively modest prospects for profit worth its while.

Note, though, that those commercial producers who have made a bundle in recent times have done so by making their products as reproducible as possible.  Cameron Mackintosh pioneered the "world tour" approach of "sit down" productions in multiple cities simultaneously, exporting the product across the continents.  This model has been successfully copied by not only Disney (most lucratively with Lion King), but hits like Chicago and Rent.

Note that only musicals seem to be able to capitalize on this approach.

Theatre can also avail itself of various "merchandising" campaigns (another Mackintosh legacy, thanks to the Cats t-shirts and ubiquitous logo).  Musicals have "cast albums" of course--but those profits go mostly to the record companies, don't they.  And unless you are "Cats," how much really are some overpriced t-shirts, souvenir programmes, and other kitschy crap we see peddled on our way out of the theatre going to net you?

It used to be a play was lucky enough to make money through a healthy Broadway run followed by frequent regional and amateur rights paid to Sam French. In the current landscape, that is indeed a pittance. 

There were also book sales, if a playwright was lucky.  But unless you're Sarah Palin, nobody makes real money off of books anymore.  

A play can only now be a revenue generator only by selling itself to and subsuming itself within other, more profitable mass media: becoming a movie, for instance, at which point it is no longer a play, according to the economy and enters a completely different realm of the cultural marketplace.  Indeed the playwright, after the initial sale of rights, is usually disassociated from the new product in every way.  As are his/her original theatrical producers--unless they succeed at nailing down "subsidiary rights" in the initial contract. (Hence why that's been such a hot-button issue lately in the New York theatre.)

I'm not saying theatre will die if it can't reproduce itself.  I'm not saying it even can reproduce itself.  But it will basically always be a loser artform in this economy--i.e. this country.  And I mean "loser" in many ways.

So we better get used to it.


George Hunka said...

A distinction should be drawn here between the "art" of theatre, as you have it, and theatre as a salable commodity, which is what you seem to be addressing here. It's true that as a local and experiential form of art theatre is not as reproducible as the plastic arts or books or music. But that only defines it as a "loser" art form if one takes it primarily as a commodity and secondarily as an art. (It also assumes that there are such things as "winners" and "losers" in aesthetic experience, which I would disagree with vehemently, as it caters to an unnecessary assumption that this is a competition of some kind.)

No art, especially not theatre, is here to serve an economy -- as an object upon which other businessmen feed. Perhaps in this post-capitalist age that assumption is easy, but it's not the whole story. It often seems that this is what today's theatre practitioners want, though; they want to be, more than anything else, players in the celebrity-driven Culture Industry. This is many things, but it's not really about theatre, and it's certainly not about art.

In 1906 William James complained of Americans about "the moral flabbiness born of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid interpretation put on the word success - is our national disease." It remains so, far more now than when James coined the phrase.

RLewis said...

Another great thought-provoking post. I’m surprised that you don’t write more long-form posts, unless there’s a reason why you withhold such wisdom from us.

You’ve made some great points, if mostly downers, and they actually brought up some ideas that made me feel quite good about theater. First, it reminded me of another recent blog post that made sense,, and the question of how much do we really want to commoditize our work (I’m torn).

But then, your post made me think of how Every art form is in some sort of delivery-system transition. In only a few years, the music industry has gone from: touring to sell albums, to: downloadable singles to sell tour tickets – their entire revenue stream has flipped. For film, big studios have perfected the craft of looking small, so that now they make the indie films, and indie filmmakers are struggling just to be part of the market that they created. And TV, the big 3 networks, now the big 5, are losing ground every week to the hundreds of cable channels. As downloads becomes more common, we really can watch whatever we want, not what they put on. All ratings are flattening out.

This all just leads me to a positive view of the future Niche Society. Theater may not grow numbers-wise in this new world, but I do think that new technology will bring other entertainments back closer to our level. (Blockbuster is about to file for bankruptcy.) I feel worse for folks in classical music, opera and dance, but I think even these forms have good news on the Niche horizon.

We just don’t market theater (esp’ beyond its ephemeral self) very well as Sean Rants points out,, but we have plenty of possibilities, like production exchanges (across the pond, flyovers, or more), revivals, seasonal staples, European touring, etc. (Why isn’t there a book of The Great Plays of the Ohio Theater?). A revenue stream, sans Broadway, will take a lot more time and creativity, but maybe we’re just not that into Commodities.

I believe that as our entertainment options continue to multiply, we will be choosing how we spend out time & money by more community-based criteria. Theater already does that well, and targeting these communities is only getting easier. There will be exceptions like Avatar, but the days of 24 million people all buying the same entertainment is fading into our past. The Masses be damned!

Joanna said...

After reading your article, I realised that, although you are making some great points, there are some things you should still take into consideration. And one of the is that making "art for the sake of art" neglects that the "artists" are also people that need to earn their living. I'm not marching for merchandising the whole art sector, I'm just saying that maybe this is just how things are in a consumerism oriented society.

Mickle Maher said...

Great post. It's a remarkable art form, these days, that lacks a mimetic relay device -- the CD or DVD or youtube post that you can send to friends to say THIS is what I was telling you about. THIS is what it IS.

My hope (like all the best hopes, based on nothing) is that that oldest and sloppiest of relay devices -- the theater audience -- will step up. That because they have no way to convey what they experienced of a play other than the story they tell of it, that that story will be better told.

But you're right, of course. It's a Total Loser.

Carl Benson said...

First off, thanks very much for this post. It's very well written and thought out.

Want to get at something along the line of a point made by RLewis about the music industry:

To compete with mass entertainment, theater needs to keep with the trends, be inventive, and go back to the basics.

The basic "thing" (for lack of a better word) of theater is that it's a live human, living through some live human shit in front of other live humans. Sets, costumes and effects are all dressing. They simply add to that fundamental "thing," which is a human, doing human stuff like talking and walking and arguing all in the same room as other humans.

Assuming that's the inherent sheez, theater can now follow the business model emerging in indie music. For example, rock bands don't set themselves up as not-for-profit corporations and go hunt for funding to do their art. Seriously, can you imagine Joey Ramone sitting down to write a fucking grant? They write songs, book gigs, perform like crazy, write more songs, and if their shit is any good, they grow their audience by touring and smart branding/marketing. This is exactly what theater needs to do. Use the web for video type teasers of shows, whether it be live streaming shows and/or short trailers for upcoming productions/tour dates/general cool shit that's going on. Then slash any giant production budgets (extravagant set/costumes/effects etc), go on tour, grow your fan base, and work it.

That's what stand-up comics do, that's what rock bands do, Christ even porn stars and novelists plan better tours than theaters and they're not even performing on those tours.

Sorry to be a bit of a contrarian here, but I've been hearing a lot about how bad theater artists have it and how the system is broken and how could we possibly compete with James Cameron and there's no way to make money blah blah blah. If there are problems with the current model, fix 'em. Try something new. Go for-profit. Get your company paid for by advertising sponsors. Require a two-drink minimum. The point is, that fundamental "thing" of a human doing human-y stuff in the same room as other humans, that's never going to lose its appeal. It's on theater practitioners to figure out how to monetize it.

Again, thanks for the post, have bookmarked the site and will be checking back soon.

Thanks for reading,


Playgoer said...

I'm very grateful for all these comments, thanks. Especially for highlighting the different perspectives we all take on this topic. As for myself, my intention was to take a very BIG PICTURE look at the place of theatre-making as an enterprise in this economy. I'm not saying mass produced culture is good or bad, actually. (Some I like, some I don't.) This is more an attempt at an objective materialist (not necessary "materialistic") analysis.

So I'm not at all saying people should stop making theatre or that the art of theatre is not still superior to other artforms. And I'm not saying it's a sin to fund your art through merchandising, Joanna. (So you go girl! Do what it takes to make your art.) I AM saying, though, that merchandising will never be the kind of "revenue stream" for the theatre INDUSTRY that it is for, say, Hollywood. It actually does more good for individual artists than Broadway, I suspect.

I like Carl's model for an upstart theatre that approaches revenue and marketing a completely different way. Kind of reminds me of what The Civilians do, which doesn't get enough attention--they create independently, then tour extensively by pitching their work to "host" companies and venue. Solo artists like Mike Daisey also have mastered this m.o.

Anyway, I hope to write a follow-up post soon to further clarify what I was saying here and to put forward some more theses, too.

Tim Boucher said...

I'm not sure I'm following all of your points here, but I'd like to as I am a 30 year old theatre professional wondering along these same lines of inquiry...

You write:

"theatre will always be disadvantaged in the marketplace because it cannot easily reproduce and commodify itself for mass consumption"

Why does theatre need to exist in the marketplace? Why should theatre concern itself with 'mass consumption' in the first place? Is that all we want theatre to be: competition for music CD's and movies? Theatre is something entirely other to begin with, I think...

"the music "industry" wouldn't exist without the ability to package the music experience in unlimited shrink-wrapped CDs for individual sale"

You write this like its a good thing! Music "industry" be damned - culture is not a commodity.

"As for how the artist profits, that's not really the point here."

Why not? As an artist, that's one of my biggest concerns - where my next paycheck will come from! And its something I've solved in part through the internet with online advertising at my website, where I make around $800 a month to supplement my theatre "habit."

"If not, then the economy will simply ignore you, and you might as well be strumming your guitar in Astor Place collecting loose change in a hat."

This might, in the end, teach you more about "theatre" and "what sells" than anything else. And it's in some sense more in keeping with thousands of years of tradition: where the performer has to face the audience directly as a beggar in the bazaar!

"Paintings and sculptures, for instance, are ready-made commodities, ready to be sold."

Seriously!? How many painters and sculptors of our generation do you know who are actually making a living off their work? I went to "art school" and know next to none!

"Of course the "old masters" make most of their money through outright reproduction: postcards, posters, t-shirts, and, yes, "reproductions."

The Old Masters actually made ALL of their money through feudal patronage, being part of noble households, glorifying princes and bishops in their work. Same thing can be said largely for the upper crust of theatre artists for most of European history. Especially England: if you weren't a part of a nobleman's company, then you were a "rogue and a vagabond" who could be branded, imprisoned or legally killed on sight!

"But it will basically always be a loser artform in this economy--i.e. this country. And I mean "loser" in many ways.

So we better get used to it."

No, we don't have to get used to anything of the sort. Theatre is infinitely pliable, has been around since the dawn of humanity and persists in all conditions across all cultures. We can do with it whatever we so desire - false notions of "economy" be damned! Accepting "loser" status off the bat is the best way to guarantee you never get anywhere.

Playgoer said...

Thanks for these valid points, Tim. It gives me another chance to try to clarify what I am and am NOT trying to do in this post.

It doesn't surprise me that a practicing theatre artist like you (and George Hunka) would bristle at a lot of what I'm saying. BUT--I'm really not talking here at all about how to MAKE theatre art. I'm just trying to take a birds-eye view of how theatre today functions in our cultural economy. (My title, by the way, reference a famous Walter Benjamin essay from the 30s, that is my inspiration.)

I can understand that my intentions here could be easily understood since this is a more "academic" post, and a different kind of analysis, than I usually write on the blog. So bear with me.

Your challenge of "Why does theatre need to exist in the marketplace?" indicates where we're talking past each other since my answer is: "It simply IS part of the marketplace, whether you or I think it needs to be or not." I mean, as long as theatre artists exist in THIS economy (i.e. rent spaces and homes in a major city, deal with the news media, sell tickets, take loans from banks, apply for grants, etc) then bingo--you're in the marketplace like it or not. (No matter how anti-marketplace the professed views of your art may be.)

This is neither a good or bad thing--it just IS. Unless you and your theatre troupe drop out of society Grotowski-style, go out into the woods or leave the country to practice your art more monastically.

I mean--you yourself say your need to profit is "one of my biggest concerns." And rightly so! (I believe you take my line about artists' profits being "beside the point" out of context. If you read the sentence in its full context, I'm only saying it's the PRODUCER's profit that drives the economy, not the individual artist's. Of course I'm not saying the artist should starve. I hope that's clear!)

While your individual points are certainly valid for the life of an artist today (how one gets by in and in spite of such a materialistic culture) I feel my quotes are being taken out of context.

My line about the paintings of the "Old Masters," for instance, was not literally about how them AS PEOPLE profited way back when, but how their WORK brings profit to folks TODAY.

When you ask: "Why should theatre concern itself with 'mass consumption' in the first place?" again all I can say is, I'm not saying your plays should be ABOUT mass consumption. All I'm saying is if we want to understand WHY the theatre doesn't get the funding, media attention, audiences we think it deserves, we have to understand the importance of mass-consumption to the cultural economy.

As for visual/sculptural artists--no I don't think they have it easy and are ALL successful like Damien Hurst. But I believe an individual painting or sculpture has the POTENTIAL to command more in the marketplace than a theatrical performance, because it is (potentially) sellable as a commodity in a way theatre is not.

Basically, I think my point becomes clearer if you DEpersonalize it to be less about individuals and individual works of art and more about a SYSTEM that we all do live within, whether we like it or not.

I realize not everyone believes this a useful way to think, and I'm hardly saying it's the ONLY way. I just believe we can all benefit from a little clinical socio-economic analysis every now and then.

Playgoer said...

Correction: I meant to say in paragraph 3 of the above: "I can understand that my intentions here could be easily MISunderstood."

Jesse Gaffney said...

It is true that we can not compete with the mass reproducible nature of music, movies and art, if we try to compete with them on that level we will always be the losers, but as I was reading your article I began to wonder if the solution might not be in embracing that. The reason that Van Gogh is expensive is becuase it is rare. Why don't we take a cue from the diamond industry; they know that a limited supply is the key to making their product valuable.

We should emphasis how limited the supply is of what we do. A performance only exists in that space at that moment, it won't even be the same tomorrow night. Its rarity shouldn't make it forgettable, it should make it valuable.