September 04, 2003

The problem with live theatre... (warning, long rant)

For some time now, I’ve had this chip on my shoulder over the current situation of theatre as I see it around my area. So be warned, I am not going to go and back up what I say here with facts and figures as I don’t have any… But see if it doesn’t make sense anyway. (hey wait, that’d make it logical right?... no wonder the arts can’t seem to grasp this… but I digress…)

The first thing that really bothers me is that the theatre industry has priced itself out of reach of most people who might want to go often. Anyone can afford to go see a show once in a while, but footing the bill for a season gets ugly… Why would we do that you ask? (I use we only because I work in the industry, not because I have any control over any of this) Well there are a couple things that really drive up the price. First, there are companies out there that charge the royalties for the shows. Then the money they collect goes to them and the playwright/composer (hopefully), and many of the “popular” shows are very pricy to be allowed to perform. Do I begrudge people their money for writeing the shows?... Hell no… They earned it as much as anyone, but it is one of the ugly costs out there…

Another reason they have to charge so much is that there are a number of artistic directors (aka the artistic head of a theatre organization as opposed to the financial head) that make an outrageous amount of money, as well as getting other perks. What perks?... Well there’s the obligatory “expense account”, some of them have expensive housing deals with the theatre, some of them get a company provided car as well. (and no, we’re not talking about a three year old Ford Escort… I’m talking BMW, Mercedes, Lexus level cars.) (oh, and by the way, the whole salary of the artistic director issue is one I could go off on for one long horrible rant, but I’m going to try to be good and move on to the next issue in my mind)

I find it hard to go off on the technicians for raising the price of tickets through their salaries. It really isn’t the case in most places, as the technicians get paid little more than an insult. (hey, I’ve been there, done that, and couldn’t even afford the damn t-shirt) However, there are some places that, yes, the salaries of tech staff is part of the problem. Mostly, I see that in some of the unionized theatres. Am I anti-union?... Nope, I’ve had my union card for as long as I was eligible. However there are people that get paid nice fat salaries for working on a show when they actually just show up, sign in and leave to go work on another event. That’s because the contract was negotiated for X number of union stagehands, and the show may require only X – 1 or 2 folks. So those individuals get to go out and double dip. It is a major contributor in some cases folks. (can you say Broadway?... )

You need another reason to raise the ticket price?... ok… There’s no lack of them… How about the fact that the NEA and so many state arts funding programs have been cut back to the bone. Don’t believe it?... Ok.. Here in lovely New Jersey, our governor tried to not only cut arts funding, this peach of a human being tried to eliminate 100% of arts funding. (we’re not just talking theatre funding… theatre, museums, school art programs, funding to state supported concerts, you name it…) Yes, we got that stopped before it went through, but we got only a fraction of what it was the year before, and that was really low.

The trend in many directors/designers mind seems to be these ultra real sets, or sets that are mechanized, or enough lights for a rock concert. They are trying to compete against the movies, TV, and concerts. Guess what, we don’t need to. Theatre has been around for centuries, and it still works in a way that the other mediums can’t. Somehow the people in charge don’t seem to think that. It is sad to see them loose the faith in the true art of theatre. All that crazy scenery, lighting and special effects is wildly expensive when you try to do it in a live situation over and over. Movies and TV, can just say cut and re-shoot if it doesn’t work. For theatre, it has to work the first time, every time with almost no time for maintenance. (you find me another industry that requires that, that doesn’t have some kind of backup in place… theatre can barely afford one system, let alone a backup system)

Ok, so those are the reasons I see prices keep going up that are hard to change. Here’s another reason that would require a change in the culture of the theatre community to help. (yea, that’s going to happen) The arts community has gotten so stuck on itself that it thinks that it is more important to produce some ethereal concept of “art” that they seem to have forgotten that theatre requires an audience. Am I sitting here saying I don’t think art is important?... No, not at all… However, I really am more concerned with entertaining people. If you can manage to do that, then the people will figure out how to afford to come to your shows. I know countless theatre folks (actors, directors, techs) that feel that doing a musical is simply trash. Guess what, those “trash musicals” sell tickets. They fill houses time after time. Why do they do that?... Well hell, they aren’t depressing… They’re fun… They pretty much all have a happy ending… Everyone kinda knows the songs… They also seem to move along, so even a 3 hour musical doesn’t get boring like many of the longer plays.

So is that the answer?, every theatre just does old musicals?.. Of course not, as that would mean the world of theatre got stagnant. It is important to do new works, old works, unknown works, etc… Unfortunately I see theatre after theatre crying the blues because of dwindling attendance, while they keep putting on these bizarre shows that don’t make any sense to me, and I have not only the script to study, but also the director, and at times the playwright to explain it to me. They refuse to do something that will draw people in. They’re all looking for the next big hit show, and running themselves into the ground by ignoring what is established to work. Sure, if they fill the theatre with all the artsy types in the community once or twice, they may have a great audience for that show. Unfortunately, shows run in many cases for 3 weeks, 8 shows a week.

My great solution to the problem?

Stop overpaying the few folks that are out there really screwing the orginazations.

Take that cash, and throw it at the dirt poor techs that can’t afford to live.

Stop trying to compete with the movies and TV, and accept it as theatre.

Do some shows that people actually like to bring in some revenue.

Don’t plan the season budget around grant money since it keeps getting cut after you’ve gone and spent the money in advance based on last years numbers.

Can’t do much about royalties really, but it’d be nice if they’d get relaxed just a bit.

Ok… If you made it this far, I’m proud of ya! Now… Get off your computer, and go find a theatre, buy a ticket, and go see something more powerful than most movies could hope for. Thanks for listening to my vent…

Posted by Backstage at September 4, 2003 07:44 PM
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