Supply, Demand, and Quality in the American Theater
Or, Just What Are We Supplying?

NEA chair Rocco Landesman’s comments at the recent Arena Stage New Works convening – that we have a supply and demand issue in the American Theater, and that we should consider decreasing supply – has started a welcome controversy in the field. Thanks to Mr. Landesman for pissing people off, and sparking a much needed conversation.

I think that labeling the current crisis a supply and demand problem is slightly off target, but perhaps close enough to get out some more critical, considered ideas about the state of the field in the midst of this current economic climate. The biggest danger with this reductionist label is that it simplifies the situation, and perhaps guides us astray us in our response. But it’s not a bad place to start.

So, supply. There are two areas where I agree with the notion that there may be too much supply in the American Theater – or at least that we are in danger of supplying too much of something. I expect my comments will piss off some of my colleagues and perhaps even close friends, but I write these things in the interest of the health of the field – because I feel that live theater is critical to a healthy culture in many ways (articulated ad naseum elsewhere…).

First, what is the goal of your theater work? What is its raison d’etre? If the principal reason for your company’s existence is that you like to make theater, that you enjoy the adrenaline of the creative experience as a performer, designer, director, etc., then please stop. Please close up shop. Or at least, don’t expect larger audiences, more critical response, and greater funding than you are already receiving. You may be enjoying yourself very much, but you aren’t offering something critical to the culture at large. For the field to flourish, we must offer something essential. And we have so much to offer.

Second is quality. Where are you setting the bar for your work? If the bar is low, and yet you argue that your work is just as deserving of audience, of attention, of funding as other companies who are doing rigorous, top quality work, then you are weakening the field, and lessening the argument that can be made for the value of theater in our society. It is astoundingly hard to defend things such as the NEA budget, or the place of arts in education, in our market-driven culture with its very short-term outlook. As a field we can’t afford to present a bowl of lumpy oatmeal and argue that it is a five course Michelin-rated meal.

To be clear, I am not holding myself up as the judge of what good work is. I am not arguing for a specific aesthetic. Nor am I suggesting that Broadway or large regional theaters make better work because they have greater resources and “higher production values.” I am certainly not attacking your work, dear reader. All I know is that I see a lot of sloppy work out there, which turns off audience members not only to one company’s work, but to the theater in general. We can’t afford, as a field, to coddle ourselves and feel self-satisfied because we have done something creative. Whatever the size of our theaters, whatever the type of work we create, we must hold ourselves accountable to a high standard of effort, rigor, and quality.

If nothing else, as a field we need to get better at discussing quality. Because we simply don’t do it very well. In fact, we rarely do it at all. Just passing these pages around the office of my own theater company has caused some uproar — and if within the walls of a close-knit group of committed artists we have trouble telling each other when we aren’t doing our best work, I tremble for the field. Because I can think of no other serious field of endeavor that is less self-critical, that is more wary of feedback and the opportunity for improvement it provides, than ours.

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As for demand, the idea that demand is static is self-defeating, and stupor-inducing. There is no doubt in my mind that audiences can grow. Many things have impact on this, from what we choose to make, how well we make it, and the way we market it, to the way we interact with and educate potential new audiences, young and old alike.

My most gratifying experiences over the years have been impacting those who are not theater aficionados, those who write to me that they’d never thought they liked theater before, but who are now avid fans. But this kind of response doesn’t come simply because a company has good marketing savvy. Much more than that, it is a question of supply. Not only the amount of supply, as Landesman’s remarks, and Econ 101, imply – but what it is that we are supplying. Because to talk about the field in such reductionist terms makes it seem that we are selling one particular product, “Theater.” As if we were all making the same thing. And we are certainly not all making the same thing. But from the audience perspective I suspect we need to do a much better job differentiating the various experiences they are likely to have when they go to a particular show.

We need to think long and hard about the question of whether what we are offering our audiences is of deep, irreplaceable value. What is it about the experience we are creating that absolutely must take place within this medium of live performance? Is it something about the show that occurs on-stage? Is in the framing of the way the audience interacts? The amazing location of a site-specific performance? The post show discussion? Because however we do it, we must create an experience that cannot be easily replicated in another, recorded medium. If we don’t, the vast majority of our potential audience will, quite rightly, stay in and watch something comparable on Hulu or Netflix, on their own schedule, in the warmth and privacy of their own homes.

We also, as theater practitioners spread across the country, need to be more responsive to our audience. This does not mean selecting a season of “crowd-pleasers” or “giving them what they want.” It means finding a way to be in dialogue with our audiences, giving them things that are relevant to them, helping create a space for discourse around topics which are importantly for your locale, your demographic, etc.

This is an on-going process; the needs and interests of the community change constantly, as do theaters capacities and ways of engaging those needs. Many theaters are already doing a wonderful job of this. But many, many more of us need to get better, and there is continued learning to be done for all.

If, through all of this, we can make what we supply better, I believe demand will increase. If we cannot, perhaps we deserve shrinking demand.

  • March 4, 2011
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