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Author Topic: Weekly - Played out  (Read 58391 times)
Keith Dahlgren
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« on: January 05, 2007, 04:18:09 PM »

So, whattya think, everyone?  Mid-sized theatre in Seattle dead yet?

http://www.seattleweekly.com/arts/0701/theatretown.php
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Karen Lane
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« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2007, 06:14:10 PM »

Answer:
No. And I don't think that was what John was saying or asking. As a bit of a curmudgeon myself - I think John did a pretty good job with the article. I am still unclear as to the intended audience for this article. I am usually uncertain about this with most articles. Is the 'audience' for the article the theatre industry ofr the general public?

I think what John was challenging more than anything else was the 'pat ourselves on the back' assumption both in the industry and amongst the general and political public that we ARE a great theatre town and all that it really means to be one. Maybe not - it is possible that I was just reading it through my own admittedly colored lense - but don't we all?

Karen
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Karen J Zeller Lane
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Joseph E Boling
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« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2007, 08:20:27 PM »

His analysis of the value of midsize theaters and the hazards of losing them is well-stated and, I believe, on the mark - but are we really losing theaters overall? I have the impression that for every small company that either announces its closure or simply fades away, another pops up. Karen, can you provide any numbers to support or refute John's statement that we are net losers in the "number of companies' count? As I recall, your annual count of TPS members showed about ten more companies last year than in 2005, but how about non-TPS-member companies?

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Daniel Wood
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« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2007, 01:15:21 PM »

I agree absolutely with you, Karen. I think John was trying to provide a critical look at Seattle's theatre community, maybe trying to help us understand why good mid-sized theatres like the Space and the Bathhouse before it went belly up. At the same time, I think he was warning us against being too complacent; we have a reputation for being a great theatre town but it came through hard work. We can't just ride that reputation.

Through my own "admittedly colored lense" the article seemed like a rallying cry for artists and the community to help keep our rich theatre community alive. The article brought some good points up: are we as a community doing enough to support the theatre? Are we doing enough to bring in newer, younger audiences? Are the corporations and people who sponsor the arts doing enough to take risks on newer, developing and established fringe and mid-sized companies or are they just staying with the safe big houses?

It's not very often the theatre gets feature articles in the papers (at most we get half-assed reviews that sound more like book reports but that may just be my cynicism talking). It's even better when one is written by an insider in the community. I thought it was a well-written article with plenty of honesty. Thank you Seattle Weekly!
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Eric Newman
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« Reply #4 on: January 07, 2007, 05:12:05 PM »

I agree with Daniel's analysis.  And further kudos to The Weekly if, as a little blurb stated, this is only the first of a weekly column about theatre from John. 
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Christopher Comte
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« Reply #5 on: January 07, 2007, 09:47:45 PM »

Interestingly, I've been having something of a side discussion with John about this, after I posted a rebuttal to his article at The Stranger's SLOG (http://www.thestranger.com/cgi-bin/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=15830 @#13).  In one email, John stated that his intended thesis was that "we've got fewer artists, fewer companies, fewer venues, and fewer audience members".  Personally, I feel his piece didn't do a good job of articulating that, if it was his premise, but that in any case it's just flat-out wrong, for which he's accused me of the heinous transgression of "boosterism".

Suffice to say, what I see is a natural ecosystem functioning as it should, one engaged in a short-term process of correction, but which conversely does not appear to be in any imminent danger of collapse. 

To address John's treatise by-point:  Do we have fewer artists here than in the past?  Not if the number of new faces I've seen recently is any indication.  Fully 1/3 of the 75 artists engaged in this weekend's round of 14/48 have been in town for three years or less; at a recent audition I conducted about half of the 30 or so auditioners had more than three non-academic or Seattle-based credits on their resumes.  I'm sure all of us have had the experience ourselves of walking into an audition and being both shocked, if not downright disconcerted at the number of new, unfamiliar faces already occupying chairs in the waiting area.  Certainly, we've lost people, but we also tend to place greater importance on those whose bodies of work have risen with there reputations, and who have moved to the brighter lights of bigger cities, as their ambitions and desires for even greater opportunities have naturally evolved.  But at the same time I see a very healthy influx of newcomers, and clearly Seattle still maintains a reputation for being a "hot" theatre town, at least so far as young performers seem to be concerned.

Have we lost theatres?  Yes.  Have new companies sprung up in the meantime?  Definitely.   Have we lost MORE theatres than we've gained to take their place?  Right now, I'd call it a "wash", but with a slight up tick.  Currently, the mid-tier is looking a little weak, but it has also traditionally been the most precarious niche to fill, and it must be noted there have been some noteworthy companies that have risen to the challenge in the last few years: Bellevue Rep, Book-It, Seattle Shakes and Taproot all started out as fringe level theatre companies, but have successfully grown to mid-tier status, and there are several other even newer companies (Strawberry, WET) that show potential.  Meanwhile, the upper-tier appears stable, despite ACT and TAG's close-calls, and of course the fringe continues to be positively febrile in the recent appearance (and often yes, frequently subsequent disappearance) of new companies.

As to venues, well again we've lost a few and gained a few, but I believe there is a trend, upon which I'll elaborate on more below, which is definitely offsetting the net loss of seats.  EST is gone (a crime, IMO), as is Union Garage, but aside from these recent examples, really what other significant sized venues have we lost? (Noting of course, there were a couple of close calls: e.g. ACT & TAG).  Admittedly, NWAS looks iffy, as does Re-bar, but in any case, I see the losses of a few moderate-sized venues of 50-99 seats as being offset by the emergence of newer neighborhood-based venues, several of which I've listed in the SLOG post.  Granted, most of these are smaller than either EST, UG or NWAS, but I'd venture there won't be any significant loss in total numbers of seats, and perhaps again even a slight increase, as more of these micro-theatres come on line.

As to the final component, audiences, well here I do think there is probably some demonstrable net loss, but I also think the final determination will come after we've had a few years to measure the continued trend away from subscription-based purchasing, as audiences increasingly opt for single-ticket purchases, and whether or not this will eventually result in an increase or decrease in overall ticket sales.  I think the jury is still out on that one, but for the short-term, yeah audiences are down, although I think this again is cyclical and only temporary.

So, as opposed to this numbers game of "are we up or are we down?", which over the long-haul, and barring some environmental and/or economic cataclysm, is going to naturally rise and fall with the health of the greater national and global economic cycles, I think the more relevent approach toward determining the overall health of our theatrical ecosystem is to ask instead whether it is stagnant or thriving?  I would say definitely the latter.  If we look at the various niches in the system, the levels of organizations if you will, and try to determine if they are all being effectively and energetically occupied, then I believe we'll see that things here are pretty healthy.  Yes, companies come, companies go; some stick around far longer than they should, while others with potential die before that promise is fully realized.  Others plod along quietly for decades on a shoestring and a prayer, while some rocket to prominence, then fall to obscurity.  And some realize a slow, steady, long-scale maturation from fledglings to full-grown organizations.  All of these patterns of birth-growth-death-renewall indicate a healthy, natural and vibrant ecosystem, IMO, and I would be much more concerned about the overall health of ours if this sort of natural death-growth cycle WASN'T occurring, and we were faced with the situation that no newer companies were stepping up to take advantage of opportunities for growth, which from my perspective at least, doesn't seem to be the case.
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Keith Dahlgren
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« Reply #6 on: January 10, 2007, 10:57:45 AM »

Booster!  Booster, booster, booster!

Sorry, Chris, I had to say it.

Hooray!  A discussion! I'm ready to ramble!
 
From the Weekly article:

"Why is it that every theater person I talk to, administrators, artistic directors, and artists, all feel the same thing—that it's getting harder to produce theater in Seattle?

It could be because our theaters keep closing."

And then he goes on to explain why.  It's freakin' hard to run a small to mid-sized theater in Any town, not just Seattle. Theater is costly, labor intensive, time intensive, with unreasonable schedules and, let's face it, often unreasonable employees...or at least slightly unbalanced. 

Who said it would be easy?

Where do we get the idea that creating a multi-disciplinary colllaborative art form that only appeals to a small part of the population should be easily managed and well-funded?  These places die for so many reasons, but I submit that the biggest reason is that it's Freakin' Hard to fight these fights year after year after year.  Especially for the administrative arms.  There's my lens. 

As an actor, or director, I just look for work and try and do a good job and really, I have fun at my job. I don't have to worry about most of it...somebody else makes the costume, designs the lights, brings me a set to walk on.  The venue has an address, I go to it.  There's a lot of competition for roles, there's a lot of actors..I can handle that.  I like this job. It's fun. It doesn't pay well, but duh. If I don't like that, I can get a job in the private sector.  Records clerks make a lot more money.

As an administrator, I get paid (a teeny bit) better, a regular paycheck, but I'm in charge of providing all those things to all those artists. The mid-sized theater walks a thin beam: one slip, one badly-attended show, and whoops! we're in the red!  Can we recover?  Well, yes, if we cut the budgets for the next shows... fewer postcards in the mailing, fewer hours in the box office, turn down the heat during rehearsal, hold my paycheck for a month, pay the actors less, the designers less. Whattya mean cut the budget?  We can't! This show needs a big set, lotsa props, food every night! We need to pay the actors more, get better actors and designers and stage managers.  Grow!  Please, sir, can we have a grant? We have to what?  When do I have time to do that?  I have to clean the women's bathroom because the toilet overflowed! Why are you doing that, Mr Managing Director? Because I can't ask my staff to do it, they don't get paid enough.  Someone has to. You'd think he'd have our contracts ready, but no, he's cleaning the toilets. The actors are complaining...they want better audiences. What are you going to do about it, Mr. GM?

Fighting that battle every day is exhausting.  I'd like to see the statistics on how many people actually STAY in theater, paid theater at any level, after they've been in it for fifteen years, in Seattle. Obviously there's a few of us, but there's a lot who wear out.  It's a young person's game. No wonder the theater attrition is high. Mucho kudos to Scott Nolte, John Bradshaw...people who continue to fight these fights to help the mid sizers stay alive.

It's a living organism, as Chris said. It's an ecology.  I wish I could fight my way up higher in the food chain, but a fish can't walk.  Sometimes we get eaten , or die of exhaustion...or even old age.  It's okay...we left behind children.

Try not to be discouraged, John Longenbaugh.  Theatre life goes on.  We just need to keep evolving...and cooperate.
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Karen Lane
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« Reply #7 on: January 10, 2007, 11:32:07 AM »

I do not accept this supposition:

Where do we get the idea that creating a multi-disciplinary colllaborative art form that only appeals to a small part of the population should be easily managed and well-funded?

What I beleive is that 'we' are not reaching the public. Maybe what 'used' to reach them is no longer working but that would only be a percentage of the why and if true - shame on us for not adapting quicker. I beleive 'we' (brace yourselves and realize that I'm generalizing) do not put forth enough effort to reach the public - both in budgeted dollars and behaviour - behaviour that is inviting and marketing programs that really mean a damn beyond spending the money and putting the materials out there assuming that that is enough to bring the people in.

Karen
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Karen J Zeller Lane
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Keith Dahlgren
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« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2007, 11:59:06 AM »

Karen, I'm with you.

But please, please, let me know what we can do besides what we're doing.  I can't afford TV and radio...not much, anyway.  And frankly, I'm not a marketeer, I don't know what I'm doing.

And I can stretch the dollar only so far without George reaching out and smacking me.

I believe in audience development...I'm working on it. But I just don't have the resources, especially the human resources.  It's that whole mid-sized theater thing.
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Karen Lane
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« Reply #9 on: January 10, 2007, 12:34:41 PM »

I know that the general 'rule' of thumb is to not criticize unless you have 'alternatives'. I do have some ideas myself from sitting and watching over the last seven years - which admittedly is not nearly as long as many of you who have been slogging away. But - I do believe my perspective may be a bit different in that I am watching from the outside, in some ways, as a non-producing organization. I want to actually confer with staff and compose some well-crafted comments in answer to your question Keith.

But also note that TPS has committed to focusing on Marketing and Board Development in our educational programming for 2007. This means that TPS will be partnering with other entities to present workshops and seminars to help us all. They will only help us as a community however, if we first do as Keith has done - and admit that we don't know it all or that what we are used to doing isn't as successful as we could be and then secondly SHOW UP to learn something.

Karen
« Last Edit: January 10, 2007, 12:44:15 PM by Karen Zeller Lane » Logged

Karen J Zeller Lane
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« Reply #10 on: January 10, 2007, 04:39:06 PM »

I absolutely agree with the idea that companies need to invest more in audience development, in all its myriad forms, but we also have to recognize that this is a long-term investment.  Pouring money into posters, flyers, radio ads, newspaper ads, etc., etc. does not, in-and-of-itself guarantee houses, as Karen quite correctly points out.

But the truth is, theatre DOES only appeal to a small part of the population - which is not to say that we can't do a better job of reaching out to more of the public than we do - but this is not Ancient Greece or Elizabethan England, where live performance had very few other forms of entertainment against which to compete, when in fact theatre WAS more-or-less the "mass culture", along with a few other forms of media such as music, and maybe literature.  And bear-baiting, of course.

Contemporary mass culture is indeed driven to a great extent by marketing, but on a scale against which we (unless "we" are Cameron MacIntosh) cannot in turn compete.  You can only get 150 people per night into a 150-seat theatre (and I know, we'd all LOVE to have: A.) a 150-seat theatre; and B.) to have it sell out every performance), so it seems a better use of our limited resources, not to go after just every Tom-Dick-and-Jane, but to target those very limited resources at the sorts of people who we know already enjoy theatre (although perhaps they don't attend as often as they - or we - would like), or who express an interest in the kinds of things theatre does well, while at the same time providing opportunities for those not familiar with what we do to be engaged at least on a limited level, for a start.  But, I just don't think the idea of trying to engage in the same sort of mass-appeal that works for television or motion pictures or professional sports is necessarily of benefit to our particular form of media, because we're not that kind of media, and as Keith points out, most theatres don't have the financial, human or institutional resources to utilize those forms of mass-marketing effectively; nor would it make much sense to do so in any case, IMO.

That being said, providing resources to small and mid-tier organizations in the way of how to do better, smarter, more effective marketing AND board development (which recent events have shown is clearly a weak point in many orgs' structure), to learn ways to reach out to likely audiences, rather than to just trying to appeal to everyone, IS definitely of benefit, and I would certainly hope that people will take advantage of these sorts of opportunities when they become available.

And while we're at it, if somebody wants to teach a seminar on "Accounting 101 for Non-Profits", I'll be first in line to sign up!
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Keith Dahlgren
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« Reply #11 on: January 11, 2007, 01:45:10 PM »

Holy mackerel! Not just a booster, but a Bear-Baiting Booster!

Well, I know The Shunpike can help you with accounting, as well as marketing. Frank, can you guys be a Central Marketing organization, who will market anyone's show for a cost?
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« Reply #12 on: January 11, 2007, 04:40:10 PM »

Well, as far as being a marketing resource, TPS is already on that path and we are open to any ideas on how to grow these resources.

I actually think it would be foolish for anyone to outsource their own specific marketing.  In the long run, that will only hurt you because 1) you're putting your messaging and branding in the hands of someone without the inside perspective and passion and 2) you are not developing the skills necessary to grow.  What is best for the long term approach is for every theatre company to really make marketing and developemt their #1 priority - right alongside the artistic work itself.

Honestly, what is most needed as far as marketing and audience development goes in this community has nothing to do with money.  It is about shifting priorities, building relationships and becoming more effective communicators.  One mistake that is commonly made in marketing is thinking that if you throw money at it, the problem will be solved.  That is absolutely not true.  Money definitely helps but it is not the solution.

We have to really intrinsically understand the value of what we have to offer and find ways to effectively communicate that to the public in terms they understand and care about.  If we can’t communicate clearly the value and benefit of what we have to offer, how can we expect others to see why they should be more involved or support our institutions.  Too much of what our industry puts out focuses on the academic or the artists or various intellectual characteristics of theatre or a specific play.  The majority of the public doesn't care about that.  That really is us trying to change people's values rather than align with them. 

And then, it's really about devoting time and energy to getting out there and building relationships with your community (not the theatre community but the community at large).  Make sure they know who you are and what you have to offer.  And, most importantly, make sure they feel invited.  I think one of the main problems with arts marketing in general is that it too heavily focuses on current arts attenders, and we tend to make general assumptions about certain demographics and ignore them. 

Marketing is a long-term investment - it cannot be thought of on a show by show basis.  It really is about communicating value, building lasting relationships with people and creating dynamic partnerships with other businesses and organizations.  And then there are the posters and flyers and postcards and print ads to compliment and enhance.

As Karen and I like to say at TPS, we must think "BEYOND BUTTS!"  The key to sustainability is in relationships and emotional investment - it is not about merely getting butts in seats!

Phew!  OK, I'll stop now.  Fire away!
« Last Edit: January 11, 2007, 05:38:58 PM by Sam Read » Logged

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Joseph E Boling
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« Reply #13 on: January 11, 2007, 10:52:00 PM »

What about my question several entries back - are we really losing companies?
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Karen Lane
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« Reply #14 on: January 11, 2007, 10:59:28 PM »

Hey Joe - I haven't had a chance to be statistical about this but in general, no, we are not losing numbers. TPS is surprised each year by new companies of which we were previously unaware. Some brand new and some that have actually been in existence for a couple of years when we learn of them. None of these companies, and many of your newest and best fringe companies, however, are ready to fill the void left by the mid-sizes that have been in danger or that we have actually lost. It will take some time. I do believe in the ecology of our theatre community but I also find it terribly unfortunate when we lose an institution like The Empty Space.
Karen
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