It’s not your fault really. There’s so much schlock that promotes itself as theater that it justifies your casting off any potential enjoyment of the form. Unfortunately I’m getting majorly screwed by that way of thinking in the process. Some have said that theater is a form with two feet in the grave just waiting for the rest of the body to fall in. It’s pretty accurate. With the major component of the audience being over the age of 50, white and upper middle class, it’s only a matter of time (say 30 years) before that audience is literally dead.
Institutions are in a tight squeeze trying to book things that will sell tickets while having a staff member (maybe… probably not) working on a plan to engage new audience members (like you). There are still hot spots for theater but they are completely over-saturated with artists who are all competing for the same audience. Luckily those making devised and original work are fairly non-competitive, but the reality is that it becomes a fight with oneself, one where your fists get scraped up quickly and if you have no training in the martial arts of theater, you may throw in the towel sooner than later in terms of beating yourself to a pulp.
For those of us who have decided to dedicate ourselves to the form, we hear all sorts of statistics of how long it will take in order to build up a fanbase that will go apeshit every time we develop a new piece. Somewhat true, for sure. This runs across the gamut of the arts from music to theater to the written word. However with the access of technology the conversation is constantly being updated in real time and then revised within seconds leading us in circles with how-to guides and opinion articles (like this one) that are outdated within a month.
“Your PR strategy is all wrong.”… “Well, that’s because your target market isn’t well defined enough.“… “Duh, you need to start out regionally and work your way out.”… and my personal favorite, “Just focus on the art, the audience will develop over time.”…
Sorry, but “build it and they will come” is a fictional platitude that isn’t appropriate. You can do what you love all you want but the bills and shelved debt continue to stack up. “Maybe you need a part time job.” I actually put in 50 hours a week so that’s not a great solution.
I tend to do everything “right” in terms of self-producing and communicating with my peers. I’m a huge proponent of sharing information and artists resourcing one another, building community, being involved in the theater commons in order to have a continual feedback loop in order to not get stuck in solitude.
However, the main framework of the business side is completely and totally broken because it’s based on the commodification of art as product-based rather than from the standpoint of art appreciation and cultural reflection. I have gotten sponsorship for my shows, run successful crowdfunding campaigns, networked myself into oblivion, gone to countless conferences laying out several thousands of dollars to have a few minutes of face time with gatekeepers and major decision makers, and I still have no hard data as to why I can have a night with a house at 75% capacity and then only five incredibly enthusiastic people cheering me on the next.
Part of it could be easily solved if I had a solid production team behind me with a lot of pull and klout but again if you’ve gotten this far you can see that that takes time, resources (money) and luck. Working your ass off is necessary but a lot of it comes down to the people you know and whether they know how to hustle the gatekeepers who have money to throw at things without concern, who can risk thousands of dollars like it’s pocket change because they either believe in the project or find you charismatic enough (then you’re a pet project and very much treated like an animal).
Right now, I’m in Providence, RI doing an incredible residency at the place where I got my start performing: AS220, an arts organization that has grown into a fundamental part of the city. They did this by sticking to their inherent principles. I’m incredibly inspired and feel so fortunate, and simultaneously I am deeply saddened. My show is about my grandmother, about our amazing relationship and the incredible humor that comes from my familial background. It’s a wicked Rhode Island show, perfect for anyone who grew up in the surrounding suburbs and has even an ounce of Italian blood in them or had friends with that heritage. I grew up 10 minutes from the venue where I’m writing this.
I’ve gotten four preview articles in prominent locations, did outreach like crazy to the local institutions, tweeted like a motherfucker and on my second night of performing in a two week run my numbers went from 10 to 5 people in the house. I still give my all, I go for it every time and get amazing feedback and sweet sweet compliments on what how universal the message is on losing someone you love.
Now, I can assume that the second weekend will be better than the first, the buzz will build and the numbers will climb but it’s not a for sure thing in any way, shape or form. It’s disheartening because I live to perform live in front of an audience. It’s my gift and I like to give it (to you!) but it’s not enough. Not at all, because once you tap out the people you know, you have to rely on word of mouth in order to pull in a house.
Unfortunately dear ones, you don’t know I exist and I can’t blame you for that. I’m not on David Letterman, I haven’t had anything written about me in the New York Times or at least the Huffington Post. Maybe I could convince Vice magazine to make fun of me or pull a stunt that blows shit out of the water. Although I have some amazing projects lined up, I will have a very small group of supporters who know of its existence, that will think it’s amazing as well… but most of you anonymous potentials will remain a mystery to me.
See, you rely on finding out about things from those you trust and if I don’t know them, or if they don’t know about me then there is no way for you to know either. Pretty simple but majorly frustrating. Perhaps you read that preview article in the Providence Journal and were intrigued but were like “Well, I really need to get thorough season 5 of Breaking Bad because I can’t go on Facebook with all the spoilers floating around… and it sucks not being being able to see my friends posts of their kid’s last bowel movement.”
I get it. You are inundated to your throat with people trying to sell you something, watch their cat video or convince you that their hummus is better than sex. I mean how can I compete with those kinds of garbanzo beans? I guess I just wanted to give you an overview somewhat of the complexities of what it’s like to try and convince you to give me a shot, to come and see a live show that doesn’t have nudity or pyrotechnics. Again, it’s not your fault. The theater audience has grown -12% since 2008 but I do want to let you know that I’m not going anywhere and I’ve got a seat saved for you.