Theatre is Dead, Long Live Theatre

Right, summer blogger break is officially over, as indicated by the pissy weather out of the dining room window, so it’s time to resume my diligent blogging duties, instead of hanging this site on the interview series alone. Thank you to everyone who checked in during the summer, which has been one of many revelations, theatre-wise. People, we need to talk.

The theatre here is stagnant. I’m not breaking any news here, and I know I talk about this all the time. As a matter of fact, lots of people here talk about it all the time. And talk. And talk. It’s time to do more than talk if this is ever going to change. It’s time, if you will, to act. So let’s break the problem down…

1.) What do I mean when I say that theatre is stagnant? There are several groups and companies in town that are working hard to put good theatre up, right? Indeed there are, God bless them. And we all have the same number one problem: how to get our houses as full as possible, so we can make a profit, so we can put up another play. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain that they keep turning too many people away. If we get enough people out to our shows on a regular basis, not only could we put some money back into our companies, but everyone involved could get paid for their time as well. Wouldn’t that be something? But the single hardest part of mounting a play is getting an audience of people that we don’t know personally in the seats and their money in the shoe box, that is, the enormous number of people who don’t have the word theatre in their list of entertainment options. The problem is not only getting our marketing in their face, but convincing them to spend the time and money on our little thing that they know nothing about, using only our enthusiasm. This is, incontrovertibly, our number one problem.

Now my key point about this issue is this: this is not a new problem. This has been the problem in Vancouver for years and years. And yet we keep plugging away, show after show, using the same marketing tactics and theatres and programs and street cards and posters and fundraisers…and theatre doesn’t get any closer to the mainstream, to a larger media, or into the consciousness of the city outside the choir stalls. We’re spinning our wheels. We’re running around within a model that doesn’t work, and it’s been given more than it’s fair chance. It’s time for a new model.

2.) What’s the new model? I have absolutely no idea. But, but, I’m pretty sure that the answer lies within the theatre community, or rather, strengthening ties within that community. It’s not that big. We’re not in direct competition with each other. And we all love theatre, with the kind of verve that can only be described as infectious. If we get behind each other, communicate with each other, and support each other, it will cast a net over the entire city that will create such a buzz that everyone will want to know what all the fuss is about. That’s how this city works, it’s fueled by trends. From Critical Mass to pole-dance classes, cool experience spreads virally here when people start talking about it. The groundwork has been laid for theatre to be Vancouver’s next big trend, it just needs us to push it out of the darkness and into the light, and it will stay there, it’s theatre for crying out loud, the greatest communion of humankind to its universe that’s ever existed. It’s bigger than my company, or your company, it’s necessary, in a way that no other form of art is. It gets us talking. Let’s start by talking amongst ourselves.

3.) Prove it. Fine. I will. I have personally had friends come out to our shows that have come up to me afterwards and said “dude, I’m gonna be honest. I only came out tonight because you’re a bud and I wanted to support your shit. But seriously, that was awesome. I thought it was going to be boring and preachy and over my head, but that ruled. That’s theatre? I will see anything you guys do.” Many friends. And I hear the same story time and time again from other theatre people I talk to. Vancouver is a latent theatre town, it loves it, it just doesn’t know it yet. Getting the word out to it is a responsibility we all share.

But really, the proof’s in the pudding. And the pudding last year came along courtesy of Hive, or as I call it; the future of Vancouver theatre. Please observe…

There it is, Vancouver independent theatre working in harmony to create what could be the single greatest theatrical happening ever in this city. The irascible Colin Thomas of the Straight had this to say: “Hive blew my mind. It’s one of the most exciting artistic events I’ve ever experienced…I relished everything I saw. This evening will be the stuff of legend.” (Click here for the full review.) The movement’s already begun.

Let me put it to you this way: if your company is comprised of 12 artists telling people about your play and they tell 20 people each, and half of them tell two people, that’s 480 people that have heard about your play. Now, if there’s 12 other theatre companies of the same number telling the same amount of people about your play (and you about theirs, of course), 5760 people that have nothing to do with you have heard about your little production, and the exponential buzz marketing starts from that number (which is completely arbitrary and produced from about the lowest figures I could justifiably use here). I’ll hand out your street card to 20 people, easy.

I don’t have any answers here. All I know is that I love what I do, and I’d like to do it for a living. I think it’s possible. What do you guys think?

5 thoughts on “Theatre is Dead, Long Live Theatre

  1. Hi,

    Saw your post on Theatre Bristol. Having worked in both Bristol and Vancouver I’d have to say that BC audiences are far friendlier, receptive and willing to see a show than here in Bristol. Apathy rules supreme in the UK. Show’s I’ve done here have always done well, but the theatre only really starts to fill up after around ten days when the reviews are out and enough people have seen it to get the word-of-mouth engine ticking over. Hence, a show needs to run for at least three weeks if it’s to make any real money.

    Oh and Bristol’s main theatre is about to close (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/theatre/2007/05/is_the_bristol_old_vic_about_t.html). I guess this would be equivocal to The Playhouse or The Arts Club closing.

    Last comment: twelve people on the show? If only our Arts Council would fund such projects!!!

  2. Thanks for the note Sam, I’m surprised theatre is faring so poorly in Bristol. We have the same problems getting the ball rolling attendance-wise in indie theatre here, although our big houses (like the Playhouse and the Arts Club, as you noted), certainly have a consistent audience. I’d be interested to hear what you think some of the reasons for this disinterest might be; i.e. social, economic, etc.

  3. I really enjoyed this post as it seems this is always a relevant problem in the theater community. It does not matter where you are or what the economy is like—the theater can never get the audience it usually deserves. I was just in a production of “Our Country’s Good” at my university. It was an amazing show with a beautiful set in a theater that holds around 350. Our largest audience was our last Sunday matinee with a total of approximately 115 audience members, most of which were family or friends. I really love how you play a bit of the number game. Unfortunately, just telling people about a play does not mean they will come. Out of those 5760 people you say 20 will come. That is just so disappointing, isn’t it? As someone who is in love with acting and the theater because of the thrill and the beauty of telling a story, I find it so disturbing when people don’t want to go. However, when people go they are blown away with what they are missing. How can we let the rest of the world to continue to believe theater is a waste of time and money? As a whole, the theater community needs to ban together to fix this problem. Let’s start talking, maybe someone will finally listen.

  4. Thanks Alexandra, and your blog is a great place to start. I firmly believe all it will take is for all of us, the theatre artists of this generation, to start talking about it…a lot. Everyone will listen if we get loud enough.

  5. Social media is the future of communication for sure. Will it make a difference in bringing folks to the theatre is the question.

    It always interests me that theatre people talk so much in person but not so much or as consistently online. How do we get this community to cyber-communicate? I’m currently having a similar issue with drama teachers.

    Thankfully, while the model of producing theatre is certainly dying, theatre itself never will. Theatre is a survivor and survives just as well in the small as it does in the grand. I suppose that’s why I love it so. Theatre in a classroom or a dingy 30 seater can thrill me just as much as Broadway.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens next….

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