Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Fantasy World: A Living Wage Theatre

I don't know what you all think about when you're in the shower, but I come up with fantasies, about how more playwrights might earn a living wage. (And I want other theatres artists to earn a living wage, too.) Here's my latest:

I'd love to create a consortium of a dozen small theatres (100-150 seats) in 12 different cities. Each of these theatres would commit to producing 12 new full-length plays over the course of a year, each by a different playwright. One writer from each city. Each month, the plays would rotate to the next theatre.

The plays would be cast and directed using local actors. The casts and production elements would be minimal. Ideally, there might be a single team who designs all the productions, and the set and other design elements could be shipped from theatre to theatre. Marketing and design elements could be used in multiple productions (cutting costs again).

Another plus is that it would be easier to raise larger corporate sponsorships for a such a large, concerted effort.

This plan would have some powerful benefits for the 12 playwrights, in that they would receive royalties their play for an entire year. So let's say 60 seats sold, 4 nights a week, 48 weeks, $1/seat (5% of $20 tickets). That's $11,520. Not a living wage for an entire year, but a start. (Higher ticket prices would yield more $ for the writers, but I'm not a fan of super high ticket prices.) In addition, they (if they chose) could see 12 different professional productions of their plays, which would be immensely helpful in the development of the scripts into material that would be of interest to other theatres around the country. They're also exposed to audiences in a dozen different cities--very strong potential.

Cost savings for theatres on marketing, sets, design, might be significant.

There are numerous reasons why this is likely to stay a fantasy. Some of them:
  • How could you get 12 producers/artistic directors to agree on 12 different plays to produce? (Though really, you just have to say, each producer picks one play she loves, and everyone has to just agree to produce the whole set, even if the other eleven aren't all equally appealing.)
  • Even with the cost savings, the economics of professional productions at small theatres is almost impossible (though I like productions at small theatres much more than big spaces. I don't believe that large theatres make much sense any more. A blog about this some other day.)
  • Big systems tend to break down. What happens when one of the theatres goes belly up? Or one of the shows proves itself to be a big bomb?
  • The production demands and cast sizes of the plays would have to be fairly limited, if the goal is to make sure everyone gets paid a living wage.
I wish that I had the time and resources to try to turn this fantasy into a reality (with one of my own plays, too, of course). But if any of you gets the urge, let's talk.


Ruben Carbajal said...

Great concept. It reminds me of the WPA system in some respects, in so much that it's a "national theater." What if you could get 12 existing theater companies to agree to try this for 1 year? Tall order, I know. The other great idea that this conjures, is the awesome 13p Company. I like the way you think!

patrick said...

Good point about the WPA. They were really onto something there--a way to use artists to consciously fill a need in society and pay them at the same time.

I think the way to do this would be to go already existing companies. Many theatres this small don't produce 12 plays a year, but probably should.

I think that the publicity from such an experience would be a boon to all the productions. In some ways it's not unlike the recent Suzan Lori Parks 365 Plays project. Though in this case, it's a better financial deal for all the people involved. In the 365 project, only one playwright saw financial gain (though only indirectly, since they weren't charging royalties), but the limits on box office were severe enough (as I recall, the show needed to be free?) that theatres got PR, but were on the hook for everything themselves.

In this case, the goal is to make a model where all the artists involved, and this would involve quite a few, would be able to earn at least part of their livings by being involved.

You could say, why not just tour one show for a year, or even a couple shows. But touring limits involvement by most local actors (who have lives that can't easily be abandoned). Plus the costs of touring are not small, which forces tours either to play very large venues (like Broadway) or use very small casts (one man shows). This ends up being a different beast.

cgeye said...

How does this differ from DISNEY ON ICE?

We already have bus-n-truck versions of entertainment, and sooner or later, a play will become such a hit with its original cast that those actors will be persuaded to tour the work, intact -- and the theatres in the circuit will insist on them coming to their towns, because the reputation and potential revenue is too great to erase with a homegrown cast.

As for the 365 Plays, has anyone heard of not just a series of performances, but a *great* series of performances, coming out of this project? In between weeks/shows, there is no buzz, thus no lasting benefit for the companies putting them on.

patrick said...

It's different from Disney on Ice in many ways. Most especially, the productions are created locally and are not toured. The money remains in the local theatre economy. Smaller venues, which have more freedom to explore artistically. It is, though, a way for the theatre folks involved to make more, steadier income, without having to resort to touring in a Disney show. And I think that's a good thing.

It is an interesting question about what happens if one production becomes a big hit. But I think it'd be more likely to see a successful show end up touring to other venues, outside the initial circuit, but even then, only if everything lined up economically. Most shows aren't practical for touring.