Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Fantasy World (Part 2): My Ideal Theatre

I've been thinking a lot lately about theatre and theatre artists and money. It's awfully frustrating to see people leaving the theatre--people do it for lots of reasons, but a lot of it has to do with money. It's so hard to make a decent living in theatre and eventually the needs and pressures of daily life just wear folks out. Living in crappy apartments, working various different day jobs, skimping on food and medical care, shortchanging plans for family, all wear thin.

So what would my ideal theatre look like, one that would provide the people who worked there enough money to live, and at the same time could do interesting work (and not have to be off Broadway in NYC)? I'd want it to create a lot of new work and have a presence in the lives of the audience.

Here how I'd set it up:

First the space:

150 seats. For the most part, theatre in larger venues doesn't interest me because the audience-actor connection is muted. Without that intense relationship, you might as well go see a movie or watch TV. In "The Tipping Point", Malcolm Gladwell mentions that most people can only have at maximum about 200 friends and connections. Good theatre is about binding human connections in an artistic moment--too many folks in the seats, and we'll never have to risk knowing each other.

The space should be flexible, so that the seating and set can move about. It shouldn't be too fancy, since ours is a fairly low-budget space. Nice vertical height is nice. Lots of entrances and exits. I don't need much more in terms of bells and whistles.

Oh, it needs to have a full-size rehearsal space, in the same building. This is critical. There will always be a tendency to want to convert this into a second performing space. Resist this impulse. Dedicated rehearsal space focuses the actors and makes tech week a lot easier. It can also be used for community/neighborhood meetings, and a few public non-performance events.

It needs to have an office and nice restrooms, and a lobby big enough to mill about in before a show when it's raining outside. (And I think we should sell popcorn and beer.)

Oh (and here's the fantasy part)--the building has to be owned by the company. Fully. No mortgage. Debt is poison to theatres. Any impulses to borrow money to build an extra performing space or add a rotating stage or cooler lighting, should be immediately squashed. No debt.


New plays. Almost exclusively new plays. The other theatres in town already help cover the classics. (Apparently that's what LORT theatres are for...) Preferably the work should be written by resident playwrights and other local or regional writers.

Productions should run in repertory for staggered seven-week runs. In Denver shows used to always run for 3 weeks, which was a source of constant frustration. You'd get a surge of friends, then a blank second week, and then if the show was good, or got good reviews, audiences would start to build on the third weekend. In Boston, the small theatres often run shows for 3-4 weeks and have the same problem. In Chicago (I was told, last time I had a piece out there) a lot of the theatres sun six weeks and that helps a lot. Seven weeks is enough time for audiences to build and stay strong.

Staggering the shows allows for there to be a new show every three or four weeks. That means that a gung-ho audience member can see a new show at our space every month. We're talking about 14 plays a year (21 performances each), which is a whole lot of material. Insane, really. That's why I like it--there is a whirlwind of creative energy in this theatre. Some of the shows will not be great successes. Others will. But the entire season will not rest on just one or two shows trying to be hits.

However, if we do have a hit, because we run in repertory, we can keep running the hit show, while still working our way through our pile of new scripts. We'll just burn through them a little slower.

Staggered repertory explains why we need a dedicated rehearsal space. When the shows are up and running, the next one up has 3 1/2 weeks to rehearse. The spaces are busy all the time.

Who Does All This:

Let's start with what our theatres artists need. One of the goals of this theatre is to pay them a living wage, and to have them fully engaged creatively. The schedule might kill them, but they're professionals, and they like to do this. If we pay them well enough, they aren't going to have to worry about day jobs and trying to work at ten different small theatres around town.

So, just for fun, we're going to pay everyone $50,000. This theatre will not sustain itself on ticket sales alone. That's not a viable option for a space of this size. So I'm tossing that out the window--we're going to need donors and grants.

To keep costs from getting out of hand, I'd like to limit the company to 12 people. It makes the salary a nice even $600,000. I like round numbers. And I want a small core group of people who know each other intimately.

No one in this company can only perform one job. And everyone will be very busy. We're paying them $50,000, and they'll earn every penny and more.

Six are mainly actors. Three men, three women. A mix of ages and races. They should be well trained and educated. At least two of the other company members must be interested and willing to be on stage pretty often. That gives us a pool of 8 actors. We'll job in a few people a year, but as rarely as possible. The actors are going to work awfully hard (performing in two shows at once, while rehearsing a third), but that's okay. We'll obviously have to have a few small cast pieces mixed in--a four-person play gives some people a chance to catch their breath, or prepare for a more complex piece. Remember, we're doing a lot of plays written specifically for these actors.

3-4 should be interested and willing to direct. For one company member, that's his or her primary role.

Two will be resident playwrights. They're not going to be able to write 14 shows a year, but they'll write at least a couple, and handle a lot of the literary functions of finding material (though everyone helps). This pace of writing sounds impossible, which is why I like the idea of it. I'd expect 2-3 other folks to write, too. The resident playwrights are also going to be helping the technical director and administrative folks a lot. We might commission a few plays from outside writers.

The tenth company member is the technical director, handling design and supervising construction, etc. Everyone else has to help hang lights, paint sets, etc.

The final two people mostly handle administration--grant writing, PR, web design, box office, etc. But everyone in the company puts in hours every day to help with this (especially the resident playwrights). The administrators also need to be involved in the creative life of the theatre, either as writers, sometime actors, designers, or occasional directors

We'll have to have a few interns and volunteers, too, for ushering and community events, light board operators, etc.

We'll have to have a board, but it will exist primarily to raise money and help interact with the community. They don't get to pick the plays or hire or fire within the company.


So if we had that many plays, and averaged 100 seats sold every night, we'd sell 29,400 seats every year. In my fantasy world, half of the seats go to people who see half of our shows every year--in other words, we'd need about 2,100 subscribers, and then sell 14,700 single seats. That means we'll have to serve a pretty good-sized geographical area, because we have almost 17,000 different people come through our doors in a year (any small city will do). Which is a lot--enough to feel like we're having an impact.

Tickets should only cost $15. This is crazy, I know, because we have a payroll of more than $600,000 and tickets only bring in $441,000. But we already knew tickets weren't going to cover everything. (It's a fantasy, after all.) $15 is about 1.5 times what it costs to see a movie, which seems in reach of most people. If I charge someone $15, and the play fails, I won't feel too bad, and neither will they. If I charge $35, neither of us wants to take that risk. There's only 150 seats in our space--if it sells out, we don't charge more, we just keep running the show longer.

And we want to encourage people to return to see lots of shows in our season. We want them to develop a relationship with the acting company--to enjoy watching them stretch in different roles. And in roles written specifically for them, by our resident playwrights.

Artistic vision:
I don't really need the company to have a specific artistic vision. That would depend on the people involved. It does need to respect the audience, though, and not present plays that come with the attitude that the theatre is doing the audience a favor. A play performance is a gift to the audience. With so many plays, there would end up being a big variety of material, coming from all sorts of sources. (Finding and creating scripts would be the hardest part of this endeavor, I think. As well as sheer exhaustion.)

What I'd really want is for this theatre space to be a hive of activity, the kind of place that becomes a central focus of the neighborhood, because there's always so much going on, that the energy oozes through the walls out into the streets. Maybe there would be classes for the kids after school, festivals, an art gallery in the lobby, and more.

We're talking about a million dollars a year to make this thing work, with donors needed to cover about half of that. Which really isn't bad--if one billionaire comes along and plunks down a million bucks, that'll keep the theatre running for two years.

It's late and I need some sleep. But I know I'll have pleasant dreams.

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