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Why They Don’t Come Back

March 16, 2010
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I love the argument posited by Eric Ziegenhagen in this post : “Where They Are When They’re Not Here” (found via Benno Nelson).  To clumsily summarize:

Theatre-artists should stop worrying about those yearned-after potential audience members: netflix-users and big-concert-goers. The former like to stay home and will continue to do so. The latter only embrace culture than has been mass-approved, like Coldplay. They will not come to your theatre, because they do not like theatre!

I love this argument because if it were true, life would be so much simpler and we could just make theatre for theatre-lovers and not worry about the mainstream. But I have to disagree with it, on two counts.

First, it assumes that on the three-pronged fork of culture consumption, there is very little crossover: everyone sits on one of the prongs (small screens, big concerts, or live theatre). This assumption is wrong on its face. I, for example, practically live on Netflix: how else could I plow through “The West Wing”?  I am perfectly happy to sit on my couch several nights a week, and go out to see a live show once a week. I loathe giant concerts, even by Radiohead, so I’m a two-pronger. I bet most people are two-prongers.

This leads me to my second point: people change. I was lucky enough to see a lot of theatre growing up, so it seems perfectly normal to head over to the Fringe Festival. But for most people, theatre doesn’t even exist. They need to learn how to see it. Maybe they make a friend with a theatre-goer and start going themselves. Of course, this doesn’t happen nearly enough. But don’t you think it’s possible? So then, shouldn’t theatres try to encourage that behavior?

I think the difference is simpler: you can lump netflixing & nose-bleeding (going to a giant concert) together on one side, and theatre-going on the other. The former has much less potential for disaster than the latter. If you rent a bad movie, you can turn it off. If you go see Springsteen, he’s going to play “Born To Run”. But what happens if you get roped into a dreadful musical aimed at nostalgic baby-boomers or an over-serious Chekhov “reinterpretation”? It’s a painful experience. It’s painful for the same reason theatre can be transcendent: it’s immediate, it’s inescapable, it’s brutal.

In some ways, there is too much theatre out there. Certainly, too much bad theatre. The ratio of bad plays to good plays is depressingly high. So odds are, when a friend asks you to see a show, it kind of sucks. You never go back. Can I blame you? Americans dread bad experiences more than we value good ones. So most people would rather see a movie that gets mediocre ratings than a play that gets decent ones. Less risk.

For this reason, I think it’s in our interest to be a lot harder on theatre-making. How many of your friends are working on a bad show right now? Why are we surprised when the audience is made up of mostly actors’ friends? Why do we profusely thank the audience for coming?  Why does everyone compliment each other on a lackluster show? Enough with the pity party/circle jerk. Either try to blow the audience away, or don’t bother. Be harder on your friends. Save your glowing praise for work that deserves it. It’ll bolster quality overall, and theatre will gain credibility amongst the unwashed mashes, whose dollars we desperately need.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. sterlinglynch permalink
    March 16, 2010 8:39 pm

    I fully agree with your claim that we should provide strong constructive criticism to our peers. I also agree that risk-assessment is a key issue when a person chooses to spend money on entertainment. These are good observations to make.

    In line with the first point — strong constructive criticism — I want to suggest that your criticism of
    Ziegenhagen’s article could be stronger and more charitable.

    The thrust of Ziegenhagen’s article is that theatre marketers have the best opportunity to reach new audiences if we target other business and activities that involve people “who leave their house” and “who choose live local experience.”

    It is true, as you say, that some NetFlix consumers, TV watchers, and stadium-concert attendees are also theatre lovers. Ziegenhagen, as far as I can tell, knows this and says as much: “the potential audience for your theater barely overlaps with these millions.” He also acknowledges, in line with your observation about risk, that these people are also highly risk adverse.

    So Ziegenhagen’s article acknowledges that an overlap does exist. His claim is that the overlap is too insignificant to warrant our attention as theatre marketers. If our goal is to efficiently access new potential audiences, it seems to make sense for us to target people who make a habit of engaging in activities that are already in line with theatre’s strengths.

    Yes, it’s true, as you say, people’s tastes change but it is far too costly a project for you or I to change someone’s tastes radically. Best to target people who are already friendly to the idea of what we have to offer.

    In other words, to use one example, go flyer a local live (and preferably risky) event rather than the local Imax theatre.

    Of course, actual data may prove Ziegenhagen wrong. For example, in the final analysis, due to the large numbers in question, the small percentage of untapped potential audience at a stadium concert may be much larger than the (we suppose) larger percentage found at the Windy City Rollers. In the absence of hard data, nevertheless, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and will follow his implied advice to target people at other local and live events until I’m given good reason to think it’s cost effective to try and convert the mass median to theatre’s cause.


  2. March 17, 2010 1:01 am

    You say that you’re happy going out to see one live show a week. What I suggest in what I wrote is that a lot of folks are choosing other local, sensory, temporal experiences that happen not to take place in theaters, and that these are theater’s primary competition, not pop concerts or Netflix. A couple with $10 or $100 in their pocket has a wide variety of theatrical experiences to choose from, only some of which take place in a theater.

    As far as bad theater goes, I absolutely agree that the best and worst part of the field we work in is that we shut the door and make it hard to leave. However, I think that we’re not in an era of especially bad art. An average night in Paris in the 1920s or New York in the 1950s might be no better — if you think it would have been, the reasons why might lead to making better theater in 2010.

    • LukeJB permalink*
      March 17, 2010 10:04 am

      Eric- I was remiss in not discussing that point, which is also a good one. Restaurants are a primary competitor to theatre because they offer a live experience. But I would argue that people choose that experience for the same reason: it feels “live” to go to a Wolfgang Puck eatery, but how bad can it be? You might have a overcooked steak, or the people next to you might be on their cell phone all night, but it’s probably not going to be disturbingly bad.

      And I don’t think we’re in a period of bad art in general, but I do think we’re just starting to climb out of a period of bad theatre. The reason it’s been bad is this pervasive idea that all theatre is a noble endeavor, and it should always be celebrated. A strong art form doesn’t need to constantly validate itself to the world.


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