p'tit boo calls us out: "Ok, now let's get back to the fiery, heated conversations !" (Must be getting cold in Seattle.)
Last weekend, I was in an airport waiting for a flight back home, and I thought: on a practical level, what might the type of theatre you are proposing look like? So I started pulling things together that I had written about over the past month, and in the course of doing that, an analogy occurred to me: church.
Now, before everybody starts sharpening their long knives, I'm talking about structure, not content. Let me explain.
First, a disclaimer: I am not a churchgoer. When I was growing up, my family rarely went to church, so my knowledge of church life is not deep. However, my father-in-law is a retired Lutheran minister, so I have some insights. My background is also Lutheran, so that's the model.
Second disclaimer: this is a mind exercise. I have no evidence that these ideas will work, no examples to point to of people who have successfully tried it.
The Current Model
Currently, we think of plays as products to be sold. We create a product (product-ion) and try to sell it to people through traditional means: advertising, marketing, media, all of which are very expensive. Our competition, which is manifold, comes from other entertainment options: other plays, movies, television, other arts, home entertainment, sports, etc. If we're fortunate, we might have some subscribers, but a large portion of our audience is comprised of people who scan the entertainment options for something that catches their eye. As a result, we are dependent on media coverage: critics, feature stories, controversy.
It seems to me that this approach has led to a desperate economic crunch. We are an expensive art form to begin with -- inefficient (it takes the same number of actors to do Hamlet today as it did at the Globe four hundred years ago) and unique (a performance takes place in one place at one time). The cost of print advertising, postage, TV and radio advertising has skyrocketed. The mass entertainment forms, such as film, buy enormous ads that dwarf ours, casting us into shadow. The cost of bringing in new patrons continues to climb. Contributions to the arts are down as foundations and individuals shift their money to social issues, or cut their contributions due to changes in the stock market.
What if we thought of theatre not as a product, but as an alliance (a "connection based on kinship, marriage, or common interest; a bond or tie"), a fellowship (a "close association of friends or equals sharing similar interests"), a guild (an "association of persons of the same trade or pursuits, formed to protect mutual interests and maintain standards"). Instead of buying a product (a ticket to a show), you became a member of this alliance/fellowship/guild and could participate in all of the activities associated with that organization. A church can serve as an interesting model.
Like the theatre, the church provides "performances," in this case the Sunday service. Unlike theatre, people do not regularly scan the religion section of the newspaper every Saturday night looking comparing ads for different churches. "Say, honey, this sounds like an interesting sermon -- let's head over to the Baptist church tomorrow and check it out." Rather, churchgoers choose a church, and then stick with it. There is a relationship there, a commitment.
Instead of tickets, each person contributes to the church according to their abilities and inclinations. Rich people give more, poor people give less. If you've fallen on hard times, you aren't barred from worship -- you're a member, you can come anyway.
You can go to church as often as you want without it costing you more. Want to do early service, bible study, and late service? Go ahead! But you don't have to pay each time you do.
The congregation comes to know each other. They have coffee and donuts before or after the service, they mill around the vestibule after the service chatting. They also come to know the minister(s). After the service, he or she doesn't scurry away never to be seen until the next Sunday; the minister stands in the doorway of the church and shakes each person's hand at they leave the church.
But the Sunday service is not the only thing the church provides. There are Bible study classes that meet to talk about the ideas raised by scripture, and struggle with their application to lives.
The church is involved in important rituals: weddings, funerals, baptisms. Thus, the ministers share moments of great joy and sorrow with their congregation.
The ministers visit people in the hospital, bring them food when they are sick. On Sundays, those who are sick are named, and the congregation prays for them. There is a relationship.
The church provides opportunities for service: making quilts for the poor, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, making trips to disaster areas like those surrounding Hurrican Katrina to help with recovery efforts, missions to third world countries.
The church provides youth activities and retreats, as well as counseling services.
There are church picnics and potlucks where the members of the church can socialize.
The church building is rented inexpensively to community groups for meetings.
Now think about a regional theatre. It is run like a business, and the patrons are customers. The theatre itself is largely closed to the public except during performance times. The artistic personnel are totally focused on the creation of the next product. Outreach is minimal, and is provided for a fee. The artists do not greet the patrons before or after the performance, but rather rush off to the dressing rooms; consequently, the relationship between artist and audience is tenuous. There are few, if any, opportunities for patrons and artists to socialize (and usually when there is one, it is because we are raising money), and artists rarely participate in the important events of a patron's life. There are probably not play reading groups associated with the theatre. Because many of the artists are not permanent members of the community, they rarely participate in service activities, nor do the patrons do so as a group identified with the theatre. In short, the theatre is not an alliance, a guild, a fellowship. The patrons have little identification with the institution, and they attend based on their satisfaction with the individual productions. If you have a season that is a little rough, there are other theatres they can shift their allegiance to. And why not? Who really knows they're gone?
I teach at a university, and any Admissions Officer will tell you that retention of current students is much less expensive than the recruitment of new ones. We want students to stay, and while part of that involves our classroom experiences, a large part of it revolves around other aspects: social opportunities, clubs, activities.
What would happen if we changed our model? What would happen if you could attend our plays as often as you liked without having to buy a ticket each time? What if, instead of buying a ticket with a set price, you you knew how much it cost to run the theatre and contributed what you could? What if there were play reading groups attached to the theatre that read not only plays, but essays about theatre (say, from American Theatre)? What if members of the theatre were available to, say, tell a story at your grandchild's birthday party, or read selections of poetry at your son's wedding? What if the actors, director, designers, and playwright were in the lobby before of after the show, and there were free donuts and coffee out to encourage patrons to hang around and chat? What if there were theatre activities for kids that didn't involve tuition? What if there were picnics and potlucks and retreats for artists and patrons to socialize? What if artists and patrons of a theatre gathered for charity events that didn't involve money for the theatre, but rather helping someone else?
Perhaps the theatre would benefit from a new model -- the church, or the university. If we created an alliance with our audience, a fellowship, a guild with a group of members committed to a common interest, then perhaps their would be greater stability. If we knew the people in our congregation, then we wouldn't have to spend so much money on advertising, mailings, and media; we'd just send a schedule to our members. People would feel a part of our theatre, they would identify with it. They might invite friends to join. A community would develop.
This would require that we reconceive our mission, and our way of doing things. We'd have to commit to permanence, to participation in our community, to experience instead of solely to product.
Every year, it seems the situation becomes more dire for professional theatres. Perhaps it is time to rethink our model, our metaphor, from the ground up.