Saturday, April 07, 2007

Papermill Playhouse

A few short words just to keep a hand in (I am in techs for The Philadelphia Story), which opens Wednesday.

Matt Freeman recently posted about the possible closing of the Papermill Playhouse, and opined that "If this theater, in its location, isn't able to support itself, we're all in big trouble." I agree with the concluding sentence -- we are all in big trouble -- but I don't think we are in trouble for the reasons Matt gives. To me, the possible closing of a theatre like Papermill is alarming because it seems to indicate that the apathy for theatre has now reached beyond the "serious" theatre to what had until now been seen as the rock-solid purveyors of "splashy revivals of musical theater classics" like Papermill.

In the comments, I mused that "couldn't it be that the Papermill Playhouse isn't offering anything that people value anymore? I mean, just what does "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" really have that people need and can't get cheaper through Netflix?" The key phrase was not about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but rather the phrase about Netflix. My point is that such theatre -- indeed, all theatre -- is getting commodified. In the business world, "commodification is a process that transforms the market for a unique, branded product into a market based on undifferentiated price competition" ( In my opinion, light entertainment as a market has been commodified, and we are witnessing a race to the bottom of the financial pile -- what will deliver the "light entertainment experience" for the smallest financial outlay? Netflix has set up shop in the bottom, and Hollywood first-run, mainstream movies has claimed the second rung. In this competition, the theatre simply cannot compete.

One might point to the recent information that Broadway had its best year of ticket sales in decades this past year. True. But do people attend Broadway theatre because they crave the theatrical experience, or because it is a tourist-y thing to do, like visiting the Empire State Building? Sans that cachet, can the Papermills of our society hope to experience the same surge in attendance as Broadway?

The answer -- or at least, one answer -- is not, say, Mac Wellman or Sarah Kane -- this is not a discussion about edgy versus mainstream. The race to the bottom is not about content, but rather business model. No, the answer resides in theatre's relationship to the audience -- its place within the life of the community. If we regard our work as a commodity to be sold, then we enter the entertainment market and and join the race to the bottom. But if we regard theatre as part of the gift economy, and establish ourselves in a relationship with the members of the community who are drawn to the theatrical experience, then we might, perhaps, disconnect from the commodification race. As long as the theatre does "productions" within the "show business" paradigm, without close and personal connections to our audience, I believe we will find our audiences dwindling. We must develop a new model or, in answer to Simon and Garfunkel, the theatre will really be dead.

Not long ago, one of my fellow bloggers (and I would swear it was Matt or Isaac, but I can't for the life of me find the post) posted something about a writer who was making his novel available royalty free for anybody who wanted to adapt it to the screen. There was a collective gasp of admiration for a guy who was putting his money where is beliefs were. This guy noted as his inspiration Lawrence Lessig's writings The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, and Lewis Hyde's book "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property." I owe this writer a great debt, for he inspired me to read Hyde's book myself, which has led me to a much different way of thinking about the arts. That, and Jan Cohen-Cruz's Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States and Robert Gard's Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America have had an enormous influence on my recent thought. I recommend them highly.


carter said...

Yeah, giving away what we make is GREAT idea.

And if you're rich, you can do it. And if you're Charles Mee with a sponsor, you can do it.

But if you aren't in one of these two groups, how are you supposed to support yourself?

We might need a new model but this thinking is an example of pipe dream idealism.

parabasis said...

I want to correct a little bit of a misunderstanding.

First off, Carter (and Scott) Jonathan Lethem isn't giving the work away exactly. The text of the stories and songs that are part of the Promiscuous Materials Project can be used for secondary use (i.e. adapted) for a dollar (the dollar is legally necessary). What that means is that you can adapt his stories into a play, or use his song lyrics for a song, or take characters from his stories and use them to make your own story free of charge. The stories themselves remain the things he made, so they're his to do with as he pleases.

As for the movie, what he's really doing is not askng for any money up front so long as the subsidiary rights to the book pass back into the public domain five years after the movie is made. Normally when films are made, all rights to adapting the book are gobbled up pretty much forever. It's a way to keep his work adaptable.

And Chuck Mee started cutting and pasting way before he had a sponsor.

What I wonder is why this makes you so mad, Carter? He has something tangible to lose (money) and he's putting it on the line. An unknown writer giving away the adaptation rights to their existing stories is cool, but doesn't actually risk anything.

(oh, and Scott, both Matts, Adam and myself all reported on the Lethem thing, and you can read his thoughts on the subject by searching under his name at, he has a brilliant essay about intellectual property and how it stifles creativity etc. also you should check out his fiction. it's awesome)

David M said...


I'll totally back you on this one -- the theater needs to find a new model, needs to recognize the reality of its situation with regards to movies and television in the entertainment industry.

The analogy that springs to mind is the art of painting after the advent of photography. Until photography came along, one of the primary role of painting was to provide a way of recording a moment of reality -- a portrait of a person at a certain age, a landscape at a particular moment in time, etc.

When photography came along, painters were faced with a new medium that could record and reproduce reality with more accuracy (to a certain way of thinking), faster and cheaper than painting. Classic painted portraiture became a status symbol, affordable only by the rich, and most painters sought out new "products" to deliver, ones that could not be produced via photography.

I often feel that the theater is (and has been for a long time) in a state of denial about how much of the product it delivers can be delivered faster and cheaper by film/tv, and (dare I say it) in many cases is actually delivered BETTER by those media.

Not only are these other art forms
better at providing things that were once the exclusive province of the theater, but they have also upped the ante and expectations for what is a satisfying experience in these areas. For example, naturalism on stage (in the scenic and lighting design, for example) never used to mean actual full three dimensional replication of the real world -- until we began to expect that from on-location shoots in the movies, the elaborately detailed sets on film and tv soundstages, etc. Now, if a stage play starts down the road of naturalism, it has to compete with those standards.

Another example: theater audiences didn't expect to see plays set in 17 different locations spread across 23 short scenes, until we became accustomed to that mode of storytelling via our tv serials and film. Then our playwrights began to write these plays in a (misguided) attempt to compete on this other turf. But you can't jump-cut on stage -- certainly not if you're also trying to create a film-style naturalistic environment.

A third: it has become very difficult, in a 2 hour play, to compete with television in the character-development department. Again, this wasn't always the case, but we are now, through our tv serials, iused to seeing character development spread out over the course of a 22 hour season, or SEVERAL seasons over the course of years. In many ways this rings more true to us, since our real-life experience tells us that this is how people change, slowly, over time. This has caused the (comparatively) sudden changes in character development on stage to feel more artificial and contrived than they once did, because our expectations have changed.

This is not specifically an argument for abstraction or edginess on stage -- or at least not exclusively for those things. That is certainly one way of resolving the situation, but not the only one available. Your recent interest in community-based theater is an excellent example of how theater can situate itself to provide a unique product that cannot be as easily provided by the mass media whose potential audience is in the millions, spread across the globe.

What I think needs to change is for the theater to really look at what it, as an art form, can uniquely provide, rather than endlessly trying to compete in territory which, yes, it used to own, but in which it has been surplanted and surpassed by these other art forms.

David M

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the details, Isaac. I remember being really fascinated by the Jonathan Lethem posts you all did, and the original that you linked to. I will track down the Harper's article for sure.

I understand Carter's alarm -- as a business model, giving it away is problematic if you want to make money from your creativity. But "The Gift" is not about giving it away alone -- the gift economy takes care of those who enter it. What I am really saying, though, is that perhaps there is a different model than what we currently have that would turn theatre back into a vibrant and viable art form. Right now, my impression is of almost total chaos, as artists attempt to scrape together enough to live by playing a game of creative chance that is stacked against them. The fact is -- and I suspect most of the blogosphere would back me up on this -- there are very few who are making a living doing theatre alone. If that is the case, then my question is whether there is a way to combine our work in theatre with other things that WE CONTROL to supplement our theatre work. Right now, it is every man for himself, and the result is a lot of excellent artists who work temp or wait tables not only to eat, but also to produce their own work. As a business model, this doesn't seem effective.

I don't know what the answer is. But I think it is time that we all admit that the current model doesn't work well, that it is not serving the art form, that the likelihood that the government is going to support us at a liveable level is slim (and may not be desirable), and that our economics are pricing us out of the light entertainment business.

What's the future?