Monday, January 21, 2008

Denver Center new plays: Great, But Come On!

Mirror Up to Nature points us to an article in the Denver Post about the Denver Theatre Center's decision to commit to the production of three new American plays, a decision which I applaud enthusiastically and wholeheartedly.


I could really use some explanation about why such a commitment -- a commitment to three plays, mind you, not something like a whole season -- is being portrayed as so financially risky as to be characterized as"knee-wobbling." Yes, knee-wobbling. The article makes it sound like the production of new plays is some heroic undertaking, as if doing new plays wasn't the norm until regional theatres got so wussy about it. The article explains

That risk — both financial and artistic — is the main reason more companies don't, or can't, follow the DCTC's lead. The artistic risk is three-fold: No matter the writer, just paying for a script to be written doesn't mean it will be worthy of being staged one day. So, many get written but are never staged.

It's also always harder to attract audiences to plays they don't know. And Thompson isn't playing it safe when it comes to content.

The financial risk is knee-wobbling. Thompson estimates it's one-third more expensive to produce a new play than an existing one. [my italics] So last year, the Denver Center board expanded Thompson's budget by $1 million, to $11.9 million — and that's when he was staging only one new play, Jason Grote's thrilling "1001." This year, the figure will be $12.6 million.

"When you are working with unknown titles, your risk goes way up," said Denver Center chief financial officer Vicky Miles. "A few years ago, we wouldn't have been in a financial position to take that risk."... The additional expenses only begin with paying writers to write. The playwright also must be present at design meetings, casting, rehearsals and performances. Marketing costs go up.

So let me get this straight. This incredible expense is the result of paying writers for their work, and for including them in the production process? That's the Big Deal? Doesn't that sort of seem like, I don't know, the cost of doing business? God knows what would happen if they had a resident playwright on the payroll, for crying out loud - they'd probably be wearing tights and a cape and be indestructible except for Kryptonite. And those marketing costs: what? Sometimes I think we believe that everybody in the audience has had theatre history. OK, they're doing Merry Wives of Windsor, which I suppose can be marketed as a Shakespearean romp or something, but do we really think that most of the general public has read the damn thing? The fact is that for most of the audience, it, too, is a new play. And while we personally may have seen dozens of scenes from The Seagull in our undergraduate acting classes, the idea that the general public is saying, "Look, honey, they're going to do one of those wonderful Russian plays of the lat 19th century that are so bittersweet and subtle...." I mean, please. Let's talk about the need for marketing.

In fact, this heroic posturing is undercut just a wee bit by this sentence, thrown in a few lines down: "Last year, [Jason] Grote's "1001" sold to a jaw-dropping 85 percent of capacity, while the simultaneous "King Lear" drew 81 percent." Yes, read that again: Jason Grote 85, William Shakespeare 81. Now, tell me again how risky it is to do new work.

I'm sorry, but this whole thing is a myth, an excuse for not having the artistic imagination to actually commit to reading new plays and evaluating them for their stage-worthiness. Instead, we rely on Oscar Brockett to make our first for us. If Brockett says it's good, it must be good.

But here's the kicker:

"The DCTC has even taken on the extraordinary expense of bringing in (and putting up) two entire casts ("Lydia" and "Our House") that are new to the company."

What? They've BROUGHT IN two separate casts and have to PUT THEM UP. Let's compare this expense -- the expense of not having the sack to commit to a resident company and instead jobbing in actors from out of town (dollars to donuts: NYC) -- to the expense of putting up a single playwright for the production process. Remember that playwright who made the whole new play thing so knee-wobblingly risky? Yeah. Do some math and get back to me.

I'm sorry, but I am starting to think that people in the theatre don't know how to use numbers, or think that we the audience don't. Because this just doesn't add up.

So kudos to the Denver Center Theatre for supporting American playwrights. Truly. But can we not do that while reinforcing the myth of the risk of the new? Could we acknowledge that Jason Grote beat William Shakespeare's masterpiece? Can we think about what that might mean?


ilannoyed said...



that's why we majored in Theeyayter

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* Yeah, that's why we always get screwed by The Man! *L*

Jason Grote said...

Hey Scott - thanks for pointing this out. It's indeed heartening to know that 1001 outsold Lear (my favorite play, actually, along with Maria Irene Fornes' Mud), but I have to give credit to Denver for doing it right, a subject I might explicate on my own blog (I'll make sure to link it in your comments if/when I do - I'm pretty busy these days). But the sad fact is, even the play's success in Denver and West Virginia (and to a lesser extent in NYC, where it didn't get to gather momentum until the 4th and final week of the run) isn't enough for many institutional theaters, in NYC as well as the regions. Even after all this, one regional theater that had (as I understood it) committed to it backed out in a pretty craven way. The reasons often vary - I respect it the most when ADs just level with me and tell me they can't afford a 6-actor show this time around - but most often they think it's too much for their audiences. I don't entirely blame America's artistic directors, though some of them are definitely terrible - I think it really is the fallout from the culture wars and the gutting of our arts budgets, combined with the inducement of many in the arts to follow a capitalist paradigm, never a comfortable fit with art. Kent Thompson and Bruce Sevy at DCPA have guts and integrity, but they also have very generous and very hands-off patrons...

jmoore said...

Hi Scott. John Moore here. Thanks for championing the message, even if the poor messenger got his bullet-ridden body dumped in the drink, hahah ....

A couple of points worth raising: I don't think one can hold up the denver center for the current anomaly that it is -- and then use it as representative of the current national standard.

Many things are happening in Denver that aren't happening elsewhere. You seem to be saying that the success of "1001" proves the Denver Center could (and perhaps should) program an entire season of new works, which makes their now doing three (simultaneously) not all that impressive to you.

Maybe Denver’s not going fast enough for you, but it is way ahead of the curve. Here's a little background: The Denver Center was only able to pay for its three world premieres this year because more than 100,000 also went to see "White Christmas." The year before, "1001" was paid for in part by the fact that 30,000 had again gone to "A Christmas Carol" the season before -- which, until it took last year off, was the company’s most-attended play every year for 19 straight years.

The Denver Center would not call this selling out -- They have figured out a way to subsidize new works with sometimes very conservative counter-programming. And I believe that Jason Grote and Kent Thompson would say "hooray for that." Whatever works. Because producing a season of 11 new works and only 11 new works only would not yet fly, not here in Denver, which nevertheless is rightly being hailed by Jason and others as being incredibly progressive and smart in its approach to new-play development.

I offer the following evidences: The Denver Center, in addition to its current three world-premiere new plays, also has staged in the past year: “Season’s Greetings,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “You Can't Take It With You,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Pride and Prejudice.” … And without them, there wouldn't be a new-play program here.

Second, the Denver Center was once before a national leader in new-play development, hosting an annual festival and inaugurating the Primus Playwriting Prize. But after 9/11, the second economics got tough, the new-play program was the first thing to go. The real test of a new-play program is how it survives in the tough times, and Denver has learned from past experience not to take the current spoils for granted -- or to forget that they are programming for all audiences. Some are thirsty for new plays. Others are thirsty for Shakespeare, others for the classics. Rather than try to be all things to a very few people, Kent Thompson’s approach is to try to be just-enough for everyone. And it appears to be working. This place is buzzing.

I was the one who researched and splashed those "1001" vs. "King Lear" attendance figures -- and they are accurate. "1001" played to 85 percent capacity to "King Lear's" 81. But I should have pointed out that they were performed in different theaters -- the theater housing "King Lear" was almost twice the size of the theater housing "1001," so "King Lear" was actually seen by about 10,000 more people (theaters just love using that "percent of capacity” figure, though). Sorry if that was misleading.

Forgive me if I came across as a little breathless in championing the Colorado New Play Summit. It just ended Sunday, and it was really invigorating to anyone who cares about new-play development in America. But I don't think you can both chastise Denver for not moving fast enough when it's been burned in the past – and when it is moving much more quickly than most places in the country.

Then again, most places in the country don't have the luxury of all these complementary factors: A board that includes Jim Steinberg (he also funds the critics prize at Humana -- the largest cash playwriting prize in the world); Kent Thompson as A.D., the women’s voices fund, a new chairman who is probably the most effective fundraiser in the history of Colorado. I do think it's extraordinary that they have increased his budget for new plays as they have, when truthfully, overall revenue is not yet up commensurately.

And finally, a word about resident companies. The CFO at the Denver Center would choke on her apple to hear your suggestion that it is actually cheaper to fly in and house guest companies than to maintain a permanent resident company. No matter where the actors come from or live, Scott, they only get paid for the weeks that they work. So it is FAR less expensive to pay actors who already live here than it is to pay an ever-rotating roster of actors whom you have to fly in, house, feed, and pay a per diem. Under Donovan Marley, the Denver Center maintained one of the last true resident companies in America. Kent Thompson wants more intermingling blood, which is his prerogative, but I guarantee you he is paying more far more money to do it his way than Donovan ever did.

For one thing, Donovan might typically use 30-35 actors total in an entire 11-play season. And the vast majority of them lived here for decades (and many still do). They have their own cars and houses. A very few were brought in -- and paid to do so.

This year, Kent will be using more than double that number of actors -- and far fewer of them are Colorado residents anymore, so they all have to be brought here from somewhere, housed, etc. That adds up pretty fast.

Thanks for the great dialogue.

John Moore, The Denver Post

Scott Walters said...

Damn, John, I was really counting on using that Grote vs Shakespeare attendance figure in the future. *sigh* Let me ask you something, John (or anyone else whos still following this conversation): why in the hell do people who seek out the new in film and music -- who would have very little interest in a remake of a classic film or in covers of songs -- prefer coming to a 400-year-old play written in hard-to-understand English where they know what is going to happen in advance to a new play by a playwright who is writing about their lives in language that sounds like their own? Conventional wisdom is that this is about the desire to stay in one's comfort zone, to go with the known. But doesn't the health of the film, TV, and music industry belie that?

As far as the out-of-town actors are concerned, I thought that is a point I have been making on this blog: that it is an expensive practice with few dividends. And while I guess I can understand Kent's desire to intermingle new blood, and agree that injecting new and diverse viewpoints are crucial to the continued development of a group, when that new blood only stays for a few weeks, it seems the intermingling would be awfully superficial. Frankly, while I do applaud Kent's efforts as far as new plays are concerned, I think I would resist pretty strongly his desire to de-Denverize the acting company. Slippery slope.

Thanks for joining the conversation -- I hope we will continue to hear from you.

For the record: I think the Denver Center is on the side of the angels, and is more progressive than many regional theatres across the country. I also think they, and everyone else, needs to be continually goaded!

jmoore said...

Thanks Scott, I was so glad to have found your blog (thanks, Jason). Good stuff. I agree with both your points 100 percent. Why do people go back to 400 year-old plays? I can't compute. I just reviewed the sixth Denver-area production of "The Gin Game" since 2003 and i had to fess up in that review that it's totally lost its juice for me. But i have to keep in mind that this is my job. Most, if not all, of the people who are seeing this "Gin Game" really are seeing it for the first time, and they think it's unfair that I brought my "repeated viewings" baggage into the dialogue because it's new to them. I gotta keep that in mind for the future.

But then again, we live in a time when people amass DVDs like I used to collect baseball cards. I rarely see a film twice (unless it's "The Usual Suspects," which I could watch 100 times). Most everyone else on the planet now buys movies and they watch them until a film is seared into their long-term memory. I want to see something new almost every time.

Now, to contradict myself: I saw Jason's "1001" twice -- on opening and closing nights in Denver. In that case, I greatly benefitted from the repeat viewing, and a few more could have only helped.

I tried to address this subject when the Denver Center staged "White Christmas." Rather than some boring advance on the making of a new (OLD) musical, I tried figurte out why we go back every holiday season to the same tired old movies. What do we get out of it? It was kinda interesting, though not in any way groundbreaking:" why we need nostalgia in winter

We say we want the new, but we find comfort in the familiar. Story of man, I suppose.

Thanks again for the dialogue.