Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Population Density and the Theatre

Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov -- Half Hillbilly, Demi-Culture, commented on my Google Map work showing the placement of regional theatres in the US: "Food for thought. Have you compared these maps to the general population density of the US? If memory serves me it looks pretty similar to the maps you've shown. So there may be more to it than it seems." He then provided a link to this map, which does bear a resemblance to the final map with all the theatres on it. I also went to Wikipedia to see what they had on population density in the US and they provided me with the following map, which also seemed to reinforce what I had found. There was California and Illinois and a bunch of the Northeast and Florida...

But then I started looking at the state-by-state breakdown and comparing states with lots to those with little. And sure enough: the bottom of the list looked like this:

42: Nebraska
43: Nevada
44: Idaho
45: New Mexico
46: South Dakota
47: North Dakota
48: Montana
49: Wyoming
50: Alaska

But then I looked a bit more. For instance, Oregon was #39, and they had quite a few theatres, and so did #38 Maine. But right above them were Colorado (37), Oklahoma (35), Arkansas (34), who were pretty theatre sparse... And then there was Minnesota, who wracked up a bunch of TCG theatres, at #31, and Missouri, who had one or two, at #27. And we won't even talk about North Carolina, which is #10 as far as population and #17 in population density, and Michigan (#8 in population and #15 in density), who had only a few theatres between them and both of whom got skunked in the NEA distribution. No, it made sense for a while, and then it started to dissolve once you got beyond the extremes.

Nevertheless, the question Slay raises is one that demands examination: why do we think that theatre is a high-density art form? Why have we conceived of it as existing primarily in urban areas? Before we reach mentally for the obvious -- the more people, the more likely an audience can be found -- let's think this through a bit. There are colleges scattered all over this country, and most are not in urban areas, and most of them have theatre departments who do plays, and my impression is that they seem to sell tickets. In fact, my impression is that they benefit from being in places that offer little competition as far as live theatre is concerned. Furthermore, just how many people need to live in a place in order to fill a small or medium sized theatre consistently? I believe North Carolina Stage Company here in Asheville, which is a TCG theatre in the lowest budget category, has a house that seats 99 people -- does that require a thriving metropolis to fill? Even if your theatre was bigger -- say, 499 -- how large does the town need to be?

I think the issue is that we conceive of theatre as appealing to only a small percentage of a population -- say, 1% or less. And so that requires big numbers to keep it going. But is that number carved in stone? Might a theatre raise those odds by locating themselves in a less populated town where the opportunities to see live theatre might be fewer? Might it raise those odds by maintaining a company and a resident playwright and spend time establishing a strong connection to its community? Might it be easier to establish those community connections if it were a smaller community where half the population didn't flee for the suburbs after 5:00?

I think one of the challenges we face as theatre people is to question conventional wisdom, to release ourselves from thinking in grooves that have been deeply ingrained by the past. And we need to broaden our view of the past. For instance, the Little Theatre Movement that was so important in the early part of the 20th century was scattered across this nation, and there were other approaches to theatre (e.g., Robert Gard's Wisconsin Idea Theatre and A. M. Drummond's program at Cornell) that took other forms than the Broadway version. We might look to these for inspiration, for another model that we might adapt for our own circumstances.

But it does require thinking of yourself not as an independent contractor but as an entrepreneur. An anonymous commenter, commenting on the curriculum in most MFA programs, wrote "starting and running a theater is a very different skill set than say - acting or writing or directing even." To which BC-NYC responded: "I don't think you get what this data means. THERE'S NO MORE difference in 'skillsets.' In this day and coming age...you can no longer JUST BE an actor or writer of whatever. THAT'S ONE OF THE CURRENT PROBLEMS OF THINKING....Time to wake up and take responsibility."

I think BC-NYC is right -- it is a new era, and it will require new thinking, and new skill sets, and new approaches. And just possibly, that might also mean new places as well.

17 comments:

The Director said...

I was talking to a guy last night that runs a theatre company in NC. We sat at a bar and talked for about an hour about it, and he basically came to the same conclusions as BC-NYC.

One of the major problems that I've noticed (and that he noticed, and that you've pointed out repeatedly) is that all the theatres out there wanna do the Golden Oldies (Showboat, Carousel, etC), but that's just not gonna connect to my generation. I mean, I love the Sound of Music, but if you wanted me to list my top 10 or even top 20 favorite musicals, Sound of Music isn't even close.

Shows like RENT, Avenue Q, Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and more beat out Sound of Music any day. My generation doesn't just want to see pretty shows with catchy music -- we want to be engaged, we NEED to be engaged.

As for my other point that I forgot yesterday, you addressed it in this post. The population per capita is pretty close to the theatres per capita. I agree that theatres shouldn't avoid rural areas, but what can you do?

There are also more Starbucks, more McDonald's, more movie theaters per capita in those areas than in rural areas, as well.

In fact, there are more ANYTHING in the Jersey-Boston corridor than there are in, say, the whole state of Alabama.

ilannoyed said...

wait - so you agree that we need new thinking and new skill sets and new approaches - "you can no longer just be an actor or writer or whatever" - BUT you don't think MFA programs should change what and how they teach?

so where is this knowledge going to come from?

have either you OR bc-nyc ever started a theater company - FROM SCRATCH?

Ya know - it's great to blah blah blah all these things but not address the real issues.

oh YEAH, go out, be an entrepeneur, change the face of theater! YEEE HAAA

but then offer no real idea of how to actual DO any of these things

and when i mention that i have seen friends and colleagues try to do just that -go out and found these theaters, just to give up after a certain number of years because it is SO hard to get funding and so exhausting to work a full time job year after year after year because your own theater can't really pay you. where is your solution for that?

like i said - you can sit in your ivory tower and say - WELL you should do THIS! but your every word and idea is subsidized by others. so - how about talking to some of your friends that work in the real world.

listen, it's a great idea -but where are the tools?
where is the funding? and if it's such a great idea - then leave your cushy university job and go show us all how it's done, no?

ok - i'm just playing devil's advocate and don't really think you are going to leave your job to walk off into the wilderness of Montana and start a theater company. but years and years of this kind of talk in grad school has made me fed up with all this talk and no action.

so - what have YOU done to change things?
DONE not talked about?

Scott Walters said...

Director -- You said: "I agree that theatres shouldn't avoid rural areas, but what can you do? There are also more Starbucks, more McDonald's, more movie theaters per capita in those areas than in rural areas, as well.
In fact, there are more ANYTHING in the Jersey-Boston corridor than there are in, say, the whole state of Alabama."

Let's grant that this is true. But if there are ALREADY more theatres in these areas than is needed, why add more? Why carry coals to Newcastle? Why not carry coals to a place where there isn't any coal. Wouldn't that make more sense? Does NYC really need another actor? But Wichita does. People all over this country love theatre, not just those who live in big cities. Population density has nothing to do with artistic appreciation!

]The question you ask -- what can you do? -- is the real question. It is the question I am trying to work on here on this blog. And yes, ilannoyed, I can ask these questions because I have a good job in academia. But if people like me don't ask those questions, and don't suggest alternatives, who will? Those people who are desperately trying to make a career? Most of them can't -- they're so busy trying to create a career within a screwed up system that they have no time or creative juice to do much more.

You are right -- the MFA programs, and the undergrad programs too, need to give students real tools to change the system. But only giving them the tools to work within the current system guarantees that most of them will be chewed out and spit out. Believe me, as cushy as you imagine my job is, it is very difficult to send my students out into a system that I know will not respect their talent, intelligence, or sensitivity. It is like being the World War I sergeant who ordered soldiers over the top to their certain death. "Ours is not to question why; ours is but to do or die" might be a good slogan for the soldier in war, but for artists it is suicide.

I understand your frustration, especially if you feel I am blaming artists for the choices they are forced to make. I'm not. But I am saying that we must first acknowledge that the system is totally screwed up and the bedrock questions need to be rethought, and stop defending it as the Only Way. It isn't. We need to think it through with creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial commitment. Unless we do that, we're dead.

ilannoyed said...

i don't think you are blaming the artists at all

and yes the system, well, SUCKS

but just asking the same questions over and over again with out any plan or action is just

well, robkozlowki.blogspot.com said it better (in his post about little dog laughed)

http://robkozlowski.blogspot.com/2008/01/little-dog-laughed.html#c2299785688346079687

Second fessing up: I'm fucking sick and tired of plays and movies about show business. I just love how theater folk endlessly debate about the whole problem with the American theater when the whole problem with the American theater might be that the American theater is spending its time discussing the whole problem with the American theater. Being obsessed with yourself isn't very interesting.

BUT - i had an idea for you Scott!!!

Maybe you could write a big research grant and ask to get lots of money from the government or some corporation as part of a 10 yr study to see if it would be possible to put your idea of sending kids out there in the world to start local theater companies can be brought to fruition? Then you could write a big follow up paper on it!

You could use most of the money as seed money for these folks to go out and start these companies! WHY NOT - the government gives huge research grants for things that are much more ridiculous than that.

Hey - shouldn't let all that academia go to waste, right?

Sarah McL said...

Ilannoyed, I think I love you... raise your hand if you're totally sick of the theatre community complaining, blaming, and self-referencing. I want to ask you out on a date.

ilannoyed said...

LOL, thanks sarah. yeah, after having these discussions in a class once a week for all my time in grad school, i'm am kinda over it.

i don't think scott's idea is ridiculous - it's a really interesting idea. but HOW do you do it? let's talk about doing. has anyone heard or had ANY ideas on how we get to the DOING!

also scott, you said if you don't ask the question who will and that those in the trenches have no time?

believe me, they have the time, EVERY DAY before they leave for their waiter job or temp job or whatever soul sucking thing they have to do so they can do no pay shows for free to "pay their dues", they ask themselves these questions.

and after the shows they do for little or no money they go to bars or coffee shops and discuss these things for hours

and alone at home they think, what should i do? go to grad school? move to LA and try to break into "show biz" and try to get paid? take another class?

we all ask the question all the time - but we are searching for something we can actually DO.

oh - and thanks for the date proposal sarah, - but um, i'm actually a chick AND straight AND have a boyfriend so..... tho if the boyfriend doesn't get back in town soon i MAY be fielding any and all offers LOL

Sarah McL said...

haha - I'm also a straight girl with a very wonderful boyfriend, who talks endlessly about this stuff in grad school. Whee.

And I totally agree - it's about the doing... which is also tough, as I've watched so many well-intentioned friends start theatre companies "dedicated to new work" that fizzled without making much of a noise.

I don't really know what the answer is, but I think it has something to do with education... my ultimate fantasy is an arts administration class in every arts curriculum (actors, writers, everybody). The "Butts in Seats" blog has a great post on the lack of documented information in the arts:

"[Neill Roan] goes on to say that in the arts there isn't a practice of looking back and evaluating a situation for what works and didn't work and then documenting the findings. Without the documentation, the arts rely on tacit knowledge carried in individuals. While tacit knowledge is superior to documented knowledge, if you have high turnover, your organization doesn't learn."

Full post:
http://www.buttsseats.com/

Shawn C. Harris said...

Scott,

I get what you're saying, but at this point on this blog, isn't it almost like preaching to the choir? Most of the people who read this blog understand and agree with the assessment that the current system is FUBAR.

But how do we get beyond that? Better yet, how do we show the actors, designers, and directors that they don't have to do things the way "They" say it needs to be done? How do we help them accomplish their goals by going outside what they think they need to do to "make it"? How do we convince them to take real risks, taking a chance on a shoebox production without worrying about hurting their careers?

Shawn C. Harris said...

Second fessing up: I'm fucking sick and tired of plays and movies about show business. I just love how theater folk endlessly debate about the whole problem with the American theater when the whole problem with the American theater might be that the American theater is spending its time discussing the whole problem with the American theater. Being obsessed with yourself isn't very interesting.

So the intuition that theater is too insular (or is it incestuous) for its own good isn't just in my imagination?

In either case, what can we do to get things going in a new direction?

I mean, what's to prevent some unknown actors from getting together with an untried director and performing a script from an obscure playwright anywhere they can without getting arrested? Maybe throw in someone who's interested (but not schooled) in set and/or costume design, and perhaps somebody to do lights and sound who hasn't done it before either.

Perhaps I'm just naive, but I don't get the problem with people who claim to have a passion for something simply finding people with similar passions and doing something together.

ilannoyed said...

shawn - i get a feeling from your post that you are not involved in theater, because a bunch of unknown actors getting together, etc - well
you have just described 90% of the non equity theater in Chicago and the reason Equity needs a showcase code/99seat code for Equity actors.

there is no lack of initiative among artists. the problem becomes, after 10 yrs of working for nothing, or nearly nothing, even sometimes after getting an MFA for tens of thousands of dollars, one becomes exhausted.

it becomes a 14 hour a day proposition - work your "money" job, and then spend your nights and week-ends trying to put up shows, or keep a theater company running or cobble together some acting and some teaching and chase down commercial work. and most of the time you might be lucky to make $30 grand in a good year.

how can one ever hope to have a real life like that? Own a home, raise a family, save for the future? It's almost impossible.

Tony said...

illanoyed--it's probably worth remembering that Chicago is a fairly unique place in that way. (the idea of a professional non-equity company in itself is strange in any other locale.)

Adam said...

I can't imagine both holding down my full time job and writing plays (which is what I do) and also trying to run a theater company. I'm tired enough marketing my plays and writing. I don't have the energy to produce. I don't know how long I'm going to be able to keep up what I'm doing, never mind adding more tasks.

Scott Walters said...

Adam -- The point is to create a business model that doesn't make theatre be above and beyond your day job. It isn't about doing it the same way it's always been done, just adding producing on top of it. It is something else entirely.

cgeye said...

"[Neill Roan] goes on to say that in the arts there isn't a practice of looking back and evaluating a situation for what works and didn't work and then documenting the findings. Without the documentation, the arts rely on tacit knowledge carried in individuals. While tacit knowledge is superior to documented knowledge, if you have high turnover, your organization doesn't learn."

I'll read the blog post more thoroughly, but this quote seems to contain a cry for knowledge management in theatre. There's a huge organizational management industry dedicated to designing tactics to capture tacit information, but because KM geeks don't see theatre as something profitable to examine, that industry passes us by.

This draining of organizational knowledge support is happening just when connections have frayed between generations of actors, writers, designers and directors -- precisely when theatre became a major, instead of an apprenticeship. Normally, that's when business steps in to profit -- selling us bottled tap water, for example -- but that consultant swarm isn't even happening for the huge regional institutions.

Are we so afraid for our jobs that no one can conceive contributing to a system that might tell others how we used to do things, before we left?

Sarah McL said...

cgeye - Check out the research of Zannie and Glenn Voss. It blows my mind, and I'll bet it will blow yours. Instead of penalizing the arts for not fitting a traditional business model, they see nonprofit theatre as a totally fascinating "boundary condition" that behaves 100% counter to traditional marketing expectations, and is worthy of intense research in the categories of innovation, chaos-management, and creative thinking. They are geniuses, and I want to spread their gospel across the internet. Search their names on scholar.google.com, and prepare for freakout-happiness.

Coleman said...

Just to give an example (or aberration) from the little people: I received my undergraduate degree from a college in the middle of KS. They mounted 5-7 full scale productions each school year in a 750 seat two-tier theatre. Their musicals would sell 500-600 seats and the nonmusicals at 300-400 seats per night on runs of 3 or 4 nights. This was in a town of 2,000 (if school was in session) and a college with a 500 student enrollment. I'm not trying to make a point about anything really, except to say that schools do sell tickets and theatre doesn't have to be urban.

cgeye said...

Sarah, thanks!