The first three posts (Fear of Falling Off the Map, Get Yourself a Tribe, and And Then) along with the overall statement of philosophy (Empowerment) in this continuing series designed to describe a possible new model for a regional, resident theatre were fairly easy to write. This post, however, requires a leap of faith both for me and for my readers. I have no authorities to quote, no examples to point to, no data to give me support. I am operating on a combination of conjecture and common sense (by which I mean, I suppose, the most unsophisticated form of critical thinking). If these ideas seem foreign to you, jarring, or as Tevye says, "Unthinkable! Absurd!" -- you're not alone. As my friend and mentor Cal Pritner would say, turn up your crap detector to its highest setting. If you have data or experience that supports or contradicts what I am saying, don't be afraid to share it. However, don't feel compelled to tell me that this just isn't for you; if it isn't for you, perhaps you know somebody who it might be a better fit, and I hope you will pass it on.
If you read Margo Jones' wonderful book Theatre-in-the-Round, published in 1951, you find that the goal of the early regional theatre pioneers was for every city over 100,000 people in America to have a regional theatre. The reality is quite different.
Of the League of Resident Theatres member list, the average metropolitan-area population is a little less than 1.7 million people, and the median population is about 822,000. (In reality, these numbers should actually be higher, since cities with multiple LORT theatres were counted only once. If I had included in the figures the population of cities like New York and Chicago multiple times, once for each LORT theatre, the mean would have soared upward.)
Not to put too fine a point on these data, but theatre in this country has been seen as a metropolitan art form. This is a problem in many respects, not the least of which is the lack of non-urban support for the NEA when it comes up for renewal (after all, what's in it for them?), and the lack of theatre education in the K - 12 schools. Nevertheless, Conventional Wisdom (which has a name: Danny Newman of Subscribe Now! fame, who was employed by the Ford Foundation to help regional theatres shore up their subscription ticket sales during the 1960s) is that 1-1/2% to 3% of a population will respond to a theatre by subscribing. So from a ticket sales viewpoint, a large city makes a lot of sense: 1-1/2% of a million is 15,000. Who couldn't make it on 15,000 subscribers?
Nevertheless, I am going to argue that the tribal theatre model would be more effective in a smaller area, rather than in a large city with an already-established theatrical scene. If this seems counter-intuitive, you might want to give a quick read of a previous post on this blog: "On Cows, Pastures, and Theatre," which discusses the effects of too many theatres all nibbling on the 1-1/2% of the population who attends theatre. But that is about why one might not go to a big city, not why one would actively seek out a smaller one.
First, let me be specific: how small should the town be? This is going to seem arbitrary, I suppose, but the number is mainly useful as means of comparison to the LORT numbers more than as a hard and fast rule: I would say the metropolitan area or the county should be no more than 350,000 and preferably under 250,000.
In addition, you should choose a city that either doesn't empty out at night as commuters from distant bedroom communities leave work, or you should locate your theatre within the bedroom community where they are going. If the latter, locate your theatre as close to an exit off of a major thoroughfare as possible.
My practical reasons for a choosing smaller town are as follows:
1. Real estate prices will likely be lower. Real estate in big cities is very, very expensive. Your first major expenditure will be a roof over your (and your audience's) head, so you want this cost to be as low as possible. Furthermore, don't put your theatre downtown where prices are highest, where parking is difficult, and where nobody actually lives. Cheap land or cheap rent in the downtown area will require that you locate in a dicey part of town, which will limit your audience. You want to be easily accessible, have decent parking available, and most importantly you want to be close to where people sleep at night. A theatre following the tribal model exists on personal relationships. You want to be embraced as a "neighborhood theatre," not unlike the neighborhood taverns that Ray Oldenburg writes about in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffe Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. You want to become a great, good place.
2. Media prices will likely be lower. Advertising rates are based on readership, and readership reflects population. A newspaper or radio station in a smaller town will give you an opportunity to reach the people you need to reach at a cheaper price. Don't be afraid to explore some of the smaller versions of these media. Sometimes they will reach an audience that the larger, more corporate media will not. Again, your goal is to become a great, good place.
My more theoretical reasons:
1. This model lives and dies on personal contact. We are trying to escape from the idea of selling a play as a product. Instead, the play is part of an ongoing relationship, a bridge between two people - an artist and a spectator. A smaller town allows this sort of relationship to be formed a bit more easily.
2. You want to be a large fish in a small pond. You don't want to be one of a large number of theatrical offerings that already exist via theatres that have had years to stake their claims and establish their audience. That said, it could be helpful if there is a community theatre or college theatre in the area, so that the theatregoing habit already exists. If this is the case, the key is to team up with these theatres rather than compete. You don't want the existing theatre folks to be hostile to your efforts. You can help each other.
3. You want to enter the life of the community. You and your company members want to get involved in the community as much as possible through charities, organizations, churches, schools, shelters, political organizations, whatever. Again, the smaller the number in a community, the better likelihood that you can form relationships.
These philosophic reasons can be applied to an extent in larger metropolises as well, especially if you identify your theatre with a specific neighborhood rather than the whole city. However, the practical reasons may be less transferable.