Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Model: Where to Locate Your Tribe

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.


Anonymous said...

This make total sense. Not a leap o' faith at all.


Anonymous said...

First, every school I've ever interviewed with has been very, very interested in my theatrical background and said that if they hired me, they would love to start or continue a drama program. So I'm not entirely sure why theatre programs are so rare in public schools -- possibly because of a lack of truly knowledgeable teachers in the field.

Second, my biggest problem with small cities is lack of talent to choose from. This is on a much smaller scale than your 250k population town, but I'm currently in a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" (nice Tevye reference there, Mr. Walters!) at my alma mater. The cast has 32 people. How many people do you think auditioned for the show? About 36. Four people didn't bother to show up to rehearsals, so they were cut. Every single person who auditioned was cast. Why? Because there aren't enough _good talented_ people to fill the cast requirements.

Why is this a problem? It leads to lower quality. People who can't dance don't need to take dance lessons because they know they'll get cast anyway. People who can't sing don't need to take voice lessons, cause they're going to get cast anyway. People who can't act won't take... well, you get the point. Very few people try to improve themselves as actors/dancers/singers, because they have no need to. The talent pool is so small, anyone will get cast, not just the people who work hard. Why work hard if you don't have to?

Why bother doing what you know is only going to be a mediocre performance? If there is no quality talent (or even mediocre talent that tries to better itself), then why bother doing a production in the first place? Who wants to do a bad show?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Walters -
I have read with increasing enthusiasm your posts and thoughts over the past month. As an actor/writer/director currently living (and even occassionally working!) in just such a small city as you describe, and being at a point in my life where I am wrestling with ideas of sustainability (creatively and finacially for myself, artistically in general), your blog has become essential reading for me.

I want to respond to your first two points in this post. It is true that real estate and marketing costs are lower in less populous areas, but I think this might be a relative thing. The cost of living is certainly lower in most of these areas, but people don't make as much, and it seems (thanks in part to our dismal economy) have less disposable income for leisure/entertainment/art. Do you find this to be true in your area?

Thanks for all your work and thoughts...keep it up!

Scott Walters said...

Director -- No Child Left Behind has had a harsh effect on drama in K - 12. More importantly, when you read this model you must remember that this is based on a tribe -- a permanent company, not one where you announce a show and hold open auditions. You choose your shows for the company -- if people don't sing or dance, you don't do a musical. In the best situation, you have a playwright in the tribe who write for your company members. So the talent pool is irrelevant.

Anonymous -- Thanks for the kind words. Yes, usually the real estate prices are balanced by the cost of living. Down the road, I will be discussing how to build a theatre building, and it will require actual real estate, not be built within an existing building. So the availability of reasonably priced land is very important. As far as disposable income, yes and no. If you can keep your prices down, I think people will come. What is important is creating a budget that reflects the number of personal contacts that are made. MOre to follow.

Anonymous said...

*raises hand*

Ooh! Me! Me! Pick me! I want to be in a tribe!

Anyway, Scott, how exactly are you defining local? Sure, the metropolitan population might be huge, but there's more nuance than that. When people speak about Richmond, for example, they don't just mean the city of Richmond. They often include counties that are part of the Greater Richmond area such as Henrico, Midlothian/Chesterfield, and Petersburg, but can also encompass Goochland, Powhatan, and Hanover/Ashland. Those populations are quite different even though we're still talking about the same general area in central Virginia.

Does your model account for some of those nuances, or are you speaking in the broadest or most absolute terms?

--Shawn C. Harris

Chris said...

I used to work in Livingston, Montana - population 7500. It's about 25 miles from Bozeman, pop. 40,000 or so. Livingston supports not one, but two theatres - the larger of the two with an annual budget of $250,000. There seems to be enough audience for both - in fact the existence of the one improves the existence of the other by creating an urge in the populace to see theatre. I currently work in an AEA theatre in county that has a total population of less than 40,000. It's work, but it's here.

Gemma said...


I only started reading a couple of weeks ago, so I may have missed some aspects of this, in which case feel free to link me to the spots where you answered. But based on your above comment, I have some curiosities about the tribes:

1) If you have a playwright in the tribe, what happens to, say, Fiddler, or to other established texts/techniques/etc.? As tribes root into their particular community, are they expected to bring theatre education to the community as well and expand the tribe in this way?

2) When each tribe has become as deeply rooted as it needs to be, what happens to a broader theater community? Unless tribes work hard, might a Theater Community without strict geographical limitations once again become the province of big, commercial cities? Which is to say, if I and my tribe, cum playwright cum director cum designers, generate everything for ourselves and our community, which in many ways sounds like a reasonable/essential thing to do, will our playwright's texts ever leave our community?

I'm not asking either of these in terms of fame-hunger, but in terms of a sense of historical connection and continuity. As a playwright, I'm obviously deeply invested in new plays, but I'm also interested in the trans-location theatre community connections that come with things like casual references to Fiddler on the Roof over the blogosphere :>). Probably some of this can be assisted with the above-mentioned K-12 theatre education, but I'd be interested in your take on that.

Scott Walters said...

Shawn -- If I were starting a tribe, your enthusiasm for being in one would surely be a deciding factor. As far as how to define "local," I think each city is a little different. Asheville, for instance, has an official population of about 70,000, but the county has about 350,000. What does this mean? Well, to a large extent, it means that most people actually live in the surrounding communities, which may lead me to consider just where I want to place my theatre. There is a small LORT company that is in a theatre downtown, and I am undecided about whether that is the best geographical place for it. I think you have to look at each city and figure out where you'd have the best chance of being embraced by a community, and where it would be easiest to communicate with them.

Scott Walters said...

Chris -- That is very heartening to hear. What were the names of those theatres? I truly think there are many opportunities represented by smaller communities that are being missed by artists.

Scott Walters said...

ammegg -- Great questions! If you are fortunate enough to have a playwright in your tribe (and I think that you should really try to do so), I don't think you can reasonably expect that playwright to provide your entire season of plays. You will need to draw on texts that already exist. For me, the question I'd ask as a starting point when choosing a play is: what does my community need right now. Not what do they want, nor what do I think they should hear, but rather what do they need. The only way to be able to answer that is to know your audience, know where their boundaries are, and take them to the edge of their boundaries in order to keep bridging expand those boundaries each play.

As far as whether texts travel: I see no reason why not. If I have a playwright in the company, what I want to make sure is that we have his or her world premieres at out theatre. A secondary question might be what happens to the proceeds from additional productions. My initial response is that at least some of those proceeds should go back into the tribal pot. I suspect that is something that each tribe would negotiate in advance.

As far as theatre education, that is certainly one thing that a tribe might bring to a community, and that might serve as a way of increasing income. Is it expected? Not necessarily. If you have a tribe of theatre artists who really don't like kids and don't deal with them well, it might be better to think in terms of some other way! Could be adult education -- there are lots of people who might really enjoy learning to act, direct, design, analyze plays, whatever. Or it might be something else entirely.

Welcome to Theatre Ideas, by the way, and please keep participating. And join the Theatre Tribe group, if you'd like!

RVCBard said...


Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly.

Anyway, I made a blog, and you're welcome to take a look. It's a different sort of beast from most blogs (dialogue as opposed to monologue), so the more intelligent people contribute, the better.

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