With uncounted numbers of shows by the bard indoors and out this summer, PDX citizens are certainly not wanting for opportunities to see 16th century drama – if they want to.
Supply is off the charts. But what about demand?
Is this what the Portland theatre audience wants? More Shakespeare? Is more Shakespeare good for the overall Portland theatre brand – both locally and nationally?
One way you know whether the audience wants something is by looking at how much they’ll pay for it. If they’re willing to pay $16 to park downtown, that tells you they definitely value that service. But if they won’t spend even $8 for a full production on the city’s second largest stage, that says demand for the product on offer is weak.
Interestingly, one of the very last questions a theatre company usually asks (if they ever ask it) when considering that show they want to put on is whether there is audience demand for it. Does the audience want this? Is there anything in the concept of interest to them? Or is the show primarily a vanity project for the theatuh folks – who may have always wanted to do show x or play role y?
The issue is not necessarily one of quality. It is about the appeal of the entire experience on offer. You might open a restaurant that produces absolutely flawless Hungarian cuisine at the highest level. But does the Portland audience want that? Maybe.
One of the reasons Shakespeare is attractive to theatres is because there are no royalties. So shows can be put on for less, which means tickets can be sold for less.
But is Shakespeare attractive to the audience? Sometimes. If it’s free, yes. Who doesn’t like to sit out in the park with friends on a nice night. When done in a unique or compelling way (Kenneth Branagh in the Park Avenue Armory anyone?), the audience will pay a lot. At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the audience pays over $100 for Shakespeare. But to do that, you have to know what you’re doing and build a serious brand that is highly desirable to the audience – because it’s something they can’t get just anywhere.
But if a real theatre with an indoor space finds donors and foundations to underwrite its costs and is happy to drop ticket prices to almost nothing to try to get people to come see Shakespeare – what’s the harm in that?
The problem is, there is damage done to the Portland audience’s willingness to pay for main stage theatre if it is given away for free. Outdoors in a park is one thing, but inside in a real space is something else. And for venues with confusing brands like the Artists Rep building, where scads of different groups perform, when one theatre does a show with high production values for $8 (25% less than the cost of a Higgins Burger) in the space, the audience thinks that’s what theatre there (and everywhere) costs. And so it becomes a lot harder for someone else to charge $40 (which is where prices should be) for the next show on the same stage.
A cycle of dependency is created. Ticket prices go down and down while more and more of theatre’s funding comes from foundations and the wealthy. When you abandon ticket sales as a serious source of revenue, numerous unintended and mostly negative consequences ensue. One biggie: You lose touch with what the audience wants.
The audience does not necessarily understand all the differences between companies performing in a shared space. Just as if you went to the same restaurant space and one night a steak was $8 and the next night it was $40, you might not understand the nuances of a rotating lineup of chefs with different pay rates.
Doing a show for $8 at a venue like Theatre Theater or the Shoebox or the Someday Lounge is one thing. But at the city’s second largest space, such extreme discounting will only become a race to the bottom if companies don’t watch out.
So what’s the goal here? To put on theatre by any means necessary, whether anyone wants to pay for it or not? Or to create unforgettable experiences that create value and build a brand? I know which one I want.
Remember, whether or not the audience comes is not about price. It’s about whether they want what’s on offer. If it’s something the audience wants, they’ll pay ANY price. If it’s something they don’t want – they won’t come even if it’s free.
Does the Portland audience want more Shakespeare? If it’s close to free, yes.
But is doing free theatre in the city’s biggest theatres what the Portland theatre scene needs to build its brand?