Another day, another new [FILL IN BLANK].
In the larger economy, new products, services and companies appear (and disappear) daily. Change or die they say. And many companies do die – while others go from 0 to billions in market cap in 18 months. If you have something people want, the sky’s the limit. Because the audience is hungry for the real thing.
The theatre world is a little different in that while it is easy to start something new, the die off part of the cycle does not happen as fast as it should.
In theatre as in business, it is very hard to START a new company that is irrelevant or dated. At that moment of creation, most theatres burn with a unique fire and vision that only founders with skin in the game can have. Assuming you find success and the years start going by, the trick becomes how to tiptoe past those tiger traps of institutionalization, professionalization and generic status quo drudgery. Theatres (like companies) have to continually disrupt themselves – or someone else will do it for them. Look at what Andrew Russell at Intiman is doing for an example of how to make the old and entrenched new again.
When a theatre loses its edge or relevance to the audience, it can take a lot longer to die off than a company whose products are no longer being purchased. In the real world, if your sales go off a cliff, so do you. Because many arts groups depend on donations and foundation grants as opposed to ticket sales for revenue, once established an organization can surf a death spiral for years – whether or not anyone is coming to see the shows. With the price signal from the market (“we want less of this”) largely removed, groups keep on doing what they do zombie style. When the art is gone, organizational focus turns to bureaucratic empire building goals like “outreach” and “education” and “developing an audience” – all beloved funding sweet spots for gigantic foundations. Ticket prices drop to near zero under the rationalization of providing better “access”. Cities and foundations plow good money after bad in an attempt to prop up yesterday’s organizations. But the thrill – the thing the audience wanted once upon a time, the reason we go to live performance in the first place – is gone.
It’s always inspiring and interesting to see what a newly minted and brightly burning theatre group looks like. Usually they are formed by young people, and so the digital aspects are going to be very sharp. But often new behaviors and styles enter the scene with the newcomers. If successful, these innovations spread to the mainstream. New theatre ventures are petri dishes of what younger audiences want to create and experience. And everyone else in the established bureaucracies would do well to pay attention.
Check out the digital channels. Looks pretty exciting, right? Notice the gigantic, exclusive focus on the excitement of the experience. These is no plea for money (yes, much lower down you can donate if you want to). The focus is on showing you all the amazing things they have. Want some? I bet you do. If the web site is this beautiful you have to wonder how great the actual experience on offer is, right? First things first – create a product people want. Get your audience involved and active. Once you do that, they will support you – both by attending shows and donating.
The future of theatre is not in the theater. It’s outside in non traditional spaces. It’s in the street, in the park, in the gas station, in the coffee shop. It is not inside $40 million dollar LEED certified malls. It’s almost anywhere other than the old-fashioned theatres of yesterday, where blue hairs take group naps against a backdrop of Shakespeare.
Location is not the only thing that will change in the theatre of the future. What theatre is like will be different. The fundamental experience will evolve. Theatre – like the media – will be more “social” in the future. It will be a more active experience than the old-fashioned warehousing of half asleep citizens in fixed seats. It will involve moving around. The audience will have input. They will take photos. They will dance. They will shout stuff. They will eat food and sing Neil Diamond (if requested).
The audience will be co conspirators, authors, stars. The lines between audience and performer will become more blurred. Theatres will both put on shows and do other social activities their audience wants. Because remember, the real art form is not putting on a show – it’s building an audience. Anyone can put on a perfectly good show that no one wants to see – Peak Shakespeare anyone? The real art form, the skill that any theatre that wants to do more than struggle by on grant checks must learn, is attracting an audience. How do you make exciting, interesting people come to your events? How do you make them want to spend $50 on a ticket? You do it by creating unforgettable live experience that talks to them.
So check out Forward Flux. Check out what they did last night on Capitol Hill in Seattle with #WhatTheFloat. An event like this is exciting enough to draw media coverage – unlike the 9 millionth amateur production of Shakespeare.
The future is coming and the audience of tomorrow is hungrier than they have ever been for authentic live performance. The companies that can deliver will sky rocket over the rainbow on purple, organically raised unicorns trailing streamers of silk. Wearing glitter-encrusted super hero costumes.
But old-fashioned theatuh will be the stuff of museums and grants and TBT posts…