Whatever it is you sell, training your audience not to buy unless there’s a 50% off sale going is not good business.
What you want to be is a brand like Apple, where people line up around the block and clamor to buy cell phones for $1000 a piece.
Of course, to get people to pay full or premium price takes skill. You have to have a good product on offer. And you have to know how to market it.
So why does a place like Portland Center Stage have a permanent half off sale going for any show? To marketers with half a brain, this simply cannibalizes the market. Why would you subscribe to a theatre season if you know you can always get tickets for close to free last minute? If you keep an eye on Goldstar, you know that if there’s a show on at PCS, tickets will be in the booth for 50% off all the time. Simply being listed in the company of this show graveyard is not good for the brand.
Why does PCS do this? Why can’t PCS sell tickets for $100 a pop like Oregon Shakespeare Festival? Why can’t PCS sell tickets for more than about $25? Is it because the shows are no good? That’s part of it. But part of it may simply be that they have trained people to think that theatre isn’t worth much. And having picked up on that theme, now PCS and other large theatres without unique brands are in a pickle. Also, as theatres become ever more detached from actual ticket sales, the important metrics to show funders and foundations are attendance. No one seems to care if a theatre is in the red. But if an argument can be made that the theatre is “serving the community”, well then it seems like it’s worth subsidizing.
Of course it costs money to put on shows in a place like PCS, with all the absurd overhead and unions. So if tickets go for cheap to the end consumer, who makes up the difference? You do, my dear People’s Republic of Portland comrade. It’s one bail out after another, via PDC or arts tax, to keep the leviathan of PCS afloat.
In the real world this ship would have been scuttled long ago. But she keeps drifting along, practically giving away tickets while receiving zillions of dollars in grants to help leadership “find an audience”.
News flash: There’s not much of an audience for the kind of mediocre fare PCS loves. But make the best of it. At least if you have to go to shows there, you know it won’t cost much.
One of the most sacred of all bovines close to the hearts of the purple beret-wearing theatuh crowd is the belief that if a theatre critic leaves a show before the end, they should not write a review of it.
First, on the logic of continuing to consume something when what’s on offer isn’t any good.
The idea that you should continue to watch a crap show because it might get better is like asking a restaurant patron to keep eating because, yes, the soup sucks, but really we’re just about to knock your socks off with the primi! Or maybe you should keep buying AMC Gremlins because, really, the engineers are just about to nail this thing!
Let’s get real here, folks. Apply this nonsensical principle to any – ANY – other facet of your life, and see how it holds up. Do you continue to shop at a store with horrible service because it might get better? Do you continue to read through a botched resume because it might get better? Do you continue to use Comcast because it might bet better?
Despite debt of around $800K, Seattle Rep is plunging full steam ahead into a big expensive season that, if all goes according to plan, will land the company another $800K deeper in debt. Huh? The thinking seems to be, something will happen in the future to turn the ship around. But what would that be?
The company’s situation seems to be even worse than the debt number indicates, for it has been spending on average 8% of its endowment annually since 2008 to help keep the lights on.
The main problem here that shows little sign of changing – one that all the outreach, marketing, and audience building in the world won’t fix – is that Seattle Rep is not exciting. It’s a rusting institution trapped inside a Kennedy era arts ghetto that needs serious work. Like a lot of regional theatres, the Rep simply carts in the latest slate of prefab offerings every other theatre in America is doing. But there’s precious little new or original. There’s very little local about doing the nine zillionth regional production of DISGRACED. Meanwhile glittering new Seattle is soaring sky – er – cloudwards on all sides around the theatre. If something doesn’t change, the Rep’s relevance and era may be done.
Paradoxically, the big hit Seattle Rep has had in recent years, last year’s imported OSF production of Robert Schenkkan’s double header on LBJ (ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY), was with new work – not the trucked in ham. This clearly ilustrates that Seattle audience members want to experience original and exciting new plays and will line up down the block for them. They’re not afraid of new plays – that’s what they want. Seattleites don’t want to be the last people in the country to see plays that have already been on everywhere else in America. They want to be on the other end of the curve. They want to be the FIRST to see new work made in Seattle that is headed to the rest of the country – for Broadway and beyond. Seattle makes – the world takes. That’s the way it should be.
But while OSF has created a new play machine that is turning out exciting works by top tier writers, left to their own devices the Rep limps along with world premieres by decidedly less skilled playwrights. The audience isn’t dumb. Your average Seattle theatregoer is only going to throw herself on pleasureless grenades like THE COMPARABLES or BO-NITA so many times before she comes to her senses and opts out. Or gets on a plane for New York, London, or Ashland. Life is way too short for bad theatre.
Seattle Rep has the physical plant of a Lincoln Center, a National Theatre or a Steppenwolf. But unfortunately the stuff on the inside doesn’t come close in quality to what the world’s biggest theatres can do. What’s the solution? Take a page from OSF and start creating brand new world class work. Start a new company ensemble a la Steppenwolf, hire some real writers, and start creating new plays that will make Seattleites wait on line in the hopes of maybe getting a standing room ticket (as they did for ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY).
This shouldn’t be that hard to do. Pony up, call Sarah Treem, John Pollono, Craig Wright, Simon Stephens, Johnna Adams, Kenneth Lonergan, and Leslye Headland and say: “People. We need you to help us out here and be part of revitalizing a theatre power in America’s greatest city of the moment. Will you give us a play?”
What playwright – of any stature – wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Of course you have to pay them.
If there’s anything constant in the besieged world of the performing arts, it’s that the theatre is always dying and yet always being reborn – usually at the same time. On any given day, data points can be found to support either trajectory. It can be quite perplexing to figure out what is really going on.
On the one hand, Broadway (and Oregon’s homegrown version of Broadway – OSF) is booming. On the other, white bread, flagship regional theatres are teetering. In between, innovative projects and companies that create authentic experiences for the audience and take on real issues are generally doing well. In the current landscape, small is beautiful, and big – unless you really know what you’re doing – can be deadly.
Big works if you’re the National Theatre, Lincoln Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But if you’re big and don’t know how to create work appropriate to the largest of stages – big can be a sentence of doom. The imperative becomes: FILL THE SEATS.
At all levels, theatre artists who know how to create good work are attracting audiences. Meanwhile entrenched bureaucracies more about employing former theatre artists in admin jobs where they yammer on about “developing audiences” and “outreach” (when what the audience wants instead are unforgettable live experiences) are kept alive only by tax subsidies and largesse from 1% donor types. Tickets are often sold for next to nothing at these theatres.
As a close to home example of the syndrome, Portlanders already know about the leviathan, mostly uninteresting Portland Center Stage, which only still exists today because the city (which never met an arts tax it didn’t like) has funneled millions of dollars toward the fortress-like boondoggle in the Pearl over the years. Hey, it’s not like Portland needs the money for schools or roads. Given the sheer quantity of public greenbacks that have been been set aflame down at PCS, maybe the theatre’s tag line should be updated to “telling stories at unexpected cost”. PCS spends a huge amount of money, but by and large Portland gets unexceptional franchised art of the same flavor you could get anywhere. In a Portland of internationally known brands, products and technologies, PCS has failed to put the city on the map in any meaningful way when it comes to theatre.
By contrast, one need only look across the street to the reputation and success of PICA’s annual TBA festival to see what can be done on the world performance stage with vision and leadership. Or a little farther south down I-5 to the lil’ hamlet of Hamlet, where under AD Bill Rauch OSF has become a major launch pad for new plays – and Broadway.
When a live performance event is good, they’ve gotta have it. They = the audience.
When it’s good, whatever “it” is, they, the audience, come from over hill and dale. They come because they must have this experience. Because there’s nothing else like live performance. When it’s good.
We’re used to people camping night and day for tickets to see The Who or The Grateful Dead or Wilco or the Seahawks.
But theatre does not usually see such pandemonium. Unless it’s Hamilton.
If you’ve hit the Bricks in Ashland lately, you may have noticed scores of people with signs waiting outside theatres trying to find a ticket – any ticket. In fact, the impulse to make a “Tickets wanted” sign is now such a normal part of the daily routine in Ashland that the OSF box office is making signs for people! Now that’s service.
This is good. This is how it should be. A ticket to see David Kelly or Miriam Laube or Kimberly Scott or Kevin Kenerly live in Ashland should be in demand. BIG TIME. Because there is nothing else like this. This is the show you have been waiting for.
When it’s good, the only crisis of the American theatre today is how can we fit more people in the room, where will they all sleep, where will they all wait in line and not block traffic, and is there enough food in town to feed them?
They’ve gotta have it. And this summer in Ashland, they’re coming for it.
An editor of a major magazine (let’s say one that focuses on running) contacts you and says:
“Hey, we’re wondering if you wouldn’t mind writing a story about this race coming up next month and giving it to us to use for free. You’ll have to travel to the race, then write the story, then send it to us. If you feel like giving us a piece like that, we’d be happy to use it and credit you.”
Would that ever happen? Probably not. Why? Because the story doesn’t exist yet. So the fact that producing it is creative work someone has to do would (normally) limit the ludicrous impulse to suggest that someone do all that work for free.
But what if a photo already exists? A photo of the exact subject the magazine wants. Like the race in question is in the rear view mirror a month ago and you happened to be there. All the work and expense of getting the photo is “done”, the photo’s sitting right there, and boy is it nice. The magazine sees it, and makes the same request. “Do you mind if we use your photo?” The implication is: for free.
For some weird reason, the perception is that because the photo is “done” it should be free.
Note this same mindset doesn’t apply to a slice of pizza sitting on the counter, or a car in the lot, or a coat in a store. You would never walk in to a store and say “Do you guys have any coats around we could use?” You mean – “buy”?
But it happens all the time for photos. All the time. Even people and groups that should know better do it. All. The. Time.
For example, here’s a bizarre request from the clueless Oregon Arts Commission asking photographers to give their work away for free.
“All images used will be credited.”
Note that weird sense that photos just somehow magically make themselves and lie around waiting to be used?
Hello? Isn’t the whole point of the bureaucracy-encrusted OAC to help make life better for artists in Oregon?? Why is the OAC promoting the misperception that photos have no commercial value and should be given away for free? Is the OAC staffed by volunteers? Does the OAC ask event planners and organizers to donate their time to help put on their annual Arts Summit (which isn’t free) and tell them that while they won’t be paid their efforts will be credited?
I’m betting not.
For almost any other service or product, OAC would not dream of asking someone to give them something for free. But somehow photos are different.
This is something photographers need to work hard to change.
Photography is a creative art just like any other. Today good images are more essential and integral than ever to wondrous online experiences. That’s why everyone is asking for them.
Like writing or painting or dancing or any other creative art, photography (if it’s good – and any time anyone uses a photo, that means they think it’s good) should be paid for.
So don’t give it away. If you see someone asking for free creative work, point it out. Say no. Ask them why they expect photographers to contribute their work for free – when everything else is paid for.
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.
So here with your afternoon IPA or morning coffee (or vice versa) is an example of the new: Forward Flux (@Forward_Flux), a Seattle outfit that also operates in New York.
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.
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…
Has #PortlandTheatre hit Peak Shakespeare? We think so. The evidence seems to be everywhere. At least when it comes to asking an audience to pay money for tickets to see Shakespeare.
Tickets for TWELFTH NIGHT at Portland Shakespeare Project (full production with equity actors) have been going for $8 for weeks and you can now get CYMBELINE at Anon It Moves for FREE. That’s right – $0 on Goldstar.
Shakespeare in the park for free is fun. But beware diluting the already declining Portland appetite for theatre with shows people won’t even go see for free.
Doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality. Has to do with the number one question for any product: Does the audience want this?
Time to rein supply back to get in synch with actual demand.