If you’re setting sail on the perilous journey of adapting a long historical drama for the stage, particularly one that tries to deal with the glorious (or not) story of America’s early days, you should be very familiar with two examples from the genre that define a spectrum of possible outcomes.
On one end, HAMILTON, the international juggernaut that breathes life into history by using forms and multi ethnic bodies of the present. On the other, RED, WHITE AND BLAINE, the show staged inside of the film WAITING FOR GUFFMAN that has become a defining reference for amateur community theatre and (more subtly) oblivious historical white washing of what life on the merry frontier was like.
Unbearable lightness of chick lit drama. Childless, white, hetero, UMC yuppie writers labor mightily and sexily lest wider world fail to laud their heartbreaking works of staggering genius. Male asshole dead on believable, but why woman would be with him for 30 seconds strains credulity. Thin and devoid of any consequence.
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.
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.
We’re not in Kansas any more. Doing a show in the hinterlands is one thing. But New York is a whole different deal. Normally America’s theatre capital exports plays to the rest of the country. But what if you decide instead to swim upstream and take a play from somewhere else to New York? You better have your helmet fastened and your seat belt buckled.
OSF did it with enormous, box office busting success on Broadway last season with Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-nabbing ALL THE WAY. It didn’t hurt that Bryan Cranston was attached. But such a Cinderella story is definitely not the norm. A lot of the time, that Guffman moment when Corky announces to his star struck cast that “We’re goin’ to Broadway!” doesn’t work out so well for regional AD’s.
Kid, there is no more challenging place on earth to put on a show than the five square miles of broken pavement and concrete canyons that make up midtown Manhattan. It’s crowded, it’s expensive, the critics are search and destroy ninjas and the audience has a million entertainment options. How do you convince 100 or 200 or 500 or 1200 grizzled New Yorkers to come out, night after night, to pay money for your show?
It’s gotta be good. Really good. Not just ok. Not just something mildly interesting. It has to be smart and sharp and new. It has to be New York smart. It has to be something the audience wants.
The summer season presents additional problems beyond the standard hurdles. Any theatregoer in their right mind is out on Long Island or Martha’s Vineyard hiding from the heat for several months. With a few exceptions, most of the small stage action is in the country where festivals like CATF and WTF and OSF are working their magic. August in Manhattan? It’s a desert out there, babe. Need to fill the house on a Tuesday night? Bring reinforcements.
THREESOME, the new play developed by Portland Center Stage and ACT Seattle, is finding out just how hard it can be to get traction in the New York summer theatre landscape. Now on at 59E59, a small midtown shared space which is sort of New York’s equivalent of Theater Theatre, the show got a decidedly mixed review from the almighty NYT (hovering just an inch away from a straight thumbs down, and earning the tart somewhat damning summary in the weekly Theater Listings: “more a debate about gender politics than a bedroom farce”) and a 2 star blasting from the Daily News – so far the only two mainstream media to review. I also gave the show two stars in my review, faulting it mainly for some totally implausible plot details. The acting and directing is perfectly good. The problem is the play. When what’s on the page doesn’t speak convincingly, there’s only so much you can do with that.
Apparently the New York audience agrees, and the show has been in the booth (on sale at TDF for 50% off) since opening. Heading in to the weekend, advance sales are struggling to break 40% for any given show. You can easily see how it’s selling on the 59E59 site.
The takeaway? While going to New York is certainly fun for young actors or anyone else who has never worked there before, it does not necessarily build anyone’s brand if the show gets mediocre reviews and plays to half empty houses at an unbranded space in the dog days of summer. Donors and foundations are inevitably called upon to fill the void left by low ticket revenue. But is this a path anyone wants to repeat? Why do this? This isn’t “the thrill of Off Broadway”. It’s an expensive rental with upside down financials. Does such a venture make New Yorkers want to come out to Portland to see more theatre (the way ALL THE WAY on Broadway has spiked interest in OSF), which should be one of the goals of building the PCS brand by taking a show to NYC? Not at all.
Next time, the selection of a good play at the outset is the key decision moment. It all starts with a great play. Without that – it’s just going through the motions with meager attendance and a large tab for someone else to pick up.
Well executed, a solid drive straight down the fairway. An event for #PortlandTheatre, which is what every show should be. The story here is very much about three talented actors as opposed to the play, which is somewhat dated and not all that relevant or theatrically interesting. But overall thumbs up.
Portrait of the artist as a young troubadour. A commanding and surefooted voyage from childhood into young adulthood and up to the very brink of death – and back. Scheuer’s sung through narrative slowly takes you in, and by the end you are completely powerless to resist. Self discovery and recreation.
The weekend is coming. And with it, your roster of entertainment possibilities. Which are legion.
Just about the most exciting thing on the spring calendar is finally here: Portland Playhouse takes on Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS. You’ll travel indoors and out to three different sets for this epic. Opening night is Saturday.
Also jockeying for position on Saturday night is PICA’s 20th anniversary gala: TADADA!. Come for the dinner if you’re feeling flush. But whatever you do, don’t miss the after-party helmed by Pepper Pepper. It’s all happening at The Redd, Ecotrust’s new event space on SE Salmon Street.
And still ANOTHER Saturday night gem is a remount of David Saffert’s Liberace pageant at Curious Comedy.
And for your Sunday night, perhaps you’ve heard of a certain play by Richard Greenberg coming to town? No, you probably haven’t heard of it that way. But you probably have heard that two TV stars from Grimm are in a show at Portland Center Stage. Ah yes. That one. Sunday night is the first preview.
And if you’re the pro active, plan ahead type – next Monday at PCS the Improv All Stars are back.
While the booming Bridgetown Comedy Festival may be sucking up a fair amount of oxygen around Portland’s smaller scale performance scene this weekend, don’t limit yourself to non stop laughs with some of the best comics around for three days straight.
DRAMATURGY in process invites three of Portland’s most exciting dramaturgs to reflect on the role they play in the development of new work in theatre, dance, and devised performance.
Jess Drake, Resident Dramaturg and Company Member, Hand2Mouth
Luan Schooler, Director of New Play Development & Dramaturgy, Artists Repertory Theatre
Robert Tyree, Choreographer, Writer, and Researcher/ Dramaturg for Tahni Holt’s ‘Duet Love’
From the good folks at Entertainment for People, a new and growing format that showcases new material from top Portland talents. The show will be on the existing set for THE LION – so expect some extra glam factor.