If you got it, they’ll be there

When you have what they want, they’ll be there.

“They” = the audience

How much do they want The Moth? Enough to pack the Aladdin at $25 a seat. That’s more than most theatres charge – and a much, much bigger crowd.

Why do they want this? Go see.

They've gotta have it.  And they will go where they can get it. #pdxliveaudience
They’ve gotta have it. And they will go where they can get it. #pdxliveaudience

Could you live in a city with no theater critic? | Portlanders may need to get used to it

As was pointed out recently in the context of Seattle, hard-hitting and negative (when called for) theatre criticism is an indicator of a healthy theatre scene. You can’t have a real theatre scene without real criticism, because the audience (which is needed for theatre) wants a trusted intermediary to help guide them to the good stuff – and tiptoe ’round the tulips of the bad stuff. That’s what real criticism does.

Without real criticism, the mainstream audience is left scratching their heads. Maybe once or twice they’ll read a sunny, boosterish recap of something and mistakenly decide to go – only to discover the show is crap. That boy who cried wolf story? Bad criticism simply teaches the audience that they can’t rely on the paper anymore. So they stop risking it. And they stop going to the theatre.

Unbiased theatre coverage is declining in Portland. What now runs in the O is mostly extremely dull plot recap. It’s advertising – and not even good advertising. Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury still have the editorial power to tell it like it is, but how many people they reach is an open question. Portland does not have a mainstream source for criticism that isn’t compromised by conflicts of interest. Real criticism works for the audience – not the advertisers.

Continue reading “Could you live in a city with no theater critic? | Portlanders may need to get used to it”

When it’s good, the audience will pay any price

Like a zombie that has been subjected to every imaginable attack and yet somehow keeps lumbering slowly forward with arms outstretched, the belief that price is the key variable that determines audience turnout in the theatre stays alive despite all evidence to the contrary.

According to this mindset, when the audience does not come the problem is that ticket prices are too high. And so the solution is to lower prices – usually to a level far below what is necessary to cover the real costs of a show. But when your show is selling for $20, $15, $5 and the audience is still not coming, it’s not about price. It’s about something else.

The problem is not that prices are too high. It is that they are too low. And all too often the overall quality on offer is too low. Price signals to the audience what the quality of the product is. Habitually lowering prices conditions the audience to believe that the product is not worth very much. And unfortunately, a lot of the time that is true.

When it’s good (whatever “it” is – food, sporting event, concert, mobile device), the audience will pay any price for it. ANY price. That’s simply the way it works with humans. What all live performance should be striving for is creating an experience so utterly entrancing and unique, that the audience simply must have it at any cost.

The latest evidence of this truth? Tickets to see Kenneth Branagh in MACBETH at the Park Avenue Armory are $350.

Now you might say, “This isn’t fair, that’s too expensive, everyone should have the right to see theatre, theatre should even be free.” That could be. But that social redistribution agenda is entirely separate from the artistic undertaking of creating a live performance event that is so good people must have it. Note that if the Park Avenue Armory supported the mission of providing low cost tickets, they could certainly do that. But the much more important goal to focus on is creating a product – an experience – that people want. And they have obviously done that. Ok, they didn’t do it – they simply brought in an existing show that had already done it.

Great theatre should be every bit as exciting and compelling as a sporting championship or rock concert. And when it is, the price will (sometimes) be similar.

Does great theatre have to be expensive? Of course not. But much more important to the audience than the price of a show is its quality.

Remember the old saying: The audience is always smarter than the playwright.

The audience is not dumb. When something is good, they’ll turn out. And when something isn’t good or interesting or compelling, they won’t turn out.

No matter how cheap it is.

There will be blood, mud, and serious (ticket) costs.
There will be blood, mud, and serious (ticket) costs.

This above all else you must not do

Moses, add one more.
Moses, add one more.

High atop those stern, chiseled all caps reminders of how mere mortals should live down here on earth, one additional commandment would not be out of place – at least when it comes to playwriting.


The audience is busy. They have plenty to do out there in the world. And when 1,000 or 200 or even 40 of them gather to bear witness to a live performance event, it had better be worth their time and effort.

Putting the word out, telling the audience you have something for them, and then watching them turn out in good faith only to find that there’s not much on offer – this destroys the audience’s confidence and makes them less likely to come back the next time. It is in no one’s interest to do this. It is far better to wait until there IS something worth the audience’s time, and then put a show on.

You can tell when the audience is wondering why they are there during a show. People look around, shift in their seats, read the program, fall asleep, etc. We all know the feeling of being in the audience when what’s happening on stage simply doesn’t seem coherent, refined, or significant enough for our collective attention. Not good.

The experience of going to the theatre has to be exceptional. It has to be more exciting than staying home. It has to be more interesting than the conversation you could have with whoever happens to be sitting to your left and right on any given night as the lights to down.

And frankly, that is a pretty high bar.

What do you have for them?
They showed up. So where’s the show?