Serials are killers.

First of all, a little back story . . .

I don’t really watch television anymore.  I’ve missed out on so many great shows over the years, that I’m catching up, series by series, and watching at my own pace.

Translation?  I just started Season 3 of 24.

If you’re a 24 fan (and I have to admit, I’m semi-obsessed, having changed my ringtone to the CTU ringtone, and I’ve be known to greet callers with, “This is Bauer”), then you know that each episode ends on a super-duper sometimes melodramatic cliffhanger.

The goal of the cliffhangers are twofold:

  • Get you to tune in next week (or in my case, just play the next episode on my Netflix/Wii Play Instantly).
  • Get you to talk about it “at the water cooler” the next morning.

Great television “serials” can do just that.

So why can’t we do serials in the theater?

I’ve seen several mini-attempts over the years, mostly Off-Broadway, or Off-Off-Broadway.  There have been a few different live soap operas, and there’s even a live Sex-and-the-City-ish serial sitcom running right now that’s been getting a bit of buzz, called Naked In A Fishbowl.

The reasons why the serial has never stuck are pretty obvious:

  • It’s hard enough getting people off their couches and in an uncomfortable theater seat once a month, never mind every week.
  • Our tickets are much more expensive than Free TV or even Netflix/Will Play Instantly, so serial theatergoing would become an expensive habit.
  • Rehearsal costs of a new show every week would eat away at any potential profit in a theater with a fixed number of seats.
  • If an audience member misses one episode, you are never getting them back.

All of these reasons, and a zillion more, are why they don’t work in the theater (Even the ladies in Fishbowl are taping each episode, so they’ve obviously got their sights set on another medium).

Then again, I would’ve bet that a 12-hour staged adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel wouldn’t work either, and somehow Demons sold out all of their performances.

There’s an audience for everything, but whether it is sustainable is another story.

And we’ve yet to see that story succeed in the theater.

And yes, that’s a challenge.

  • Ken, Fascinating post. Thanks for kicking off this conversation. Your ideas and vision are consistently revolutionary, and you ask questions that are sometimes uncomfortable – your vision is a major reason you’re so incredibly successful.
    We’ve got serials on the brain right now mostly because we’re working on one at Sanctuary (The Mapmaker’s daughter), with plans to present it to the public once all the impedences to success are worked out. We agree, the economics don’t match up with reality, and also that finding ways to make them match up is part of the quest – possibly the most fun part.
    One possibility we’re considering is that even a semi-successful serial can in fact pay off in ways other than a paycheck, at least at the start. It’s an opportunity to branch out into multi media, for one. This is something many playwrights (and the theatre geeks that love them) actually dream of happening. Those 99 or 399 or 1299 seats then don’t necessarily represent a limitation. The “house” can expand via media distribution.
    I know you also love the iPhone. I have one too (just upgraded again to the iPhone 4 from the 3G).
    It’s been said of Steve Jobs, another visionary, that all Apple’s successful projects started as a vision, followed up by a series of steps to eliminate each technical challenge facing that vision, until each is eliminated. That’s how the iPhone became what it is today. First they built a model for how it would become economically successful, then an infrastructure to support it, long before they built the phone itself. And then they keep rebuilding the phone, every year, until it is perfect. Theatre has a lot to learn from technology’s successes – we are all in the business of getting ideas in front of people in tangible form.
    So how else can we contribute to this conversation?

  • dan says:

    Love the blog. The Brooklyn theatre company Vampire Cowboys does a serial theatre thing called Saturday Night Saloon every year. They commission six full-length plays, cut into 5 “episodes.” It happens in their Brooklyn studio on the second Saturday of every month. Tickets are free and first-come-first-served, all-you-can-drink beer is $5. It’s a huge fundraiser for them, and is always sold out. Part of the fun is that the shows are produced with zero budget, but they all share thematic content. Some of the most fun theatre evenings I’ve spent, and very effective at building a community for the company.

  • Nate says:

    Ken, you might want to look into “The Ville” in Chicago. It’s an LGBT-themed Desperate Housewives-ish “Soap Opera” that’s been running for AGES in Chicago at Mary’s Attic. Every month they do a new “episode,” and play it four times monthly (every week, Monday if I remember right) to ensure their fans don’t miss anything. And each new “episode” begins with a “Last Time at The Ville…” recap in case you DID miss the previous edition.
    It’s a rather big success.
    But then, it also seems that “out of the box” theatre like this THRIVES in Chicago. Why don’t we see more of it in NYC is my question. And a lot of that could be related to the costs. It’s dramatically cheaper to do stuff like this in Chicago than in NYC.

  • David C. says:

    A variation on this theme would certainly be the recent Broadway success of The Norman Conquests and then last season’s Signature season around The Orphan’s Home Cycle. I was doubtful at first that Norman would be able to work here, but it certainly did. The production team’s efforts to schedule and market it seemed to work, and audiences seemed to embrace this ‘concept’/’approach’…Key necessary ingredients: quality words, quality performances, thoughtful marketing and production, and some luck and good timing!

Leave a Reply to dan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *