Was Rocco right? Is there too much theater out there?

Leave it Rocco to create a little controversy.

Last week, our National Endowment for the Arts Chairman had this to say about the economic challenges facing theaters around the country today:

“You can either increase demand or decrease supply.  Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

This frightening rational argument set the blogosphere ablaze with comments defending our ability to increase demand.  There was a rallying cry of “We can do it!” heard from theater folks all over the country, and some even called for Rocco’s resignation for his seemingly defeatist attitude about our inability to increase our audience.

But was he wrong?

Rocco was referring to regional theaters in his speech, and since that isn’t my area of expertise, I’ll refrain from chiming in.

But I will talk about Broadway.

If you’re been reading my blog for awhile, then you know I’ve been jumping up and down and waving my arms like a crazy person about our attendance figures.  For the three years prior to this season, our attendance has dropped . . . a trend which has not occurred in 25 years.  (Gulp)  We are picking up some of those last bodies this year, but we’ve got a long way to go to get back to earlier levels.  At the same time, we keep celebrating because our grosses get bigger and bigger every year.  Less people but more money.  (I’m not sure if raising prices to make up for the gap is the most sound economic policy . . . you?)

So as Rocco said, demand has not just leveled off, it has dropped.

At the same time, this past Fall saw an increase of almost 10% of the number of playing weeks of Broadway shows.  Yep, despite less people coming, we produced more shows.  And all of this in the middle of an economic pullback.

We have to be one of the only industries in the history of industries that in the midst of a recession, actually increases production!  Imagine if right after asking for a bailout, Detroit decided to start producing more cars.  Imagine if in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, a construction company said, “What we need to do is build more homes!”

But that’s exactly what we do.

And some of the shows that have been produced, let’s face it, might not have needed to be.  (I can name at least 2 if not 3 shows that could have stayed off the Broadway boards this year and saved a lot of folks a lot of money.)

But the free market allows for anyone to produce anything, as long as they can raise the money and get a coveted theater.

What might be better for all of us, is if we took a second look at shows before we rushed out and got them done.  Slowing production, or decreasing supply, as Rocco said, might make us . . .

  • Focus on the audience that is here and give them better quality shows that they’ll enjoy more
  • Save investors money since there is more risk for failure if there are more shows than there is audience
  • Create more competion between our vendors and therefore stabilize or, God forbid, lower prices.

So, while I do disagree with Rocco in that I believe there are a number of things we can do to increase demand, and we should . . . he wasn’t wrong about the state of our supply.

We just might not want to hear it.

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  • Sarah says:

    I think we could say exactly the same thing about off-off Broadway shows! There were over 1000 Equity showcases produced last year, and assuming that everyone spent 20,000 dollars on producing their show (which is well below Equity’s allowed budget limit), that is twenty MILLION dollars spent producing off-off shows last year.
    With that amount of money, you could have put on Wicked. Twice.
    Instead of putting on 1000 crummy off-off shows that lose all their money and only get 30 people in the audience every night, wouldn’t it be better for the theater industry as a whole to put on ten off-Broadway shows? Investors could actually get their money back– which would make them more likely to invest again. The actors and designers involved would get to make a living wage. And I think artists do better when they don’t have to hold down a day job as well as work at night.
    You are totally right, Ken. And so is Rocco!

  • Er, surely a portion of these 1000 off-off-Broadway showcases were not crummy.
    What if one were to read Rocco’s words as if they were intended ironically? The NEA provides sustaining funds, generally, to large monolithic projects, and to regional arts associations to redistribute funds to smaller ones. It does not fund many small projects directly. Few orgs are out there funding the small guys – these produce their shows with spit, willpower, and in some cases they actually stay alive by selling many tickets.
    Certainly, some showcases are self-indulgent and even bad and don’t deserve their slot in the sun. But as Ken says himself, the same could be said of some Broadway shows. And some small shows achieve quality far beyond their size implies, even though they are produced for .02% the budget.
    Perhaps, just as some of today’s mega-corporations began as small businesses, a small portion of yesterday’s tiny showcases ended up being today’s regional or even Broadway hits?
    And (guessing that you MUST be an actor) if it’s the fact that showcases pay only carfare and thus don’t really support actors, the ones that do go on to professional production, shows that might never have existed without a showcase, do go on to employ actors and other professionals at real wages.

  • Shoshana says:

    I have been thinking about this topic for a while too. Here is one from my blog archives:
    Arts saturation point and audience development
    Thank you, Ken, for bringing it to light again!

  • You say that twenty million dollars is enough money to put on Wicked twice.
    That money is also enough to run a theatre company (www.knowtheatre.com) that I work for in Cincinnati for 30 years, while simultaneously giving everyone who works there a raise and increasing production budgets.

  • Sorry, that last post should have been as a reply to Sarah…

  • Sarah says:

    I am neither a failed nor aspiring actor. My profession is, however, one in which I get invited to AEA showcase productions on an almost daily basis.
    I rarely go for exactly the distinction that you made, about showcase going on to PROFESSIONAL productions. AEA showcases are not professional productions, and if I had been interested in doing amateur theater, I’d have moved to Des Moines. Out of the thousand showcases produced last year, I can think of less than a dozen being picked up for legitimate runs.
    For anyone aspiring to be a theater professional, these are not very good odds. Who wants to compete against 1000 other shows for the attention of talent and booking agents– not to mention audience dollars?
    Theater professionals would be better served by fewer showcases being produced. Sure, they get fewer opportunities to “practice their craft,” but it can’t possibly be very rewarding to max out your credit cards to play to 40 people a night.
    There needs to be a better delineation between a genuine “off-off” scene and an amateur scene. That way, people who do it to be professionals can get the attention and financial support they want, and people who do it for love don’t have to worry about the pressures of trying to run a professional company.

  • Sarah says:

    That’s exactly why I think people dumping all this money into off-off Broadway shows is a waste. Better to produce less theater of higher quality and take care of people, than to have hundreds more frustrated theater people with maxed-out credit cards wondering why they aren’t being discovered.
    And, I think people’s parents– who, let’s be honest, mostly finance these shows– would be more likely to invest again if they actually had a prayer of getting their money back. And who doesn’t want to create new groups of theater investors???
    I just get so frustrated that theater people spend so much time thinking about the show instead of the business, when it’s show business we work in…

  • Wylde says:

    Sarah’s comments are a bit disturbing, and I hope people reading her posts are not discouraged by the sentiment stated and implied by them, or Rocco’s opinions for that matter. The NEA is supposed to promote the arts, and while I can understand the good, sound, corporate advice from the chairman of the NEA, it’s not within the artists interest to follow it. In fact I think we should run from it. You don’t promote the arts by defunding them. But if you DO happen to agree with Rocco, the thing is, theatre artists are not going anywhere no matter what kind of financial restraints are placed on them. I I just don’t think it’s rational to expect an artist in the theatre to go work a 9-5, or go back to school for something more useful. You shut down regional theatres we’ll make theaters in basements and warehouses, apartments and rooftops, and there’s already a trend in doing so if you read up on site specific pieces (i.e. Sleep No More, or John Rubin’s Hedda).

  • So, do you think there’s no value in playing to only 40 people a night?
    What about a 99 seater that sells just under half of its tickets? In that instance 40 people isn’t a bad house.
    Or is it not of value to play to those people only if one has maxed out one’s credit card to do so?
    I’m curious because I’m a huge fan of small, intimate spaces, and I think there are some very good shows that will always play best for audiences of under 100 (and maybe under 50).

  • Sarah says:

    I love small, intimate spaces as well. Artistically speaking, there is certainly value in small shows. I saw a show that a man performed to 5 people in his living room that I thought was brilliant.
    The thing that isn’t of value to the art is when people burn themselves out on these small vanity projects– which is what most off-off Broadway shows are. Audiences see them– and they’re terrible— and they don’t want to come back to the theater. The artists get burned out because they are waiting tables all day and performing to audiences of 10 all week. And the producers’ rich parents won’t ever put their money into a show again, regardless of whether it’s good or not.
    It doesn’t do theater any good for those of us who make it to be broke and bitter.
    That’s why I think it would be better for the industry to have 10 great off-Broadway shows put on every year than 1000 off-off shows. The quality of the art would get better, because you have to compete more for backers’ money, or for a role in the show, etc. The audience grows when the shows are better. And when the audience is big enough, the people who made money in theater will re-invest in it.
    Thus making a better market for everyone, and better theater in NY as a whole.

  • Charlie says:

    Thought I’d add this to the discussion:
    Ben Donenberg, the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA) and a Member of the National Council on the Arts has posted his feedback to NEA head Rocco Landesman’s arguments about the supply and demand in the theatre and arts world.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I am going to not be on the side of angels here. But I agree with this report. I agree with Sarah.
    “Create more competion between our vendors and therefore stabilize or, God forbid, lower prices.”
    The off-off broadway prices are ridiculous, an off-off broadway production can now cost up to 14,000.00 dollars. Because off-off broadway theatres are charging, 2,500 – 4,000 dollars a week, for a 50 seat house. (add to that the expense of lighting, sound, and those $25$ an hour rehearsal sapces. and wowser, you’re broker than broke in no time)
    It’s time for a new way to do things, and off-off Broadway producers, those kids that are maxing out their credit cards, they just have to stop paying those prices, stop using the theaters charging those prices, stop using those rehearsal spaces, rehearse at home for godsakes, and help them close, and drive down those prices.
    An audience member may like a half full 50 seat house, but what they don’t realize that that half full house is costing the for the love of it producer, hundreds, which turn into thousands.
    and no, I don’t do my art for the money. But guess dealing with these really expensive theatre makes the prospect of doing Equity Showcases in a fifty seat house for a total cost of 2,5000 a week, pretty darn unattractive. Especially when the math, and the price, guarantee that you break even at most even if you sell your entire run.
    off-off Broadway needs a re-invention, a new movement, and a move away from all these really expensive little theatres; and it won’t happen until the people refuse to pay those prices.
    if all theatre companies stop producing for a few months, if they all declared a six month or an eight month stop in production, a point would be made, and those theatre owners will realize, wow, maybe we should close, or lower our prices.
    So I agree with Sarah, why spend that much money, and play to that few people, if you can’t put a brilliant show together, don’t do it, but I think, if off-off Broadway slows production, producers less but better shows, and finds alternative spaces in which to perform rather than pay these outrageous prices. There will be less people with debt and more people with successful careers. In this economy, LESS IS BETTER.
    It’s a systematic problem, all the way up and down… it goes from Broadway, to off-broadway, and finally to the little guys. When it comes to theatre in this city everyone is getting fracked up the fresnel.

  • David King says:

    In my 40 years in for profit and not-for-profit theater, I have observed that we are a barometer of consumer confidence. The over supply side argument seems to me to be chronic in the not-for-profit sector and not an accurate assessment of what’s happening now. It’s a recession. So, yes, sectors shrink in a recession; however, the argument as to how to weather the recession is about keeping businesses open (keep jobs), or letting them die and re-invent. That, it seems to me, is the discussion for both for profit and not-for-profit theaters as it is in the larger economy.

  • Stephen Buckle says:

    The number one problem facing Broadway, West End, and most of Global entertainment – it’s a saturated market. That’s why only the very best and luckiest (sometimes it is just luck) survive.

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