What all successful creators have in common.

Broadway InventorMost people think that the greatest inventors or creators in the world are hit by lightning bolts of inspiration that cause them to come up with a successful product.  I’ve heard many a folk say, “How did so-and-so ever come up with the idea for Post-It-Notes/Twitter/Angels in America?  I could never have imagined that up myself!”

Why yes, there’s no question that the inventors and creators of all those products and every other successful product out there have incredibly colorful imaginations, but that’s not what makes them successful.

What the most successful inventors and creators have in common is their ability to “listen” to the market and deliver something that the public needs/wants/craves . . . even if the public isn’t asking for it.  Creators and Inventors, and this goes for Playwrights, too, must have their ears to the ground, consciously or sub-consciously.  They must understand the desires of their audience, whether that’s a Broadway audience or a hipster Williamsburg audience . . . so they can satisfy their needs.

I know way too many artists that create art for purely selfish reasons.  “I want to make something that I think is beautiful.”  That’s great.  Go for it.  But don’t get mad if you’re only showing that art in your living room, because you’re the only one that finds it beautiful.  Like it or not, your audience comes first.  You come second.

Don’t pander.  Don’t compromise.  But find a way to be true to your voice and to satisfy their desires at the same time.


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  • Marc Zegans says:

    Ken, I love the Producer’s Perspective because your provocative postings prompt me to think. Your current post about expressing true voice while putting audience first made me think hard indeed. Hard enough to stop paying attention to the movie I was watching and start writing this response. Perhaps the screenwriter and director didn’t put audience first.

    That local observation aside, what you propose is superb guidance for Broadway because Broadway is consciously and, at its best, brilliantly commercial theater. The function of theater on Broadway is translative and interpretive. It aims to translate nominally unfamiliar situations and the feelings of novel characters into emotions we can all relate to, finding the common in the unfamiliar. Its genius is to tap emotions that resonate in our chests across time and generations. That’s why there’s always room on Broadway for a good revival. In keeping with its aim of deep and authentic resonance,shows on Broadway play ultimately to our core verities, and a good thing to. It reminds us of who we are, where we’ve come from and how to make our way in the unfamiliar, whistling the money tune on our way out.

    In this context the art lies in forming a sturdy empathic bridge between the stage characters and the audience who comes to see them. The burden establishing and sustaining this connection lies entirely in the hands of the producer, actors, director and crew once the audience members have purchased their tickets and taken their seats.

    The relationship between audience and some other kinds of theater, however, is necessarily different. Consider two broad classes:1) theatre concerned with expanding the boundaries of what theatre as theatre can say; and 2) theatre concerned with challenging our verities, preconceptions and comfortable senses of self, or simply put theatre that is not reassuring. Both types of theatre ask the audience to walk into a space of unknowing and in that space meet and surmount an adaptive challenge; such theatre asks audience members to enter the room with the intention to grow, and as such to be co-creators of the experience in a way that commercial theatre behind the proscenium does not. This is not to say that successful commercial theater never expand thes emotional and perceptual worlds of audience members, simply that growth in this context is a fortuitous by-product of the actions on stage, not an explicit objective.

    Theatre that presents adaptive challenges to audiences still must take audience into account: Is the challenge well posed? Is the experience valuable enough that others will want to encounter the play and be shaped by it? Entirely, self-absorbed writing and action, cannot answer these questions, nor likely produce work that plays well on stage. But shrewdly and judiciously considering audience in shaping a demanding work is appropriately different from putting audience first, and creating such work is important for the world and for Broadway.

    Such theater is important not only because it is legitimate as means of expression, but because it widens theatre’s conversational space and therefore the domain in which commercial theater can operate. Why? Because actors, directors, designers and critics go to challenging theater and they talk to each other, as do scholars, students and lay audiences who want to grow and be challenged.

    With such types of theater the aim is not to put asses in seats, but to discover the natural audience for the work and to find means of engaging and meeting it. Yes, sometimes this will be a few friends in a living-room, but other times the audience can expand into the millions. Consider for a moment the influence of the first reading of the poem Howl to a tiny audience in a makeshift gallery in San Francisco and what flowed from that. If you want to learn more about finding natural audience, check out my short book on the topic. http://www.amazon.com/Intentional-Practice-Finding-Audience-ebook/dp/B008MQANA6

    Thanks again for making me think Ken. I hardly imagined that I’d be writing this note earlier this evening.

  • George Rady says:

    This is a really tuff one!

    While one has to take the “audience” into consideration… one has to ask “What Audience?” I spent the better part of last year in North Carolina. Was that “audience” (or the audiences in MOST of the country) anything like a New York audience… most definitely NOT! Just take a good look at WHO is in the audience… the vast majority of audiences in the rest of the country are (unfortunately) “old” 50s, 60s, 70s – and??? Ask any Rep Company who is their bread-n-butter audience and they will have to admit – with all the initiatives to bring in a younger crowd, the black community, “men” – you won’t be balancing your books if you can’t bring the 60 plus white, female crowd… and the men that finally do what their wives have been trying to get them to do all their married lives… bringing in anyone else in significant numbers is “gravy” (not that we shouldn’t keep ladling!”)

    Now – do You, as a playwright, write for the 60 plus, white, female crowd… lotsa plays about aging widows worried about social security drying up or commenting on Miley Cyrus… NO!!! I have found this – fairly identified crowd – have a great interest in a great diversity of plays that take on race, sex, sexual pursuasions… with a particulary penchant for Youth! Yes, old people (me – too – I’d have to admit) want to see Live Theatre with attractive, smart, ambitious, optimistic YOUNG people!

    And, as always, good work i.e. interesting characters, disttinctive dialogue and the stories with plenty of twists and turns… expect one thing and you get another… and definitely NOT what you get on the Half an Hour, five minutes commercialized television product (why go to the theatre to see what you can see on TV… for “free”)

    On the other hand, one has to be very careful about what one – thinks – the audience in New York (and, to a lesser extent, lesser Urban Melting pots such as Chi-town and what’s left of LA…) While this audience demands “edge” stuff; socialist, secular, hedonistic, dealing with race, sex, sexual pursuasion… and most of all liberal politics… there is a LOT of stuff that will NOT play for a more diverse audience (who aren’t socialist, secularist, hedonistic or hyphen-nated Americans. I think this is the trap that most writers fall into… they take it for granted that everyone thinks like they do (or should) and that is the major reason why a LOT (most) Off-Off-Broadway work won’t fly with a mainstream audience… people will not say anything… but they will simple not come (or come back) if they get a bead on a playwright, company (or even actor) that is trying to grind their ax in their heads. Peoplle aren’t lemmings and, fact is, a twenty year old kid with a “college” education is not going to change the mind of a 40/50/60 year old person (who has actually lived that Life that the kid insists (s)he know more about… even if (s)he is right… which usually (s)he hasn’t got a clue… and, in the end, playwrighting is about Ideas that motivate those characters to play out a story and move us….

    Now – if One can assess How to Write for an “audience” than, will initially need to support the play in the NYC market… then translate to the rest of the country… Good Luck!!! (Besides, we are on the brink of a finacial collapse that will simple change what the “audience” will think of as “relevant” so why not compound the challenge and write for an audience of all time?)

    The way I see it, “Book of Mormon” manages to bring in the crowds – not because it trashes the fastest growing religious movement in the country – but because it’s entertaining in the good old fashioned sense; interesting charcters, clever dialogue, a couple of good of twists and turns… add a little music and dance. (And, Thank God, that Mormons have a sense of Humour… because the Book of Islam would have quite a different response….)

    I still think it – still – all comes down to telling a good story – that can be played out by Actors who are challenged by the characters – and it will “sell” (wit’ a bit of luck!)

    Trying to wrote – for an “audience” or guess the fashion and/or politics of the moment is like trying to time the Market… wanna buy Facebook???


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