What every summer stock theater (and every theater actually) should do.

I’m kicking myself for not writing this blog at the beginning of the summer instead of at the end.

Ok.  Now that I’m done with the self-flagellation of the foot-variety, here goes.

There are hundreds of summer theaters across this country if not thousands.  They all put up similar fare:  Oklahoma!Hairsprayand a mix of the old classics and the newer fare from the past few Broadway seasons.  Their job is not to do new musicals, because, as much as we might like them to, it wouldn’t be good for their business model.

The audience in New Brunswick, Maine that goes to the Maine State Music Theatre (where I interned in 1993) wants to see shows like Evita, Mamma Mia!, and Fiddler on the Roof.  Summer audiences like comfort food, both in terms of what’s on their barbecue and what’s in their theater.

But . . .

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Wouldn’t it be great to train these audiences like sweet little puppy dogs, and wean them onto new stuff?  And wouldn’t it be great to use the incredible artists that these summer theaters have just sitting around waiting for their next curtain to try out some new material?

That’s why every summer stock theater across the country should have a reading series.

Maybe you read just one musical.  Maybe it’s one every month.  But read a new musical.

Tell your audiences (in those curtain speeches that all you summer theaters do) that you’re having a free reading of a brand new musical on X day.  For free.  This is a chance for them to see the actors that are on the stage tonight doing, “Blog The Musical” or whatever you’ve picked up (I’ve got plenty to send to you if you want one) and be a part of the development of something new . . . that who knows, maybe gets to Broadway and they’ll be able to say, “I saw it in a reading.”

Will your entire audience go?  No.  But you’ll get a small core for sure . . . which helps you identify your most passionate fans, and by the way, probably your biggest potential donors.

And your artists will be just as happy to put their talents to work on something new as they’re performing in their 27th version of Carousel.  You’ve got actors, directors, or actors that want to be directors.  Let ’em exercise their stuff.

How much will it cost?  There’s probably a way to do it for nothing.  But even if it costs you some bucks (and it wouldn’t be much), I guarantee you’d recoup those costs in future donations from that core audience that attended the reading.  You could even pass a hat if you want.

Oh, and actors?  Directors?  If the theater you’re working at doesn’t take to this idea and thinks I’m nutter-butter, then do it yourself.  Talk to the other actors in the company (maybe one of them is a writer) but do something . . . new.  Idle artists are like Ferraris . . . when someone has lost the keys.

Do this enough, and after a few years, who knows, your audience may just be standing up saying, “Hey, instead of doing Anything Goes again, why don’t you do a production of that reading you did last year?”


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Carvanpool says:

    Maybe the problem is thinking of Theater fans as “sweet little puppy dogs”?

    Just a tad elitist, no?

  • Rich Mc says:

    Great Idea!! But why limit it to Musicals? Unless the theater’s year-round model is Musicals exclusively,
    Reading Plays would also make sense. And I would argue unless there is substantial musical accompaniment & singing, a Play reading is generically more effective.

  • Joe says:

    This is a great idea.

  • Robert Carver says:

    You don’t have to convince me! 36 or so years ago, at Mt. Washington Valley Theatre Co., in North Conway NH, I co-produced a stock season in a ski resort town which had had no snow the previous winter and was hurting financially.

    My chief function–other than doing PR/advertising and running the box office–was to fundraise by selling advertising space in the program.

    The season had been chosen before I was hired and consisted mostly of obscure plays and musicals, with the exception of “Charlie Brown,” which was our only sop to less-than-savvy audiences. The season included “The Great American Backstage Musical,” a silly piece of fluff, more review than book show, “The Robber Bridegroom,” and “Dance on a Country Grave,” Kelly Hamilton’s adaptation of Hardy’s “The Return of the Native,” not exactly a song-and-dance laff riot!

    Those three shows were oversold–SRO every performance–and kept us afloat for more than three months. I even added dances–more than called for–to Jules Feiffer’s sketchbook “Hold Me!” performed and choreographed by Colleen Heffernan.

    Not only that, we didn’t have to pay the outrageous royalties charged by MTI, Tams-Witmark, etc., even back then, which have more than quadrupled. We negotiated directly with the authors of those three shows and saved a bundle. As long as they got their six per cent of gross, which wasn’t much in a 99-seat house, they were happy! And they got good reviews in the local media and exposure to backwater audiences!

    I have two completed musicals myself, copyrighted and ready to be presented, where and whenever courageous producers are willing to take a chance on new works, plus another 25 shows in various stages of writing. I am also helping non-musical playwrights to find exposure.

    For details, please contact me directly.

  • Carvanpool says:

    Don’t forget the chew toys.

  • Bonnie says:

    And how about if those new show readings or tryouts were streamed! They’d generate new interest from producers, Theater owners, marketers and audience members who can say, “I saw this streamed! Gotta go in person.”

  • Carvanpool says:

    Theater is live. Streams are TV.

  • Bert Silverberg says:

    I have been attending the readings of new musicals and plays at the Eugene O’Neill Center for the past several summers, and that has proven to be an extraordinarily rewarding experience. The O’Neill, due to its longevity and track record, attracts top-of-the-line material as well as directors and performers of exceptional skill. It is remarkable to me how a cast can come in and learn a brand new score, often with complex parts and harmonies, in a matter of days. I have seen so much promising work there. This season, I thought that two of the three new musicals done showed great promise, and i read online this past week that one of them, “The Museum of Broken Relationships,” is being done soon in Colorado, with the same two leads (Erin Davie and Colin Hanlon, both superb) from the O’Neill reading. This season’s eight new plays were an exceptionally strong crop and I hope that any number of them will turn up on the schedules of theatres around the country. I hope theatres will consider your suggestion to encourage their patrons to try some material that has not been recycled from the “Done to Death” list.

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