Why I’m predicting a revolution in the theater “space.”

The theater is always about 10 years behind other industries . . . including our sisters in the entertainment sectors film and music.

That’s not a slam, really.  The primary consuming demographic in those other mediums are younger than ours, so of course it takes us a beat to catch up.

And something tells me, in one way, we’re about to.

First, let’s look at what happened in the film and music scene.

In the early 2000s, the entire Hollywood model was disrupted when independent film found its groove, and over half of Hollywood releases were made by indie studios and cost between $5mm and $10mm.

What brought down these costs and empowered the indie movie maker?  Suddenly, everyone could make a movie as digital cameras and eventually even smartphones democratized the production process.  Give a kid a couple hundred bucks and a camera bought at Walmart, and he could make a movie and then edit it on his Mac.  (See Paranormal Activity, made in 2007 for a whopping $15k but grossed $200mm.)

Then, the same thing happened in music.  As the cost of making music came down, so came the rise of the independent musician.  In fact, in the past decade, there has been a 510% increase in independent musicians making their full time living from music in just the past decade.

First comes film, then comes music, next comes theater in its own revolutionary carriage!

Theater has always been an expensive art form. Unlike the creation of film and music, the basic tenet of the theater is that people have to show up in front of a live audience in order for it to happen.  Any labor-intensive industry like ours is going to be expensive.

So how can technology disrupt it?

It can’t.

But the “showing up” isn’t where I predict the revolution in our industry is going to occur, because the labor isn’t even the most expensive part of our production budget.

It’s the space.

The theater itself.

And the revolution that’s coming is . . . who’s to say we need a theater anymore anyway?

The “tech” disruption that is going to take our business through the same cycle that the film and music business went through is rooted in the same principle . . . the democratization of production . . . but in our case it’s going to be because the theater makers of tomorrow are going to stage their theater in places no one ever thought to stage theater.

They’re not going to sit back and not make plays or musicals just because a proscenium stage costs too much or because they are all booked.  This generation doesn’t stand for that.  This is where being the “entitlement” generation is a good thing.

Because they’re going to feel entitled to make.  And make it they will,  anywhere they can, just like their predecessors in the other industries made their art, with whatever equipment they had.  Those folks proved they didn’t need the best cameras in the world or the best studios in the world to make their art.  And our artists will prove they don’t need the biggest or best theaters to do it either.

We’ve seen the start of this already, with shows like Sleep No More and other site-specific productions.

But these are just the prelude to what I believe is coming around the bend.

With Broadway theaters becoming more difficult to book, the squeeze of the artist is on to find different places to show off his or her wares.

So don’t be surprised if you hear that in 10 years there has been a 500% increase in the number of theater artists who make their living in the theater . . . they just may not be performing in a theater.

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Comments
  • Bert says:

    Thanks Ken for this! Paying for space is what holds my company back. I’m sharing your thoughts with the local leaders and hope they understand as my co-producer and I continue to explore unusual and unpredictable spaces where theatre can light up our community!

  • Kevin Dedes says:

    This is a very interesting take on the situation… I know that up in Rochester there has been a small explosion of new amateur theater companies, and as a result very few venues to book. Most companies up here, however, are still pretty conservative and want a ‘proper’ theater… but I can see that changing… Sure will be interesting!

  • I have been producing my plays at various venues around the tri-state area on half the door deals for the past ten years. From 60 to 600 seat venues. it just takes a little salesmanship and marketing to find them. Of course, it helps to have popular plays.

    • Tamara Jenkins says:

      But Joe, you don’t pay for professional talent, directors, designers, or rights, etc . It is a different model.

  • Andrew Husmann says:

    I have the ultimate venue with the ultimate deal. It would be really useful to find the right new show looking to do a financially attractive out-of-town tryout that isn’t so dangerously close to the city. Any ideas?
    A.

  • Kevin M. Ramsey says:

    Ken – Congrats on Tony Awards. This conversation has been on my mind for years as the convergence of digital technologies in the performing arts will redefine content distribution, audience participation, and dramatically change our biases of live performance. Theater is experienced as a singular event happening in space and time, only for those sitting in the audience. This paradigm restricts the mass-production of content. The current business model for theater is archaic and in need of overhaul. London-based theater economist, Chris Ashworth, writes,

    1. THE PRODUCT CANNOT BE MASS-PRODUCED
    At best, you can replicate it a few hundred seats at a time, maybe a few thousand.

    2. THE PRODUCT MUST BE MADE FRESH FOR EACH PURCHASE
    The product is a live event, and live events don’t fit in bottles, stay fresh under heat lamps, or last beyond the first serving. And making the product fresh each time isn’t even close to a mindless task, so each time you make it you need highly trained people on hand.

    3. THE COST OF MAKING THE PRODUCT IS HIGH
    Typical production costs cover a large, purpose-built set, lots of expensive equipment, scores of educated staff, and truly atrocious waste (how much raw material goes into a landfill after every regional theater production?)

    4. THE COMPANY CAN NOT SELL THE PRODUCT AT A HIGH PRICE
    The customer gets nothing tangible for their money. All they get is an experience. Can an experience command a high price? Sure, if it’s extreme. YES: space tourism, rock star concerts, or high profile sporting events. NO: movies, local cover bands, museum visits, and theater performances. Even if tickets are two bucks a pop, the show is not cheap. I’ll pay two bucks for a piece of candy, and it doesn’t matter if it sucks ’cause I’m done with it in two minutes and move on with my life. If the new “Post-Post-Modern Deconstructionist Christmas Carol…on Ice” sucks, that’s two hours of ones life I can’t get back…if “Desperate Housewives” collides with “Lost” and you missed it…you can TIVO it, or go to hulu.com for the rerun, and watch it at your leisure.

    5. THE QUALITY OF THE PRODUCT IS HIGHLY UNPREDICTABLE
    Perhaps no other product has a wider range of quality, from “sublime” to “unbelievable waste of time”. Moreover, there’s almost no way to know what you’re going to get—the brand of the venue is no guarantee, nor are practically any other traditional consumer signals, except word of mouth. Even two different nights of the same show often produce wildly different experiences; depending on who shows up to watch and what mood they’re in.

    6. THE PRODUCT HAS LOW DEMAND—AND PROBABLY ALWAYS WILL
    Theater does not command much of the cultural mind-scape. That’s fair. Nothing gets to claim a cultural stake without earning it.  Of course, America has proven that the cultural battlefield is basically the same as the economic battlefield, so waning economic leverage leads to waning cultural leverage and vice versa. It’s a nice little feedback loop that means, barring changes in human nature or laws banning the more economically viable art forms, theater will forever be a niche.

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