Two very interesting and different views of theatre can be found at Theatre Ideas and the Nytheatre i. In one, Kirk Wood Bromley discusses (with responses) the idea of transforming the term "Off-Off Broadway" into "Indie Theater." Over on Theatre Ideas, Scott Walter's suggests a new model of theater that broadly resembles Church. I won't repost their comments here (go read them on the links above) but I'd like to comment on each.
Bromley's idea is, as far as I understand it, that we do away with the old term "Off-Off Broadway" and adopt "Indie Theater" to remove the pejorative stigma that comes with being "So Very Not Broadway." He also takes great pains to define it as more than just a rebranding. His ideal for the phrase is that Indie Theater is theater that is artist (as opposed to producer) driven; that embraces the freedom that low financial risk and little financial reward can provide.
On a gut level, this has a lot of merit. I've happily spread the term in the past, as I'd heard that comment passed along from Kirk before. I think it's good for the ego, good for our public, and promotes the idea that freedom from money isn't always the same thing as being poor in art.
I am, though, entirely comfortable with this as a rebranding "as such." As opposed to applying a litmus test to make sure the label has merit ("Was the producer too involved to call this Indie?") we could simply leave Off-Off alone and start calling it Indie Theatre. I think that Off-Off Broadway would already be widely accepted as Independent when you consider that neither the Schuberts nor Disney are involved. And frankly, the language police won't be able to keep up with the term if it spreads.
The term "alternative" comes to mind from the mid-90s. Alternative Music sprung up from Seattle Grunge and became the mainstream. The sound of the bands was still labelled "alternative" because it was a response to what was popular before these bands hit the charts. One week it was Michael Jackson, the next Nirvana and suddenly "Alternative" was popular.
Once something becomes popular, is it still "Alternative?" Of course not. But who was there to tell anyone differently? No one with a voice loud enough to keep the word from spreading.
That's why I think "Indie Theater" is simply the perfect name to adopt in order to raise awareness of, pride in, and the popularity of "Off-Off Broadway" as it is. If shows hit Broadway and that have that "Indie" feel, no harm in it. What we create is a sense that there is something on the small stages in New York that is worth seeing for less than $50 a head; and frankly, that's all I feel is truly missing.
Scott Walters is doing less evangelizing than Kirk: he's asking us to rethink the "current model." He suggests that when theater is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold, it simply doesn't have the economic efficiency to carry that burden. He suggests we look at Church as a new model, as Church builds a community, is free, asks for donation, doesn't sell tickets. It attracts it's audience through word of mouth, the idea that something imperative is going on, and asks at the appropriate time for an infusion of material support from those who can afford it.
Scott's question is, will it work?
Well, the concept is beautiful, but it depends entirely on one's ability to create that community. In New York, the community would be large, but it is spread so thin from competing productions, a glut of artists, that I'm not sure a sustainable producing model can come from any one company relying on a sense of community and donations alone. I think the model may work better for regionals, though, than it does here.
Another question I have for this new model is "Would it be sustainable to support Equity Actors?" The logistics are a bit foggy.
What works, though, about the concept is that it is looking for a way to bring audiences in the door and it is looking outside the regular model with an eye on a model that already exists and works.
Scott and Kirk's ideas seem rather far apart, of course: Kirk is writing mostly for the New York community and its dilemma, and Scott has a broader and more academic approach. What I think is strikingly similar here, though, is that both seem to find the idea of pure marketing a bit distasteful.
What is it about simply saying "we need to sell more tickets and here is a way to do it" that makes theater artists, especially the most earnest of us, so incredibly uncomfortable?
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.