About Me

My photo
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.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

"Indie Theater" and "Church"

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?


Joshua said...

Hey Matt, some thoughts on the matter -

I don't think marketing is distasteful - after all, without an audience we don't have a show. I think it's as important as anything to get the word out to the potential audience for a particular piece.

Where I have difficulty, with regard to marketing, is when the work is done in response to the marketing, as opposed to the other way around. Case in point, the current revival of The Old Couple, which was entirely unnecessary and only to serve the two actors starring within it. Then again, the show has sold out, so what do I know?

But I do think it's better if the marketing were done in response to the work.

I have a great deal of difficulty with the COST of theatre in nyc, ticket prices are so high that it forces the audience I feel that I write for away. I personally don't think any show, ANY SHOW, is worth a hundred dollars a ticket. Not just mine, but any show. I've written that before but I'll say that again. So I find it uncomfortable that even on the professional level of Off-Bway, tickets are forty to fifty bucks.

Also expensive is the marketing itself, a small ad in the Times can run thousands and thousands of dollars. So can the publicist you have to hire in order to get a review in the Times.

Granted, now this is what indie-theatre is for, to do the kind of work you want as you want, without interference or paying thousands of dollars.

But my opinion with regard to Indie-theatre is that's now hardly possible, that's now changed, when I began ten years ago it was possible and affordable just to do a show on your own, but now theatre rental is a minimum of two thousand dollars a week. That's just the space, it doesn't even take into account insurance, props, postcards and advertising, rehearsal space or anything one might need for the show.

Let's say you rent a theatre for a week, two grand, and you have at least another thousand in costs for rehearsal and postcards (that's low, but let's say that for the sake of argument) - The house is small, seats fifty, cause that's all you can afford.

So you've spent three thousand dollars on your show.

You run one week, Wed thru Sat, with an invited dress on Tues (which you don't charge) so you have four performances.

4 shows.
50 seats at $15 per seat.
Let's say you sell out.
That's $750 bucks a night.
Four performances - you've made three thousand dollars.

Congratulations, you broke even.

Thing is, you didn't get a review, the run was so short that most folks missed it, 200 folks really liked it and would probably spread the word if there was time and opportunity, you know the audience is there for your play for it but you cannot get it to them.

And the reality is, you spent more than three grand, you spent four, and you only filled half the house with paying guests, the other half was equity actors (who get in free) or various other industry folks, like casting directors and the like, that you have to comp in order to keep your actors happy.

So let's say you spent four grand, which is more realistic. And you made two thousand dollars.

You just dropped two grand on a show that ran a total of four performances.

I love indie-theatre, artist-driven work. But that's the real problem with it right now. Affordabillity.

Sorry for the long post. It was that extra hour of sleep, I guess.

Joshua said...

I left more thoughts on the matter in the Dojo, and sourced your site - just wanted to give you the heads up -

here's the link - http://playwrightjoshuajames.com/dailydojo/?p=68

ernest said...

I like the word paradigm. A love like this cannot be platonic.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks for the comments and questions. I have responded to a few of them on my blog: http://theatreideas.blogspot.com/2005/10/few-questions-from-matt-freeman-about.html

devore said...

Changing the name from "Off-off" to "Indie" does seem like a half-hearted marketing campaign. Who cares what it's called. Artistic movements don't name themselves, they focus on the work.

And remember, the "indie film" scene of the 90's morphed from scrappy artists creating wonderful, personal, anti-Hollywood flicks, to becoming a major commercial scene. So I think the term "independant" has too many sell-out connotations, when down and dirty artistic expression is what is being sold. If we're talking about marketing, we'd need a word that is associated with something else, a word that means independant or alternative, but aren't those two things. Like, say, "Credit Card Theater" It's honest!

Equity is terribly prohibitive to an off-off producer, the showcase contract being way to short to really get audience momentum building.

Advertising and marketing aside, the only guarunteed way to nurture a show into breaking even is to build buzz. And you do that by trying to stay afloat as long as possible, and build the buzz one audience member at a time. It's no different than selling typewriters. You build a business one customer at a time.

Word of mouth is everything. You get people talking, and you will sell tickets. All the marketing and advertising in the world pales in comparison.

One person at a time. Start with your friends, and their friends, and organically, if the show is worth it, word will get around.

Unfortunately, Equity doesn't see it this way, thinking that angel investors and producers pour to showcases, looking to make some a star, a star I tell you.