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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.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

National Premiere

UPDATE: Tomorrow I'm heading out to Arizona for a week-long vacation with Pam's family (and Pam of course), so, more than likely, I won't be updating until next Friday.

I invite everyone to use my comments section to hammer things out; to read Slay's posts on the subject (like this new one) and comment over there.

I've received a few e-mails at this point from interested companies (which is wonderful and thanks to all who contacted me) and I invite more. (Mattfr at gmail.com). Slay's also invited interested parties to contact him, so I suggest that as well. I'm sure he and I will compare notes.

I hope that other bloggers chime in (especially
Art, who was a part of the initial conversation and really helped spark the idea) and that readers connect companies they know with this concept. Let's see if we can turn conversation into action.

Well the "theatrosphere" has become a very active place, no? After the Tonys, there was a fury of postings about theatre and television and how they compare. I posted this, which sparked some fantastic comments which brought to the fore, for me anyhow, the idea of simultaneously opening a single play, on the same day, all over the country.

Read more about this, and a great distillation of the discussion, here.

Here's the reasoning:

One of the challenges of theatre is that it is an art that takes place at a single place, at a single moment, with live performers. That is its strength, but it is primarily a technological challenge. Film and television can distribute their work on multiple platforms (theaters, in your home, on DVD, via rental, downloads, iPod, Netflix) and plays simply don't work that way. How, then, to create a sense of national awareness and national conversation about a single production, outside of the niche of theatre fans and New York-o-files?

What currently happens, for the most part, is that a play opens in a single location (New York for example) has its run, and then either tours afterwards, or is picked up by individual companies. This happens in a very traditional way: the playwright tries to use reviews of the initial run to garner interest in other companies. This work means that productions after the original require a sort of repeated effort each time on the part of the playwright to get a production to happen.

Here's how a National Premiere might work, and help to move theatrical distribution of new works to a more modern model:

A series of smaller budget theater companies, who work at a professional level but have, say, less than 99 seat houses, agree to open, on the same day, a single work by a single writer. Let's say March 1st, 2009. Each company would pool resources for marketing, but essentially mount separately cast and directed productions of the single work. That means the resources these companies usually put into any given production would remain the same, but they would be a part of a national event, announcing a new work to the country, as opposed to their region. In some ways, it mimics the model of film distribution.

Why not larger institutions like The Public? Frankly, it would take years for companies of this size to come together with other companies of comparable size. They benefit from having a World Premiere in a variety of ways, but in terms of clout and finance. The sheer number of lawyers it would take to get the Goodman and the Public and the Guthrie to share a premiere would shut it down relatively quickly. That's my assumption, from the outside.

Furthermore, smaller companies are just more agile. They can make decisions like this more quickly, gather resources more quickly, and a loose affiliation is probably a more easy way to make a National Premiere work.

The playwright in question, of course, would have massive benefit. If each company paid standard royalties (which they would do if the show was not a part of this type of model anyhow) then the playwright would be looking at a substantial royalty check at the time. The playwright would also be seen by more eyeballs in the event of a single-month run at one time, than they likely would be in a six-month run in a single city.

Smaller companies would benefit from having immediate access to the cutting edge work, and also be a part of something that would raise not only awareness within the theater community of their work, but also potentially bring new audiences to their doorstep.

It's an idea, I think, that has legs. The problem, of course, is that there is a large gap between online activity ("That's a great idea!") and action in the real world. So...what would need to happen?

First of all, I, personally, would be happy to hear from any company that would find this interesting. I would also be happy to contact companies myself on the recommendation of others. Basically, this is the starting point... connecting companies with one another and gauging actual interest. Speaking to artistic directors about how possible this is.

All the real logistics would come afterwards. Which play, what date, how many companies. The first step is interest.

The make it simple, I'd like to focus on these areas:

Illinois
California
Washington State
Washington DC
Minnesota
Florida
Massachusetts
Pennsylvania
Texas
Georgia
Ohio
New York
North Carolina

That's a start. I'd love to hear from at least ONE company that's interested (or about what company that should be informed) from each of those states. If that can happen, I think it might be possible to add more. If you're not in an urban market, that's just fine. If you are, sweet. It would be fantastic to be able to post a series of companies that have specifically raised their hand to say: "I want in."

E-mail me at: Mattfr at gmail.com


Love to hear more thoughts and more ideas. I've read that some think colleges should be involved. I've read the idea of a "dinner theater" model that brings standard programming to a variety of cooler art spaces. Sort of a franchise version of this idea. There's been discussion of existing networks that do this, on some level, already. Could those networks be used as the framework to make this happen?

Exciting stuff. Let's see where it might go.

17 comments:

Jamespeak said...

Out of idle curiosity, which play would be the first to get this National Premiere? Dead City?

I mean, in the great scheme of things, it doesn't matter. I think it's a great idea.

Aaron Riccio said...

I clearly don't know enough about running a theater company to post a dissenting, or at least niggling, opinion over at metaDRAMA, so consider yourself invaded by my rant about the dangers of this idea.

But first, a clarification. A lot of people are talking using "Dead City," but this is a show that's already premiered, already received excellent reviews (I know I sold at least 50 tickets!), and can already go through the process you eloquently describe in your post of being picked up by individual companies. A National reopening of this would simply be branding it, and it would be a nonevent, or a belated apology to a talented playwright.

Now, the good news is that anybody who could get nationwide approval of a play for a simultaneous premier probably has a good script. Unfortunately, this largely doesn't sell shows, and simply making the scope bigger doesn't necessarily draw out any more audiences. Case in point with 365 plays/days; I saw Week 17, with the NY Neo-Futurists, and all it did was succeed in making me dislike the NY Neo-Futurists. I've since managed to mend my anger by going back to TMLMTBGB another four times. So, assume that you throw a nation-wide party and nobody comes, or that the reviews are poor? How do you recoup losses? Or what if the show appeals to a NY audience and *THAT* theater makes money, but the rest of them don't. Assuming that resources have been pooled, does everybody shoulder the debt, and is that fair? (Socialist theater...)

I like the idea in that it supposes that we can all watch and like the same thing, as with TV or movies... but even a national premiere will never be able to reach as many people as the electronic media, and will never have that "in the know" appeal for the watercooler crowd. And we DON'T all watch the same thing. Basic TV, which is free, rarely cracks 20 million viewers for a show (and the only for the most nonsensical shows), and when it does, it's because reality is being broken from the safety of your couch. How do you convince even the 1.1 million people watching You're The One That I Want to actually go to the theater? Hell, did that actually help ticket sales?

I'm sorry for rambling, but let me make another clarification about the financing aspect. If every show gets the same resources and obeys union regulations, that is, pays every worker the same rate across the board, then you are going to get very different productions as directors make due with their resources to fit their vision. It would be an interesting experiment for that ground alone, but then we're back at the point I made earlier.

What if two directors manage to mount visually arresting versions of the show? Say that it was a Lisa D'Amour play, and you put the direction in Katie Pearl's hands, or Lear deBessonet's. (And again, what sort of multiconglomerate board picks the directors?) Those two productions are successful, but some other directors don't quite capture it, or some other market force is at work... again, how do you deal with the loss?

I'm hoping that one of you geniuses can fix all of the things I've gotten wrong in my rant above, as I would love to see this succeed (the way I talk, I should produce!), but I worry about the high risk of actually premiering something to everybody.

Remember that with FILM, the majority of films lose money, and it's only because studios release such a different slate that they wind up balancing out or making money off the freak hits. And with TV, most shows don't make it past pilot season... and getting on air doesn't make them last... and even having a fan-base and critical appeal doesn't always ensure you'll stick for a season. TV can absorb the loss, again, because of quantity. But we're not talking quantity with theater: we're talking about ONE show that we assume comes with built in QUALITY...

Sorry for being a stick in the mud.

Freeman said...

Aaron:

I actually invite this and don't think you're being a stick in the mind. There are, without a doubt, logistical issues. Dead City has been used as an example... but anything along these lines will spark healthy debate about how the structure may work, which play, who should direct, etc. I would respond, initially, with this thought:

Better to work through the problems and challenges with the goal of success, than see challenges and problems and let them stop the project from going forward.

To respond with more detail:

If it were Dead City, for example, that received the National Premiere, it certainly wouldn't exactly match the term "Premiere." Then again, many plays that "Premiere" on Broadway have had lives before they debut there. So I think it's a question of semanitics, not logicistics, in that case.

Certainly, making the scope bigger doesn't automatically draw more audiences. But the potential for excitement and buzz is there, and that sort of buzz and a sense of a larger event DOES draw audiences. In fact, I see the pooling of resources to market the concept of the opening as pretty important, as opposed to pooling of resources for the production itself.

Currently, most individual companies are going to debut plays across the country that require individual, unique efforts to bring in their local and built-in audiences. There is the risk of loss to recoup for any production, so I don't see the issue of bringing in audiences or risking losing money as a unique risk to this particular model.

Even a national premiere, I agree, won't necessarily create the same buzz as an episode of "The Office" it has more potential to create that sort of conversation (even in certain circles) than the seperate and local markets have any chance of creating.

In terms of productions and differences in directors and what-have-you... I would say that things like a minimum size for the theatre, and a minimum budget, and things along those lines will probably wind up in any discussion about this. That being said, many companies across the countries work on a pretty similar scale, and that can be addressed as the conversations happen. I actually am starting to see differences in cast and direction as a strength... it creates that sense of immediacy and local talent that is a strength of the stage, while still offering something that everyone can communally enjoy.

At a basic level, I'm not terribly concerned about huge losses, because I feel as if (on the flip side) this sort of event could actually drive the curious few into stages they have never explored before, augmenting the existing audiences. Even if only built-in audiences attend, then what does a company lose? It gets the same result it would have it produced this play hypothetical play on its own.

I don't see this as a single, pooled fund that pays for 30 productions. The companies would act independently to mount the play, co-ordinate openings, and market the play as a unit.

Those are my thoughts, anyhow.

cgeye said...

I don't have a company, but I hope someone stands up for the great state of Colorado, which has a heck of a lot of small theatre companies that do newish work, and people who put on challenging plays regularly. If not CO, then WY, UT, heck, a boite near Bruce & Demi in MT....

The glove? Is thrown down.

cgeye said...

And has anyone done research on the marketing and production of VAGINA MONOLOGUES performances? I know royalties and payments enter less into that case study, but at least we can look at the impact of staging performances on one day, each year, and how general customer awareness translates into attendance. Any Yale School of Drama marketing student out there, looking for a paper?

Freeman said...

That's a good question. I'd be curious about that.

I think, the short version, is that with any new idea, there are logistical issues to be worked out and risks involved. I'd hope they could worked out as a part of the process of seeking a successful model. If it were to be something that gathers broad support, we would have to take a hard look at marketing, sharing of resources, and risks.

Aaron Riccio said...

I've actually worked with some of the crews of past V-Day performances, and in regards to what Matt said, it's true that buzz is generated from an "event." Our shows were always sold out, but not because of national attention. Half the audience comes for charity, and half for women's power. From year to year, the show grew distinctly better or worse, depending on director and casts, but it always sold out; in some ways, however, it's a show that's transcended art and simply become an event which attendees might not even consider theater... (i.e., audiences for that show rarely attended other shows, or even seemed to know about them.) As someone else mentioned, a national premiere would be very nice for the playwright selected... but would it help the rest of the community?

Tony said...

Myself, I don't think trying for uniformity should be the goal. I think the first step is getting companies on board. Ultimately, the people putting up the dough will have to sign off on the idea, but gathering those people would be the logical first step before picking a show or budgets etc.

If the shows lost a little money, but left an active network in place to funnel great scripts around nationwide for smaller companies to see and produce--that is a very positive step forward.

In addition to putting up a good show, I love the idea of the event.
I think it would be cool to see how different companies and cities put on the same show, in their own way.

Maybe an enterprising writer could get his boss to pick up the tab to see all of them in one month and compare all to each other as part of the whole? The ultimate theatre road trip?

Freeman said...

Ha. My greatest typo! "Stick in the mind!" I kill myself!

Aaron Riccio said...

Yeah, Tony, that's something I'd love to see. If The Brick sold out last year, and went pretentious this year... what if next year was The One Play Festival: the same show, but put on by like ten different companies. (You could also play with the idea of mashing it up, so each company performs a different part of the play, so that what you see is ten interpretations in one.)

Alison Croggon said...

I'm kind of baffled by this idea, really. Of course it makes sense in one way, pooling your marketing resources. There's no way that there's going to be 10 or 50 identical productions of a play, but to the average punter it's just going to look like Cameron Mackintosh on a smaller scale - a franchise. Why not pool resources as independent companies and stress diversity rather than sameness? 10 or 50 plays (or better still, theatre events that aren't necessarily plays) that are all DIFFERENT?

Aaron Riccio said...

In terms of pooling resources, why not contact United Stages, which looks to do exactly that: they pool advertising resources on their website and in their unique Playbills, they even write articles too. It's a nice unified effort, and they do put out some nice shows -- even some discounts, too.

Freeman said...

Alison:

I think the general consensus is that each production would be unique (different cast, different director) of the same play. I certainly don't think it's possible to clone a live production (unless it's Les Miz).

To me, this is simply a large number of independent organizations gathering around a single play, once every one or two years.

There isn't really a lack of productions that are entirely different from one another.

One thing I think is a good trend is focusing on existing resources to get the job done. United Stages and the National Play Network already do this on slightly different scales. Perhaps partnerships with them would be a very good step in getting this accomplished.

Quin said...

six years ago, i became part of the board of directors of a theater company, and helped form it, and then run it until my move to new york.

i've sent you an email regarding the matter, and await your response.

i understand what it takes... from deciding the play to casting to the build to housing to cleaning the toilets... you do it all.

J.D. said...

What a frickin' fresh idea, Matt!
Of course the "what about me?" voices will arise. Go, man, go!

*pondering*

Tim said...

Hey Matt-
I'm sure you're aware (or somebody might have brought up) the 365 Plays/365 Days project, which is having a National World Premiere throughout the year, in cities around the country. Might be something to look at for logistics.

Karl Miller said...

I hope you keep this discussion going -- interesting ideas here and I'm still not sure what I think of the whole proposition.

You mentioned the National Play Network in a previous comment here. Were you referring to the National New Play Network?

http://www.nnpn.org

I hadn't heard of them until this past week when I was chatting with a dramaturg from Woolly Mammoth in DC (one of the network members). Sounds like they structure things to create more of a rolling premier (instead of a simulcast) for the benefit of the playwright ... let's them travel to see all the different productions. Interesting.