Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Shouting "Stella!" in a crowded theatre

Thanks to Chicago-based blogger Kris Vire of Storefront Rebellion for pointing me to this story from The Stranger, Seattle's alternative weekly. Writer Brendan Kiley has compiled a list of 10 things that regional theatre companies need to do right now to save themselves. (Robert Ullman did the illustration.)

You can read the details in the story but here's the list:

1.) Enough with the ********* Shakespeare already.
2.) Tell us something we don't know.
3.) Produce dirty, fast and often.
4.) Get them young.
5.) Offer child care.
6.) Fight for real estate.
7.) Build bars.
8.) Boors' night out.
9.) Expect poverty.
10.) Drop out of graduate school.

Okay, some of Kiley's suggestions may not be realistic, like Number 1, his call for a five-year, nationwide moratorium on all productions of Shakespeare. He says that Shakespeare has become a crutch that theatre companies use when they're timid and have run out of ideas. Kiley advises, "Stretch yourself. Live a little. Find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers."

And some, like boors' night out, are kind of funny. Kiley says theatres should build audience participation into their productions, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines. ("Stella!")

But I really think that other items on his list have a lot of merit and definitely seem within the realm of possibility. Number 5, for example, is a great idea. Why don't theatres offer child care? A lot of theatre companies already have summer programs for kids, so it's not that much of a stretch.

Kiley says, let parents drop their kids off in a rehearsal room with some young actors who could entertain them for a couple of hours with some theatre-related activities. It'll encourage more people to subscribe, help fulfill the theatre's education mission and teach children to go to the theatre regularly. "They'll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups."

And although Number 7, build bars, sounds a bit glib, Kiley actually has a good point. He says that theatres should "encourage patrons to come early drink lots and stay late." Trying to build a community with post-play talkbacks and lectures is going about things the wrong way. "You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle."

One of the things that amazed me about my visit to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in September is the extent to which the theatre is a destination. You can take a tour, take a class, eat in one of its restaurants, relax in the lounge and enjoy the view of the Mississippi River in addition to seeing a show.

Sure, not every theatre has the room for a full-service restaurant, the advantage of a breathtaking view or the staff to offer courses. But certainly most theatres could offer a backstage tour. And what about putting in a bar with some comfy chairs to entice patrons to come early or linger after the show?

Kiley's article has generated quite a bit of comment on The Stranger's Web site. Some readers took issue with his more snide remarks, like the suggestion to drop out of graduate school because theatre departments are staffed by "has-beens and never-weres." But I have to give him credit for being thought-provoking and starting a discussion.


Alicia said...

What a great article. So many of these things are on my "must do" list to turn our little theatre around (especially the child care bit). The challenge, as I'm sure the author of this article will attest to, is that many theatres are run by old-school folk and thus you get an old-school theatre. It is the frustration that I deal with constantly with my peers... *sigh*

In the end - it is all about getting the butts in the seats and pumping the life into the theatre.

I intend to blog about this dilemma at length -- in December. :)

Esther said...

Yeah, I thought the child care idea was one of those "Duh, of course!" things. I guess some theatres might be worried about liability but if they already offer programs for children they've probably got all the proper insurance, safety requirements, etc.

As someone who goes to quite a bit of regional theatre now, I'm very interested in your thoughts on this. But I can wait until December!