Not long ago, New York City was the center for new plays. First Broadway, which ceded to Off-Broadway when Broadway production costs rose too high, which ceded to Off-Off-Broadway when production costs for Off-Broadway rose too high. Eventually, NYC ceded to Regional theaters (smaller city professional theaters) as a place for new plays.
The pattern became familiar: Success on Broadway entailed high production costs, which brought about higher ticket prices. It began to cost too much to fail. Therefore, Off-Broadway started taking the risks and Broadway just waited for the successes from Off-Broadway and mounted pretty sure things. Eventually, as Off-Broadway theaters became successful, production costs went up and so did prices and therefore, Off-Off-Broadway became the next place for new plays. But Off-Off-Broadway proved to be a mixed bag, some theaters succeeding, many not.
Eventually, New York City was no longer the sole place for innovation. Regional theaters asserted themselves and started producing new plays and deciding for themselves which plays were good and which were not good. They no longer had to wait for the NYC theater world to make that determination for them. And NYC benefited from the Regional theaters becoming important sources for new plays. NYC just had to wait and see what new plays were successful in other cities around the country, and then they could mount the best of those plays for the NYC theater world.
But Regional professional theaters are generally subsidized by local rich patrons (individuals and businesses) and play-goers wealthy enough to afford the prices of plays (e.g. Cincinnati, Detroit, Oklahoma City etc. professional theaters).
Community (town) amateur theaters are generally subsidized by a combination of community funds (political), business contributions (charity), and play-goer attendance.
Risk is an inherent part of the theater business. Some plays are “hits,” some “flops,” and many land somewhere in between.
For big city and regional professional theaters, “hits” can subsidize “flops.” If these theaters can produce enough “hits,” then they can make up for their “flops,” and they can stay in business. For them, risk is determined, in part, by the balance between “hits” and “flops.” It is also determined by the wills of the rich patrons and play-goers to maintain their support even when the “flops” are overtaking the “hits” in financial terms. But that support will only last so long.
Community theaters don’t need “hits” to subsidize “flops.” They can produce more plays that “flop” than “hit” and still “stay in business.” That’s because their “flops” can be subsidized by the community (politics). But they can’t do this forever. The community sources of funding will dry up if theaters can’t draw enough audience to support their productions.
In the theater environment today, community theater seems to be the best source of “risk-taking” in the theater business. But it has not realized it yet. It can produce solid theater (reasonably good acting, reasonably good staging, at reasonably good venues, etc.) to produce new plays.
Traditionally, community theater has been the “re-play,” the re-do” or the “copy-cat” theater for the more risk-taking big-city and regional professional theaters. Community theaters usually produce “tried-and-true” plays, plays that have already been critically accepted by big city and regional professional theaters and their critics.
But financially, community theaters are in the best position to be innovative. Their overhead costs are relatively low (i.e. they don’t pay their play-makers) and a good portion of their start-up funds come from the government or community. Very successful community theaters can forgo government subsidies and subsidize themselves through box office income. In that case, commmunity support can help them broaden their repertoire.
Why can’t community theater be the place where good new plays are discovered?
This is a democratic ideal...movement in the right direction. In a democracy, the individual is supreme…not the region (small city) or the large city, both of which are subsidized by the richer and more powerful few.
People in small towns and suburbs who subsidize community theater are in the best position to produce new plays because the risks and the gains are relatively moderate; "hits" would not convert into huge incomes and "flops" would not result in the demise of the theater. Hits and flops do not “make or break” the theater.
Community theater can risk a poor production because it will not result in the elimination of financial support, as long as that trend does not persist. Likewise, community theater can “hit” with plays by drawing a lot of play-goer support (attendance), but such a “hit” does not produce a great deal of financial income for the theater. That is, the theater will not be able to capitalize off of sales of the play in other cities and countries. It’s gains will remain local.
Community theater is potentially a great place for the creative germination of new plays. It can take risks that the professional theaters cannot because it will not lose its funding as quickly as would the professional theaters, and it is not as dependent upon the success of its plays as are the professional theaters.
It could be a relatively stable source of innovation in the theater business.
Can community play-goers recognize good plays when they see them, even if such plays are innovative and different? Do they experience enough theater to discern “different-that-is-positive” from "different-that-is-negative?"
In the U.S., big city theater (NYC, “The Great White Way”) is no longer the sole determiner of innovation. In fact, production costs are so high in NYC that the cost of one flop could sink a theater. Hence, NYC has become more reliant upon regional theaters for taking risks by producing new plays. Regional theaters have become an innovative “incubator” for big city theater. What succeeds in regional theater is then produced in big-city theater with limited risk.
Democratically, this is a positive move. There are many more regional theaters than big city theaters, which means more chances for new plays to be produced and to succeed. But when this shift occurred, big city theaters had to forfeit the idea that they alone produced new plays and were responsible for innovative theater. They had to concede that regional or small city theaters, and the play-goers and critics that make them up, really are capable of discerning good plays from bad ones, innovative plays from exercises in self-absorption. In effect, those with money and power in big city theater had to forfeit their exclusive authority over theater to include the authority of regional theaters. The theater business was becoming more democratic.
But now regional theaters are falling prey to the same problems experienced by big city theaters: the cost of productions is rising, ticket prices are rising to help offset the cost of productions, and now it is much riskier to produce a flop in regional theater than it was in the past. Hence, regional theaters have become more “selective” of what they are willing to produce. This “selectivity” leads to “exclusivity.” Regional theaters are tending to exclude creative talents coming from outside of their professional apparatus. They are becoming as “clannish” as big-city theaters had become. This is clearly evident in the dramatic decrease in regional theaters that are willing to accept play submissions from people who do not have an agent. Regional theater is experiencing the same problems that big city theaters experienced in the past: the risk of failure is too great. They need to control that risk; otherwise they will not exist.
Regional theater has become the “middle-class” of the theater business. It has taken on the risks of failure (a mark of democracy or self-assertion) by asserting its right to determine which plays are good and which plays are bad, but they have only been able to be in that position because the big city system became “clannish” itself. It excluded the regional theaters from its system of “legitimate” theater and, hence, de-legitimized regional theater as a source of innovation and good theater. The big city theater people thought that the regional theater people were incapable of determining which plays are good and which plays are bad.
The same thing is going on in the regional theater today. The regional theatre people think that the community theater people are not capable of determining which plays are good and which plays are bad. They consider “amateur” to be automatically “less in quality” than “professional.” Therefore, anything amateurs have to say in relation to the quality of theater is irrelevant. Just like the big-city theaters used to think of the regional theaters.
Herein lies the paradox. Professional theater creates its own clannishness. It can’t help but do so. As soon as a theater has success in a competitive system, it wants to protect itself. It wants to maintain or increase its success in a competitive environment. So it refines its methods. It does so by promoting “insiders” and prohibiting “outsiders.” Those within the reagional theater business recognize only those who have become "successful" in that business. They do so by creating a "catch-22." The "catch-22" of the theater business is: if you have an agent, you can submit a play to their theater, but you can't get an agent if you don't have a play produced. This "catch-22" is the heart of theater clannishness and the reason why big-city theater had to cede authority to include regional theater in determining which new plays are good and which are bad. It is the same reason why regional theater will have to cede authority to include community theater in determining which new plays are good and which are bad. The question is: can community theater step up and assert itself?
Currently, community theater feeds into this professional theater bias and exclusivity. It tends to produce plays that have already proved their worth in regional and big-city theaters. Play-goers of community theater generally still believe that the good plays have to be determined by someone other than themselves, that they can’t determine what is a good play and what is a bad play themselves, that they need others to “tell them” what is good and what is bad. Then they will select the good plays for their productions.
The New Space Theater thinks it is time for community theater to step up and assert itself, to realize that it can determine which plays are good and which plays are bad for themselves. It is an idea in search of support.
If this interests you, then feel free to contact me. Let's see what we can do to make this happen.