Eat, Drink, and Stage a New Play: 10 things theaters must do to save themselves

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image by A. Richard Allen

1. Enough with the Shakespeare already. The greatest playwright in history has become your enabler and your crutch, the man you call when you’re timid and out of ideas. It’s time for a five-year moratorium–no more high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet, no more NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland, and no more fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet. (Or with anything. Fringe theater should be in the game of debasement, not ennoblement.) Stretch yourself. Live a little. Find new, good, weird plays nobody has heard of. Teach your audiences to want surprises, not pacifiers. 

2. Tell us something we don’t know. Every play in your season should be a premiere–a world premiere, an American premiere, or at least a regional premiere. Everybody has to help. Directors: Find a new play to develop in the next 12 months. Actors: Ditto. Playwrights: Quit developing your plays into the ground with workshop after workshop–get them out there. Critics: Reward theaters that risk new work by making a special effort to review them. Unions, especially the Actors’ Equity Association: You are a problem. Fringe theaters are the research and development wing of American theater, but most of them can’t afford to go union, so union actors are stuck in the regional theaters, which are skittish about new plays and playwrights. Give a pass to union actors to work in nonunion houses that are producing new plays.

3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. Fringe theaters: Recall that in 1988, the Seattle fringe company Annex produced 27 plays, 16 of them world premieres–and hang your heads in shame. (Annex, by the way, is still around.)

4. Get them young. Start by lowering or abolishing ticket prices for people under 30. Sell your entire season for $20. Seattle playwright Paul Mullin says it best: “Bring in people under 60. Do whatever it takes. If you have to break your theater to get young butts in seats, then do it. Because if you don’t, your theater’s already broke–the snapping sound just hasn’t reached your ears yet.”

5. Offer child care. Sunday school is the most successful guerrilla education program in American history. Steal it. People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games. It will be easier to convince parents to commit to season tickets, it will satisfy your education mission, and it will teach children to think about theater as a playtime instead of punishment.

6. Fight for real estate. In 1999 musician Neko Case broke up with Seattle, leaving it for Chicago. When she was asked why, she explained, “Chicago is a lot friendlier, especially toward its artists. Seattle is very unfriendly toward artists. There’s no artists’ housing–they really like to use the arts community, but they don’t like to put anything back into the arts community.” Our failure abides. Push government for affordable artist housing.

7. Build bars. Alcohol is both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Even the meanest fringe company can afford a tub of ice and beer, and the state of regional-theater bars is deplorable: long lines, overpriced drinks, and a famine of comfortable chairs. Theaters try to “build community” with post-play talkbacks, lectures, and other versions of You’ve spent two hours watching my play, now look at me some more! You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle. They get drinks, you get money, everybody wins.

8. Host boors’ night out. You know what else builds community? Audience participation, on the audience’s terms. 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!”) The sucky, facile Rocky Horror Picture Show survives because it’s the only play people are encouraged to mess with.

9. Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. Actors and stagehands must jettison the living-wage argument–it just isn’t viable.

10. Drop out of graduate school. Most of you students in MFA programs don’t belong there–your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future. Historians excepted–art historians are great. If things don’t turn around, they may be the only ones left.

Reprinted from the Stranger (Oct. 9, 2008), the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper led by nationally syndicated Savage Love columnist Dan Savage;

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