The stories that Bill DeYoung and I wrote last week about hard times in the local theatre scene – Bill’s was an overview of current troubles, mine an opinion column – led to quite a, well, dramatic reaction amongst the local theatre community.
A single Facebook thread about the articles garnered over 100 responses from about 40 different people.
(While I’d love to take credit for driving those page views, credit must go to Ryan McCurdy, who posted links to our articles and hosted the discussion among his Facebook friends.)
Some of the comments were the usual defensive response anytime the local media writes that one story a year that isn’t 100 percent positive about local theatre. But the vast majoirty were very constructive and practical comments that could go a long way towards addressing these very real issues.
Without violating anyone’s privacy, I’ve taken the liberty of breaking down the most notable suggestions by subject area. I offer selected fair–use quotes without passion or prejudice, in the public interest of beginning a constructive dialogue so that local, live theatre can be as successful as we all think it can be.
These are the most fundamental comments: Ones dealing with the issues around securing a performance space as well as the core structure of theatre companies themselves.
–– “The real news story here is about a venue,” one comment said, referring to Bill’s story, “the biggest thing we have all struggled with over the years.”
–– But another comment questions the need for fixed venues, discussing groups in other cities that “don’t have a home space but are nomadic, renting spaces around town.... Sometimes the audience is very small, and the group that we are most involved in rents their permanent space to other groups so there are very few dark weekends in the space.”
–– A comment on local turf battles: “I’ve wondered why a truly unified effort to put together a solid professional theater company on a large scale, i.e. at the level of the Savannah Philharmonic, hasn’t been tried, or a Savannah Theater Festival that could be a cousin to all the other Savannah festivals –– Music, Film, and now Book.”
–– Another post raises the “important distinction between a company and a group who puts on shows. Both are equally valid depending on the resources available.”
–– “Regardless of a theatre’s non–profit status, first and foremost it is a business. The goal of a business is to offer a service or product in exchange for funds. The idea that a community theater needs to be about community first is a train of logic that is the fast track to financial failure and ruin.”
Some comments suggest that local theatre might be more successful if plays were chosen more wisely and/or the level of quality was higher.
–– “The first responsibility of the theatre community is to choose plays that are full of rich, complex content, act them with delicacy and honesty and spontaneity, and direct them with a cohesive vision. If people don’t want to come to plays, it might not be entirely the fault of an apathetic community –– the plays themselves have something to do with it.”
–– One poster wants more locally–written plays and says “Most of the shows I have been to have been mediocre (at best) renditions of established plays.”
–– Regarding competition from professional traveling shows: “Most folks will pay the higher ticket prices for these shows knowing that they are getting a good return on their dollar.”
–– “Until the product is better I don’t blame people for not wanting it. Sometimes it comes close, really really close, but it’s not consistent.”
However, some posters say Savannah is simply not conducive to large–scale successful community theatre.
–– “Theatre shouldn’t exist just because there ‘should’ be theatre in a metropolitan area, like it’s a requirement. Theatre should exist where it is needed, where it is craved.”
–– “To say that the NYC or LA theatre scene is better because of the taste or values of New Yorkers or LA residents ignores the obvious –– NYC has a metropolitan area of 19 million people, and LA is about the same size. That’s almost 64 times larger than Savannah.”
Some posters, though by no means all, agreed with my contention that local ticket prices need to come down.
–– “It’s hard to remember the times when paying $22 for general admission to a local theatre show was considered ‘affordable.’”
This section involves the need for more numbers of dedicated volunteers, rather than a reliance on the same core group.
–– “The theatre scene in Savannah has no lack of good ideas; only the volunteers needed to implement them.”
–– “Many people who like to perform in live theater do not ever go see a show they are not involved in. Good intentions, too busy, etc. does not put you into a seat as a paying customer.”
–– “If everyone who participated in community theatre would drop a five dollar bill into a money jar each time they walked in the door maybe there could be a true revival.”
These comments make the case that local theatre groups need to think outside the box with marketing techniques.
–– “No one can simply rely on people to show up out of the blue. We have gotten too dependent on technology and regular customer basis to go out and expand. Theatre has to go back to guerrilla style advertising.”
–– “Has anyone thought of maybe doing a phone pledge? Pledge such and such dollars to this theater company and get a tote? or season tickets? or your name in every program of the season?”
Savannah Children’s Theatre
Finally but perhaps most interestingly, several posters brought up Kelie Miley’s Savannah Children’s Theatre as an example of consisently successful, affordable local theatre.
–– “If you want to build a sustainable business out of your theatre, the thinking of treating each show as its own little world needs to stop. Savannah Children’s Theatre does not seem to do this, which is why I believe they are still succeeding when others are failing.”
–– “There is an economic lesson to be learned from children’s theatre: For every child cast in a show, you’ve sold at least 2 tix to their parents. That’s not counting, Suzie Q’s three older brothers (who don’t really want to be there but their mom made them go support their little sis), both sets of grandparents, her best friend, and her friend’s mom who took her.”
What do you think? The conversation continues....