Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My suggestion to save theatre as we know it

Scene from my ten-minute play, THE FUGITIVE with Penny Peyser & Andy Goldberg
It’s probably half urban legend, but the concept of Top 40 radio supposedly began when radio station owner Todd Storz was in a restaurant/bar with some friends in the mid ‘50s. There was a juke box and as new customers arrived they all seemed to play the same three songs. At the end of the night the restaurant staff was cleaning up, putting chairs on the tables, etc. and they too selected those same three songs to listen to. Now it’s one thing for the customers. They come in, hear the song once then leave. But the staff must’ve heard those same songs twenty times and yet they STILL chose to select them.

A lightbulb went on over Storz’s head. People want to hear their favorite songs over and over. So his station began playing the big hits of the day over and over, and the ratings skyrocketed.

Sure, people wanted to hear new music too, but just sprinkled in. Most of all they wanted the hits.

This applies to other forms of entertainment as well. How many cable channels are playing multiple daily episodes of MASH, I LOVE LUCY, LAW & ORDER, NCIS, and THE BIG BANG THEORY? People want to hear (and see) the hits.

Unfortunately, for us playwrights it’s the same thing in the theatre. Why take a chance with a new play by me when you can just schedule THE ODD COUPLE by Neil Simon? It makes it hard to get a new play produced if you don’t have a Tony.

And lots of theatres who do accept new material want to make sure the play has never been produced. They want the “World Premier.” It’s a big deal to them. They can ask for subsidiary rights for taking the risk of mounting your untried material. And if the play goes on to be a big hit they have bragging rights that they were the first one to discover it.

Okay, I get that. I’m not happy about it, but I can see their point.

What I don’t get is when theatres want unproduced material only for ten-minute play festivals. I submit a lot of ten-minute plays to festivals (been very lucky in some and not so much in others) and it frustrates me how many of them only want unproduced plays. Why? What’s the advantage? You can crow about a ten-minute play that goes on to other competitions? There’s no subsidiary rights. And what the artistic director and his staff are left with is a blizzard of terrible plays to go along with the few good ones. Happy sifting. Part of the reasons so many of these plays are bad is because the writer never had a chance to see and fix it once it was on its feet.

And the audience doesn’t give a shit that they’re watching a “World Premier.” In fact, brand new work might make them leery. If you think it’s tough sitting in a movie theatre watching some stink burger, imagine how much harder it is when the performance is live and the actors can watch you.

Seems to me it would be better to mount plays that have proven to be successful. If I were running a ten-minute festival I would require two things: 1) They play must have already been produced, and 2) The play must’ve WON something (“Best Play,” “Audience Favorite,” etc.)

Instead of 600 submission for ten slots I’d have 150 (and let’s get real, those are the same 150 that are really in competition even if there are 600 submission). It’s just simple logic –



Craig Gustafson said...

So if theaters start playing only the hits - they've been produced and have won awards - where do those come from, after the well has dried up for new works? Also, what guarantee is there that winning = quality? A play of mine that is being published lost one contest to an anti-Donald Trump play (that part of it is fine); that was an only-sort-of funny play that was preaching to the choir.

I've been writing ten minute plays for the past year. One won two contests and is being published. Another won one contest and is entered in the upcoming Samuel French Off Off Broadway festival. That's two out of nineteen; but if theaters weren't taking a chance on new works, it'd be zero out of nineteen.

I agree with not *requiring* that the show has never been produced, but I'm a little leery about the Just the Hits idea.

PolyWogg said...

I live in Ottawa, which gives me decent access to a variety of play going options. Nothing like you experience in your area, of course, we have only 1M people in the area, but it's enough for us to have two main amateur theatres, two semi-professional theatres, and the National Arts Centre (plus a few other theatres that rent out space to local "come one, come all" companies). The main amateur theatres go for the lighter hits; the semi-professional ones (sort of Tier 2 productions) go for the creative tours and "artistic" endeavours. And the NAC? Well...

A number of years ago, the AD for the NAC at the time gave an interview where they talked about the challenge of choosing a repertoire for the year...it's the "national" theatre, so of course they want to be artistic and avant-garde, but the more accessible hits would be commercial successes. They recently put on one of their more accessible plays, a comedy called The Wedding Party, the first one I have opted to see in five or six years of consideration, and other than a bit of confusion with six actors all playing about 3 roles each, it worked well...but in your parlance, they had work-shopped the heck out of it first (the six artists with the playwright, who was also one of the lead actresses). One of the best plays I've seen in a really long time.

At the amateur theatre, i.e. the "lighter hits", the acting is nowhere near as good, but the cost is lower and the plays are more enjoyable in many respects. I'm a plebe in that regard, I guess. I'll take Saltwater Moon or a Norm Foster comedy any day, instead of a great interpretation of some historical figures relationship with their maid. They can be hit or miss for the acting, or more precisely the casting, but what can you do at the price? A number of years ago, I saw an Agatha Christie play where the premise was a seaside retreat, son with his new wife would be there, and the exwife was invited too, along with a retired sea Captain. Premise in the book was that ex-wife was nice, solid, stable, while new wife that he dumped the old wife for was a shiny femme fatale that turned his head. They bring out the old wife, and she's gorgeous. Easy to see why he would want to go back to her, but that ups the ante on the new wife -- she comes out, and she's older and dowdy, almost frumpish. Like, really? We're supposed to believe he dumped wife #1 for this? Okay, whatever. Then they introduce the retired sea captain who is supposed to be a sharp as nails, quiet Hercule Poirot-rival, and he's presented more like Clouseau or Columbo...wth? It's the only time I have ever left at intermission. I usually sit through to see what vision the playwright, director, producer had...but that one was just irritating. But I digress.

In Canada, at least, a lot of the short plays ask for previously unproduced plays as a deliberate attempt to help new playwrights, with the view that established playwrights already have a foot in the door. In your neck of the woods, where there are tons of previously produced, now struggling writers, that "benefit" might not seem like much. The backdoor criticism is that one of the reasons they target unproduced people is that they don't offer anything more than exposure...like an unpaid internship.

But now that you've opened the door, how about a Friday question: Any "I remember seeing..." tributes to share about great plays that you've seen where they came out of nowhere for you, totally unexpected diamonds in the rough?


By Ken Levine said...

Not every theatre will follow my model. There will still be the overwhelming majority of theatres that accept new work or require only new work. But if I were staging a festival, Craig, I'd want one of your two proven hits instead of the 17 others. I think my audience would too. Congratulations, by the way, on your success.

Tony Vale said...

If theatres are looking for a Tony, I happen to be one.

Seriously though, I'm with the school of support that if theatres only want hits we "aspiring" playwrights have to produce them someone.

Four of us teamed up to get our stuff in front of a paying audience, which helps relieve the frustration of continuous rejections.

If there's no light at the end of a tunnel, it's just a black hole.

Tony Vale

tavm said...

"Play the Hits". Well, I guess that's why they turn hit movies like Pretty Woman into musicals. (Mind you, I actually liked Pretty Woman the Musical, but still...)

Frank Beans said...

What we really need is a healthy functioning arts culture that allows theater and music to work the way they are supposed to, just as we need a healthy functioning democracy in order to make government work. I won't belabor the point, but America has a terrible problem right now on both of those fronts.

Any good theater is going to be about a repertory that is a combination of new material and old favorites, as well as stuff that is gaining currency, so they can act as tastemakers at the same time as understanding their audience's sensibilities. So to sum up--there is no formula, or single strategy, except to get people to value art and democracy because they understand what it is, and that their lives depend on it.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Why not compromise? Half established plays and half new work. I've come to see several of your ten minute plays. And yes, many of the other playwrights have put up plays that range from pretty good to down right awfull. But, part of going to these performances, beside supporting a friend, is the chance that one might discover a gem.
I also agree with Craig Gustafson that "...what guarantee is there that winning = quality?" You can win "audience favorite" by loading the theater with friends and acquaintances. And as I've said many times before, "good" is very subjective. I could love a play and the guy sitting next to me could hate it. Or vice versa. That's one parallel to TV. There are those shows that critics praise and viewers binge and all I can say is, "why? What am I missing?"

Todd Everett said...

Seems to me it would be better to mount plays that have proven to be successful. If I were running a ten-minute festival I would require two things: 1) They play must have already been produced...

But if your suggestion takes hold, companies are only producing "new" plays! This is like "We can't hire you; you have no experience."

Ishkabibble said...

This is fascinating to me, because I have season tickets to two local theater companies in my area. One is professionals and often do Premiers and modern plays - the other is amateurs and lately they've been doing a lot of classic plays. We've been enjoying the amateurs so much more lately and it's entirely because their play selection has been so stellar. They did a performance of The Man Who Came To Dinner last year that nearly killed me with laughter. So I agree with Ken - things are classic for a reason! Play the hits!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Of course you've thought of this - so regard it as a Friday Question.

"Why not mount your own ten-minute play festival?"

Pull out your rolodex and contact some like-minded play producers to put one on. Contact some sure-fire playwrights about this idea and get some of their stuff produced for a 2nd time (and use judgment to relax the "won something rule")

(after all didn't one of your "first page rewrites" knock off your nominated/credited Cheers script one year?)

How many evenings do ten-minute play festivals run - that is, does any single play get performed more than once?

And never mind the "what if" objectors. None of your proposition amounts to an "either-or" - rather, its an "and".

The potential audience is passing time with inferior distractions - and it's HUGE. Very little compares with my own peak theatre experience (Much Ado About Nothing - Summer 1982 - Stratford-upon-Avon) - give 'em more.

Stephen Marks said...

Can you really judge anything to be 'bad' after only ten minutes, other then my ex wife's performance in the sack. Sounds like it would be easier to cobble together all the jokes, if it's a comedy, and put them into a stand-up routine. I know it would be out of context but you'd still get some feedback, even if it's hecklers. I don't think they heckle in the theater, the theater. I'd love to see a ten minute play with an intermission. Or a ten minute play where the lead character has 20 costume changes and ages 50 years, all while smoking the same cigarette he lit in scene one.

How about a ten minute play with a nude scene. How about one of those plays within a play things like Noises Off, a ten minute play about a theater the puts on five minute plays. I don't know, I do know I know fuck all about the theater, the theater. Another thing I know is that Ken's work is judged harsher because he has a wonderful legacy, and that's not fair to Ken. Maybe some of the plays Ken wrote didn't resonate because everybody knew Ken wrote it and expected a MASH episode, or Frasier. Not fair for Ken and a tough position to be in. Like people expecting Babe Ruth to call his shot every time up.

Frank Beans said...

"And the audience doesn’t give a shit that they’re watching a 'World Premier'.”

That's the crux of the issue, as I think you know. The industry is not driven by popular taste anymore, to the extent that it ever was. It's a supply economy where moguls are trying to impress each other with how many bodies they can bring in, just as TV and film are about numbers of eyeballs, just as websites are about amounts of page hits.

Sorry, but the blunt ugly truth is right there: Numbers. I could add religious and political affiliations to the same game, but that would only be too depressing, though none less true.

Elizabeth Bell said...

Regarding a “healthy functioning arts culture” that’s never going to happen until the arts become a part of the public school curriculum beginning in elementary school. It’s truly astonishing that education in the arts is so neglected in this country. In most schools there is almost nothing until high school (too late), and then only a handful have the opportunity to participate in music or plays. They should be mandatory for every student. Instead, they spend all their time taking standardized tests, and learning how to take those tests. Imagine 8 and 10 year old children sitting at their desks all day for 3 days in a row taking computerized, fill in the circle, tests. It’s cruel, and the arts are considered optional.

Breadbaker said...

Seattle Public Theater here has done some pretty decent business with plays that have had good receptions in other cities, sometimes mounting the second or third productions of them. They do premiers, too, usually with local playwrights.

MikeKPa. said...

I thought the current NY theater mindset is musicals and revamps of old hits because majority of the audience is composed of out-of-towners who want that "Broadway" experience.

-dsr- said...

Time for a new method, then. Nah, scrap that, let's use an old method which we already know people like.

Movies used to come with trailers, a cartoon, a newsreel, maybe a short film, and then the main attraction. Now they have advertising, trailers -- and sometimes, just sometimes, an animated short.

So: put a ten minute play on at the front of the stage, right before Titus Andronicus or Merrily We Roll Along or Cats. One to three actors, one lighting cue, and a special waiver from Equity to encourage the development of new plays.

Andrew said...

You wrote a comic play based on The Fugitive? That's very cool!

In that photo, I can't tell which of his arms is the prosthetic. But anyway, does he kill her on stage or off?

Sam said...

I am getting a kind of vision of something here. One of the things about radio is that it's always on, and the cycle of hits and new and classic and obscure helps move people through the different emotions associated with listening to music. So there has to be down-time between the hits to give people a rest from those emotions, and introduce them to new possible hits. Always on... mix of hits and new... suggests a kind of theatre 'station' with hundreds of plays. Livestreamed and live. Fully produced 'hits' interspersed with staged readings/script-in-hand new work. Your festival gets 500 submissions? Do them all, even the really bad ones. 15 shows each night, 5 hits and 10 new. You select 10-15 to fully produce, the rest get one initial live read. Some mechanism to up-vote/down-vote with a dollar or two. Like you buy a 'ticket' for 20 dollars, and that gives you 20 points to spend voting shows up or down. New scripts that get support from the audience move into an intermediate category with next-level production values. Profit split with the performers and the production co. in some way that covers costs/generates profits for both. Maybe have two stages, where plays alternate, allowing for set changes between each performance while maintaining continuous theatre for the livestream audience. What about ads? Totally. Companies can pay to have a 60 second live spot. Also, a theatre dj provides commentary, jokes, and intros to new works and hits. It could work.

blogward said...

@Sam that's a *great* idea. In the UK we have BBC Radio 4, which is ad-free talk/news radio (sort of: the BBC tends to advertise itself endlessly), and there's a 45-minute play every day at 3:15pm. All of them are absolute rubbish, without exception.

Now if there was a new/hit 10-minute radio play, 4 a day between 3:15 and 4, I might start listening to it again.

William C Bonner said...

Following your Top40 suggestion, a better plan would be that each festival commits to between 10% and 30% new shows. That way there's a good chance of both finding something new and seeing something that you've heard good things about.