Monday, June 21, 2021

What the theatre needs to do to survive (in my humble opinion)

Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be a controversial post.  But in today’s woke world it is.  So be it.  

Like many other industries legitimate theatre has really been thrown for a loop due to the pandemic.  Most theatres, from Broadway to small Community barely hang on in good times.  Lots of people lose money.  I’m pretty sure that’s always the way it’s been.  And theatres close.  One or two bad seasons is enough to sink a theatre.  Okay, that’s background.  

Most theatres are being allowed to re-open after more than a year of the pandemic, and as you can imagine, they’re reeling.  If they have trouble making ends meet if only half the seats are filled, imagine 18 months of no one in the seats.  

So here’s my radical, controversial, hot-button suggestion:  Schedule COMEDIES.  Lots and lots of COMEDIES.  

Why is that so controversial?  Because theatres are under enormous pressure to present material more inclusive, more socially relevant, unheard voices, challenging work, etc.  And that’s great, and theatres should embrace those areas; in some cases they are areas too long ignored.  

But this year, it’s less a matter of artistic choice and more a matter of survival.  Theatres need people in the seats.  Lots of people.  Every performance.  And the surest way to do that is to schedule COMEDIES.  

I believe that in this moment of time, audiences want to escape.  They’re still going to be a little shaky sitting indoors with a crowd of people.  They’re not going to do it unless they feel they’re going to be entertained.   Audiences have to want to be challenged, open to new ideas and voices.  If they’re not, they just don’t come.  

Certainly a theatre season should include one such play.  I think theatre has an obligation to introduce people to new ideas and worlds.  But in 2021 their primary need is self-preservation.  And the way to achieve that is through COMEDIES.  

Yes, this might sound a little self-serving since I write comedy plays and am always trying to land as many productions as I can.  But theatres have other fine options.  Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Terrence McNally, Michael Frayn, Neil Simon (of course), and many others.  Oh, and that Shakespeare guy.   So it’s not about me (entirely).  

I think there will always be a place for comedy on the stage.  But for now there is a huge appetite for it.  In two years, things may be very different.  Going to the theatre to be thrilled and challenged and shaken to the core might be the number one trend, but for the moment — TRAGEDY TOMORROW, COMEDY TONIGHT. 


Pizzagod said...

Spot on again Ken. The last show I saw was The Book of Mormon-and after a couple hours of laughing freely, I left feeling SO good.

New comedies, revivals, what ever. We need a good laugh. A lot of good laughs.

Like an infamous man once said...."Why so serious?"

jenmoon said...

No arguments here. The rest of the world is depressing enough, I don't want that in entertainment.

flurb said...

I hope your prescription is followed - but the urge to be Improve People is fierce with artistic directors. Five years ago, a major Equity theatre's AD, planning his six-hifalutin-play season, turned to me and said, with a pleading tone in his voice, "I have to find a comedy. Do you know any comedies?" I was gobsmacked, but I sent him a list. Instead of any of them, he chose "Stupid F---ing Bird," which is a supposedly funnier version of "The Seagull", with standup-like monologues which interrupt the plot, such as it hasn't. I found the production forced and fake, but I guess, for him, the tenuous connection to Chekhov made it Important. If the regional theatre is dying, it's of self-inflicted wounds.

LoriM said...

Ken, I so agree! I write both comedy and drama, but strongly feel that "laughter is the best medicine" at this time and at all times. Theaters can certainly offer more challenging works, but it's the comedy that will bring them through the doors. That's the reality of these times. Thanks you for writing about this.

VincentS said...

You may be right, Ken, but my guess is they're going to go with musicals.

Roland Tec said...

Interesting post. I'm not sure I agree that it's that simple. In my opinion, it has more to do with fully fleshed-out characters than whether the material is funny or not. And I've posted my rebuttal here.

Thanks for starting this important conversation!

Puck said...

It's worth pointing out that even the great Eugene O'Neill followed this advice. Dude is known for his heavy dramas, depressing dramas -- Long Day's Journey into Night, The Ice Man Cometh, Anna Christie -- and he was great at those. But in 1932, right in the middle of the Great Depression, he staged his only comedy - Ah, Wilderness!
It's not remember much today, but I think it's interesting that he took notice of what the public needed at that time -- an escape from his usual brand of depressing, real-life drama. So he wrote a sort of slapstick comedy (that is actually still kind of depressing once you start reading into it).

Kaleberg said...

I hadn't realized that there was a conflict between inclusion and comedy.

I agree that this is a good time for comedy as well as wish fulfillment fantasy - something popular in the 1930s, except then the fantasy was having money instead of an active extended family/social life. (Please God, not Sixteen Weddings and Four Funerals, unless it's a comedy.)

Michael said...

And comedies certainly can be socially relevant, too.

Glenn said...

Couldn't agree more, Ken. "Issue" plays can wait, bring on the laughs.

Cap'n Bob said...

VincentS brought up musicals, and I think they should rotate with comedies. A good musical will always fill the seats.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

...while you're waiting for your local theater to reopen, the Royal Shakespeare Company has opened its rehearsals to public view. The play is Henry VI, Part One, so not a comedy...but it's very interesting to watch them put it together.


Roger Owen Green said...

I agree that inclusion and comedy need not be mutually exclusive.

But I agree with Roland Tec that it's not that simple.

DBenson said...

My own observation is that budgets are driving theater groups to an increasing percentage of small-cast and even one-man shows. If you're going to do a big farce with a dozen actors, you evidently have to balance it with two people arguing or a lone figure talking to the audience. I worry we'll get to the point where they're not even balancing small productions with regular big ones.

There are the descendants of "Bullshot Crummond", which make comedy of using tiny casts (and deliberately minimal effects) to perform what used to be spectacles. In recent years I've seen multiple productions of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" and "Around the World in 80 Days" constructed on those lines. One year the San Jose Rep's big Christmas Show was a one-man performance of "It's a Wonderful Life". Also two different versions of "Cyrano de Bergerac" fitted for a comparative handful of actors. They were all enjoyable, once you got past the increasingly overworked framing device of a tiny troupe of players winging it.

There's also a vogue for musicals deploying one or two actors plus musicians. A frequent format is the life of a star like Janis Joplin or Ella Fitzgerald, recounted over the course of a nightclub show or concert. The writer/actor/pianist Hershey Felder has been doing a series of shows in which he becomes a fabled composer relating his life as he plays; sometimes this is framed by Felder as a second character observing the action. The shows I've seen by Felder and others have been excellent, but are they a viable replacement for multiple actors creating sparks off each other?

Imagine if the Bob Newhart Show was ONLY Bob on the phone with unseen/unheard characters. With heroic writing it would have been good, but not as good as Bob interacting with that great cast.

Rick Whelan said...

Yes! Comedies forever! Trouble is comedies have to be carefully crafted with wry observations about the human animal. But it seems most current playwrights are more interested in confronting social inequities and blaming someone for these injustices. The woke movement is slowly killing comedy.

PolyWogg said...

I always find it fun when I read something, think 100% this and yet for totally different reasons. I don't think we need to consider anything to do with what people want now, or before, or in the future. I think it comes down to simple cold hard cash and "commercialism".

Comedies are accessible and accessibility sells out. The Artistic Directors all know this, and yet they see it as "selling out" in a different way, so to speak. Because comedies are "commercial" and of course, commercialism is déclassé.

I'm in Ottawa, and we have about 8 choices for theatre in the city each season. My wife and I are a bit older with disposable income, we are willing to subscribe, and we would bring friends or family to some of the outings. The proverbial wet dream for some of the companies.

Yet, despite the National Arts Centre having professional level productions each year, almost all of them are "contemporary commentaries on important issues" rather than "commercially viable". In other words, they do not "sell out" in metaphor or reality.

My favorite Canadian performance of all time is a light drama / comedy called Salt Water Moon. It tells the tale of a man returning to Newfoundland when he finds out his old girlfriend is about to wed the son of the town's wealthiest patron, one who exploited the poor including both his and her families. Heartfelt, totally accessible, beautifully done at the same theatre. An amazing production of a good play, easily understood. Some lighter moments, not a comedy, but eminently watchable. In an interview with one of the recent ADs, she noted that she could put on something "commercial like Salt Water Moon" and fill the theatre, but she would rather raise the bar, so to speak. She lasted one year and was gone, and the year's returns were the lowest of the decade.

For our amateur local theatre, there are eight shows a year and 6 are usually comedies with at least two farces. All of the "pro" theatres offer the same sort of fare as the National and struggle to stay afloat. I go through all the offerings every year to see what's on at all of them, make a list of the ones that seem interesting, and almost every year, not a single show at the National makes the list while the amateur is ripe for season's tickets most years. One could argue "it's what people want now", but for me, it's about what most people are willing to pay for on a night out. They like sitcoms and procedurals and reality shows, where most of the time, they don't have to think too hard about what they are watching.

I know, I know, some of that is taste. Yet the National offered one year something truly "different" but still accessible -- it was described as "jazz noir", a play with jazz musicians acting as an orchestra, telling a Sam Spade-like story, and there was jazz music playing when you were in certain scenes, and in one, even echoing/accentuating the thought process of one of the characters (sincopation). It was totally awesome. Not totally accessible, but off the main stage and it sold out completely. For some reason, a drama about a maid's imagined relationship with a former PM did not do as well in sales.

That's probably too much context, but it comes down to me that the theatres are all in rough shape and need to make a profit fast to keep going. Commercial products will fill seats, as it always does, anything else is lost revenue, and the hottest property is always the comedy.

When they get back in the black, they can afford some red...until then, laugh all the way to the bank.


Ere I Saw Elba said...

Have to agree, we need comedy right now. Intelligent comedy. I think I've only stayed with all the butter on my noodles over the past few years with it.

As for live audiences, I would be cautious. There is a need for people to be in public, including entertainment venues. It doesn't seem like a good idea to me to "open" so many major states, but here we are. I hope for the best.

stephen catron said...

I will slightly disagree. Musicals put the most butts in the seats. Then comedies. Of course, many musicals are comedic but Sweeney Todd will out sell The Odd Couple any day of the week in little theatre.

Roland Tec said...

Okay. There is one more aspect to this that may be worth considering and that is: how does the show end? There is evidence to suggest that if we leave the theatre without a shred of hope for a future for these people, we may be less inclined to refer others to the show. I'm not referring to a happy ending per se. Just a glimmer of hope even after a tragic story has unfolded. An example of what I have in mind is the final little coda to Fellini's NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. After having suffered the loss of her life savings to a con man who made her lose her cynicism and believe in love, Cabiria is walking down a dirt road penniless. A group of musicians come upon her and as they play, the music lifts her mood and we see her gently start to swing her purse back and forth. This signals that the core of her humanity is not gone. She is still a whole person and she will somehow recover from this terrible loss.

John W. Norvis said...

"And that’s great, and theatres should embrace [socially relevant, unheard voices, challenging work, etc;] in some cases they are areas too long ignored."

followed by

"But theatres have other fine options. Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Terrence McNally, Michael Frayn, Neil Simon (of course), and many others. Oh, and that Shakespeare guy."

Limousine liberality never goes out of style.

Loretta Wish said...

So true, Ken! I was surprised your hilarious "Sorry Shakespeare" was the only comedy in last week's Rhino Theatre Jamboree. I thought it might be an effort to stage "meaningful" work to kick off a live theater revival, but then I heard the Rhino got very few comedy submissions. Too bad; it's the best possible time for belly laughs!

Tony Abshire said...

And Ken, you were the best color guy the Seattle Mariners had. Your stories were bar none.