What’s Best for the Theatre is Best for Us: Putting the Community First

by John Doyle with substantial assistance from Bob Weick

I submit we must work together to raise the value of theatre to society. We need to make Philly a theatre town, not a town full of theaters.

As our theatre community grows, many struggle to draw audience in an ever decreasing audience pool. To protect our subscriber base and our opening night sell outs, we often attract an audience of our peers or we huddle around our existing audience base. We make people fans of our company or our building rather than fans of theatre. This competitive instinct may seem necessary in a world dominated by finances but it may be a self defeating horror as our craft loses its popularity. Competition becomes a foolish practice for each of our companies
There is no denying that we as a community, watch each other’s work and extol the virtues of the work we see. Facebook is populated with mini reviews by people who make theater about other company’s productions. We tag our friends and push our friends toward those other shows. This is one of the things that makes working in theatre in our town so rewarding. This is, though, a relatively insulated form of advertising.
My experience as a Barrymore nominator has brought me into many new spaces. I have seen some great work and am proud to be participating in this community of artists. It has also shown me the isolated nature of the companies.
Recently my work on the Arts Hill in Norristown has brought this issue to light. For a long time there was an non-cooperative relationship between Theatre Horizon and The Centre Theater and as a consequence Theatre Horizon and Iron Age. That relationship did not really damage Theatre Horizon’s efforts to build a space in Norristown, or develop audience. It didn’t prevent The Centre and Iron Age from producing, but it did damage the success of the Norristown Arts Hill District.  We didn’t build the Norristown brand because we were focused on our own success or survival. Now we have become three companies, meeting regularly, planning ways to assure that Norristown becomes a destination to see theater… not just a place with a two block conglomeration of artists.
As we begin to push our mutual beneficial agenda, we will draw more people into an experience of theater and if we share audience, we will develop people who are familiar with the aesthetic of theatre and as such become patrons of us all.
We don’t need to engage in every style of theater. We don’t need to abandon our theatrical missions.  We need to keep the idea of theatre in the minds of the people. We should be working to give the concept of theatre a positive place in our culture’s  perception. We want to encourage allegiance to our craft, the art form, so that we can bring people into alignment with the work and enhance their lives. The richness, the immediacy of the theatrical experience is critical to human development. (Click here for links supporting this position).  (Even more research on theatre’s value) Nietzsche and Schopenhauer also support this position. Theatre is not an archaic form of entertainment. It is a natural way of being. Theater is a community event, not built just for the elite and so we should help open people’s eyes to its value. This is more than hanging out and knowing each other. It is more than just attending each other’s work. It is making an effort to get people, regular people, our patrons into every theatre they can attend. As they see more, they become a better audience for us. Young Playwrights and a multitude of in school theatre programs are working toward this goal.
Like the national healthcare initiative, the more people seeing theatre, the lower we can set our prices. I applaud the Wilma for their new initiative funded by Haas. But there is only so much grant money to go around… Changing the financial paradigm is crucial to our future. More people in seats means we can afford lower prices. The power of the industry night ticket or the Philly Funsavers is evidence of this.
I understand our need to preserve our subscriber base and our funders. I understand the challenge funders face. The challenge of choosing from among the vast number of theatre’s, who and what to support.
Our Fringe Wraith project, our Found Fringe project and our private Performance Poetry project, all utilizing QR codes and internet access, were built to connect theaters . When audiences engaged in our web videos, they were exposed to the works of other companies who participated in the project. The Fringe Festival of my youth did this well. Play, Pie and a Pint is another example of companies marketing for each other under a larger umbrella.
Now we hope to live out this idea. Iron Age will be announcing other companies’ works in their pre-show speech. If you would like to be a part of that, please comment to this post. We will include your info in our program, a simple theatre listing like the alliance did so long ago. We won’t be able to mention everyone in the curtain speech and so will develop the print piece. We run from March 21- April 14. Program deadline is March 15.
Additionally, we will offer a $2 discount on all regular admission seats if a customer brings a ticket stub or e-ticket from any concurrently running production.
This initiative doesn’t have a name yet!  It is a simple act of community that I hope others will emulate. Postcards in our lobbies are perfunctory and easily missed.  Postcards stuffed in our programs are a great step, but limited to reciprocated stuffing and limited physical space. This would be a simple first come first served sharing.
Let’s make our community one that lifts each other up and exposes our work to all. Let’s endeavor to make theatre a primary source of enrichment and entertainment in our society.
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One Response to “What’s Best for the Theatre is Best for Us: Putting the Community First”

  1. Shubin Denise Says:

    This is all worthy of contemplation. After 27 years here in my space I have been seriously considering closing. This space is, literally, the first floor of my home and so that brings forth a different dimension relative to my thinking.

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