Towards a sticky theatre

I got myself into a spirited debate the other day. Nadine is an ensemble member in my company who works with us here in Vancouver but actually lives in New York, and she’s great to debate with because she has an East Coast defiance and a stubborness that rivals my own, so she can toss the West Coast demure out the window and force you to either strengthen and articulate your argument or acquiesce to her opinions. The topic of this debate was play selection and how it serves to build audience.

Nadine had played the role of Abby in a run of Labute’s The Mercy Seat that I helped produce here a couple of years ago, and she was mentioning how much she’d love to take another crack at it in Vancouver at some point, incorporating the new insight into the role she’d acquired since doing it the first time. I said yeah, sure, but maybe you should do it in New York, since it’s set in Manhattan and concerns 9-11. She said yes, but (and I paraphrase here), that’s merely the backdrop, and the themes of the play deal with infidelity and the nature of responsibility within relationships, which are universal and as such equally resonant to all audiences, regardless of place. And besides, says she (and here I do not paraphrase), it’s a great fuckin’ play. Yes, says I, but is it great enough to make theatre-neophyte Vancouverites want more?

My POV in this matter is rooted in a theory that I’ve been kicking around, which is loosely stated as: in order to increase the chances of a new audience returning once you’ve finally got them in the stalls, we should hew towards serving up new work that is about them, as in; their time and their place. This is related to another theory that I’m working out, which is that ‘theatre cities’ become such because at some point there is a huge issuing forth of new plays produced about that city, facilitated by a reaction from the population taking an unprecedented interest in said theatre because it reflects them as a community. I have no hard data for this, I just know at some point in years past a lot of great theatre was made about, say, New York, featuring characters speaking in New York dialects and referencing New York-y things, and as a consequence so many New Yorkers went to see them and talked about them that we still do them in acting class in Vancouver in 2008. New York is a theatre city. Vancouver is not. Can I change that? I have no idea, but I’d like to, so I could use all the help I can get.

So, the question I put to all of you is this: hypothetically, and all things being equal in regards to quality of production, if the same virgin Vancouver audience is given two plays; one a popular established play that has performed well in its community of origin where it also happens to be set (and acquired a resultant industry buzz), or a new work that is set here in Vancouver, will the setting have any influence on its overall affect and popularity with said audience? Put another way: does art proliferate when it can be claimed by its community?

I think a key to this line of questioning is to look at our work from the POV of the potential audience member that we need to convert, the one who is not an artist but has a latent interest in the arts. How do they want to be treated by their local artists? Would they prefer to see plays set in other cities and other cultures, or do they want us to address their issues with references to their city and in their own vernacular? What’s the best way to make theatre a sticky art form?


  1. Oh, gosh, I can imagine your friend’s arguments, and I suspect you’re gonna get a lot of simplistic rhetoric about this one here as well. “Art is universal blah de blah de blah.” But theatre is local, as is the theatre audience, and while I would probably argue that a play doesn’t have to actually be SET in Vancouver, say, it helps if it is, or if it addresses issues that are particularly relevant to Vancouver.

    I’d like to hear your friend describe just what makes a “great fucking play” FOR THE AUDIENCE — not for the artist, but for the audience.

  2. And that’s really the crux of the argument Scott, that theatre is local. The question then becomes ‘what defines the boundaries of community?’. Neighbourhood, city, province/state, country, etc…for example, Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched is set in Montreal and concerns Middle Eastern issues, and it’s imperative that it plays here in Vancouver, and that as many people see it as possible. And as an artist I, like pretty much every other artist I know, have a truckload of established plays that I would love to do here before I die (I’m a Shepard nut), but from a business perspective I think we have to earn the right to do those plays by making theatre a trendy preoccupation with the city and give them the language, so what are the shortcuts to that goal?

    Hitting them close to home is a big one, I’m thinking.

  3. If you go right back to the origins of modern theatre, most of the Greek comedies and tragedies were set in cities other than the one the plays were being performed in. I really think there needs to be a mix between plays set in the city they’re performed in and plays set elsewhere but deal with themes that resonate within the community – the dreaded “universal themes”. I really don’t think it’s an either/or.

  4. Hey MK. Very true. But the Greeks were the predominant choice of entertainment of their time, their hollywood, as it were, here in Vancouver theatre is largely ignored by the general population. I’m just wondering if truly local theatre can possibly push us a little further into the mainstream consciousness.

    Or do you think that audiences will respond to it equally no matter where it’s set, as long as it’s good?

  5. Good point about Greek theatre MK. It does seem like a mix of the two is the best way to maintain theatre culture in a town that already likes theatre.

    I think Simon’s question is also about how to get people who wouldn’t normally come. What do you promise them before the show even starts?

    For me, this is where theatre’s point of differentiation needs to get driven home: theatre’s local-ness.

    If the City of Vancouver gave me a million dollars to market theatre in the city, I’d give 50 theatre companies $10,000 each (a commission) to produce a new play about the city within a year (for a total of 50 moderately funded new plays about Vancouver). I’d spend the remaining $500,000 on a marketing campaign that centred around how theatre is local, and you need to see it (more than movies, for example) to see stories that are about you and your town. Sexy. Local. Theatre.

  6. I’m having a hard time with this, as I’ve seen local theatre that was set in Vancouver, concerning Vancouver issues, was fabulously made, and of course I could relate to it as I live here; but I’ve also seen local theatre that is set in a time and place I’ve never been to and cannot relate to at all, and was completely dumbfounded at how well it was made from start to finish. My point is just because I’m seeing a play that is set in the city in which I live doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to like it.

    What happens when that great locally set play tours?
    Does it have less relevance, or popularity when it’s being shown in other cities?

    Ok, now don’t bite my head off: I think it’s ridiculous to try and make plays or any kind of art for one audience. How do you know what you’re potential audience member’s point of view is, of the billion different POV’s out there on a billion different topics? And should this be your main objective in writing/directing/creating the play/art piece? I think y’all need to just write, act, direct, produce and market plays that YOU feel strongly about, and say what you want to communication, analyzing less about your audiences POV…but that’s just me.
    xo Jackie

  7. I prefer my art driven by the passion of the artist rather than the interpreted preference of the audience. For starters, I think it’s condescending to think that you can see the world through the eyes of your audience. Hello, existential crisis. You can’t. Secondly, the artist is one and the audience is many. I do believe that a lowest common denominator phenomenon occurs when you program towards collective standards of acceptability.

    Just to be ornery, I don’t put my trust in “universal themes,” either. “Universal” can accidentally become unspecific, which we all know is deadly to a production and eventually to a company.

    I believe in hiring artists who have shared identifying characteristics with the desired audience. If you want theatre that interests local people, hire local playwrights. Ask them to write about things that they really care about. Hire directors who really care about those plays, and who can get a team of artists to really care about those plays. If you can’t find a local director who really cares about a certain play, that’s your answer. Reprogram.

    To program by subject matter seems to me to be missing the point, since subject is, well, subjective. A play that seems at first to be about lemurs mating in the forest can turn out to be a scathing political satire directed at a specific local figure, while a play commissioned to be about that local politician might bore the pants off of me.

    So no, I wouldn’t let Nadine talk me into doing a show I found irrelevant. But I wouldn’t take shows set in NYC off my list.

  8. Jack & Esther Marie:

    Great points all, and exactly what I would expect to hear from people with artistic sensibilities. It’s the kind of answers I would give myself, truth be told. But it’s the plumbers and accountants and IT techs etc. with no current attachment to the theatre/arts scene that I’m wondering about here. Unfortunately I don’t think my blog’s a hot topic down at the average water cooler, so it’s going to require a little more outsourced research, I guess.

    Anybody know someone with a plumbing blog I can borrow for a little artsy R & D?

    And it’s actually the very idea that subject matter is subjective that’s got me to wondering this. Given that some people will like your subject matter and some won’t, and bearing in mind that this is hypothetical, enclosed conjecture, how can we maximize the possible impact on everyone?

    Can, as Ian says, rooting it in the community help?

  9. “I think y’all need to just write, act, direct, produce and market plays that YOU feel strongly about, and say what you want to communication, analyzing less about your audiences POV

    Hi Jackie. That’s true. And a little scary. For every working artist with a clear vision of his or her work, there’s another artist with no clear vision. Imagine being an artist with no strong ideas or passion about your work. It happens. There are tons of them out there – people who like the idea of being an “Artist” but who haven’t yet figured out what the have to say, or worse, who have very little to say to begin with. So how do we help build an industry that inspires and empowers its weakest artist? (BTW. That might be a fun book title: The Weakest Artist. But I wonder who’d read it?) Part of me thinks the answer is in doing an artificial civic re-calibration toward supporting new, local work. Once an emerging theatre city learns how to tell its own stories and gets some local audiences on board, maybe it’ll have better luck with the universals (as if, to Esther Marie’s point, the two were somehow separable).

    Esther Marie. In my time with independent theatre, I’ve observed a clear distain coming from artists about the idea of market research. That thinking about the audience too much will somehow compromise the art. Have you observed this same phenomenon and if so, how do you feel about it?

  10. I’m from St. John’s, Newfoundland, the Canadian postal code (according to StatsCan) containing the highest concentration of artists per capita. So there are a lot of artists creating work, but not a lot of audience. I used to work in the box office of a downtown theatre in said postal code, one which supported and developed local work. Invariably, the shows that sold out were the ones about Newfoundland history. These were the only ones that people outside the theatre community would come to, and they would come in droves. They were delighted to hear the stories that related to their own family history, in places they grew up. These people did not come back to see other shows, edgier, more interesting shows by local playwrights and artists. This includes shows about contemporary Newfoundland (with some notable exceptions like Joel Hynes’ Devil You Don’t Know, and anything by Andy Jones).

    People obviously do like to see themselves mirrored onstage. But I don’t think that “keeping it local” will necessarily grow theatre audiences, or grow adventuresome audiences. Not to say that creating work about the place you’re in is not important, I think it is, but I agree that to think too much about what your audience wants (to spend their money on) leads to predictability and mediocrity.

  11. Hey Erin, thanks for that, that’s very interesting to me. I’m wondering how those contemporary plays were marketed to the audience that turned out for the historical pieces.

    Was it a specific indication that the popular shows were about the history of the Rock in the marketing that brought them out? How were the contemporary pieces sold to that crowd?

    And what sort of age group came out to the historical plays?

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