There’s a thread over at Praxis on the post Giving up the dream? that bears some conversation. It began in reference to a Seth (super-marketer) Godin post provocatively titled Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love. Actually, hang on, it would be rude for me to post here without joining in on that conversation. One sec, I’ll be right back…
Whew, okay, my conscious is clear. Please hop over and check out the thread, it’s a quick enough read but too long to reprint, and it’s a concise summation of a problem that needs much, much more discussion, and then a whole lot of action: how to make a real living as a theatre artist.
This is all I want to do with my life: to be a playwright who workshops his work with his own company of like-minded and talented actors and who also occasionally – just when needed – gets to perform on stage with them. Oh, and I want to do all this and never have to pour another drink (hey buddy, make it a good one this time, eh?) for anyone ever again. There it is, in a nutshell, my own personal little dream. But I can’t do it. Not right now, and not anytime in the immediate future.
I’ve been working steadily towards this dream for quite a while now, and I think I’ve been working pretty hard. Lately, with a new production imminent and yet another new bar job started, I’ve been working so hard that sometimes I feel like running as far away from it as I can get. We’re making a product for a market that barely exists: an independent, small-house theatre audience. Sure, the big civics sell out large houses, heck, The History Boys at the GI Stage extended their run. But the bulk of those audiences don’t ever think to go to black box stage, it’s a subset of the art that doesn’t necessarily fit into what constitutes, for them, a night out at the ol’ theatre. Plus, let’s face it, they probably never even hear about us. Which is fine, okay, but where is our audience? How do we get one of those? One that complains loudly to us that we’re not putting up enough shows for them, an audience that looks for us instead of the other way around. We have to create that audience, somehow, as a community, where one has never existed before. The time has never been more ripe, as discussed today by the very smart Nick Keenan:
Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.
That’s from a post entitled Street Vendors make the best Lemonade. That’s us. The street vendors. Street vendors make a modest living doing what they do. They do it by getting out into the streets and talking directly to people.
The simple fact that I can’t make a living doing what I love right now is excrutiating to me. Me and many others, it would seem. I think about our marketing problem every day. I read blogs about it constantly, and I hear the same concerns echoed all over the theatrosphere. I also hear a lot of people saying that we should just put our heads down and do our art, do it for the love of it. But I think if we’re all doing that then nobody’s working on the commercial side of it, and if that’s not taken care of, why do it in the first place?
I took a marketing-for-the-performing-arts seminar a while ago with a room full of fellow indie theatre artists. We heard about how to advertise on buses, and bus stops, billboards, radio and TV. In magazines. I am by no means an expert on marketing, but I know that was the wrong group of people for that kind of advice. We may never get bus-advertising money, but surely we can get decent-living money. At the very least bartender money. You can live on that, I promise.
I have to put aside my art for now. This is a painful decision for me to make. I love making theatre, I have stories hammering against the inside of my skull trying to get out. I’m finally starting to understand what directing plays is all about. But I’ve come to the realization that I can’t put out the amount of energy that this deserves and bring in a paying audience and work another job that allows me to eat and be available to my family. Something’s got to give. Some of us, those with a predelection for the administrative side of the biz, have to champion this thing we love so we can all be free to do more of the work we want to do, and get paid for it. And hopefully, if we can figure out this marketing thing and make small theatre a necessary function for enough of the city, I can get back to doing what I want to do most. Which right now is finishing the greatest play never written about being a career bartender. And believe me, this is a piece that you’re going to want to see.
So I’ll be blogging a lot more about the marketing of theatre here in the future. About real marketing ideas that we can actually afford, innovative ideas like asking people to come to the shows. This, to me, is the greatest use for the theatrosphere, the facet of it that I get the most use out of, anyway. Because to do this it’s going to take a village. A very loud village.