Riding the elephant

elephantSeveral people have engaged me in nervous overtones about parts of our recent interview with local theatre critic Peter Birnie (none, however, in the comments section. I’ve got to find a way to make that a more attractive prospect. Any ideas? Leave ’em in the comments section.), wherein he prognosticates dark times ahead for our theatre industry here at home, due to an impending economic recession and the resultant belt-tightening that will inevitably occur; a gathering storm which he terms “the elephant in the room”. That there is recession on the horizon is indisputable, but for us here in indie-theatre land, exactly how big is that elephant, and how much damage is it capable of?

In his response to question #2 within his excellent interview; regarding the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene, Peter qualifies this gloomy foreshadowing as affecting primarily the large-house big budgets…

People’s priorities are already shifting strongly away from discretionary spending. Anything resembling a big-budget production, whether from one of the established local companies or in a bus-and-truck touring show, will find enormous difficulty filling houses.

He goes on to posit that smaller scale shows will fare better due to our resilient artistic community’s ability to “cinch in its belts once again and keep itself afloat”. I can’t speak much on the future of the civic theatres in the big rooms, as I don’t work there, but these ramifications for independent theatre interest me very much. And as people in my theatrical neck-of-the-woods have been fretting about it lately, I think we should probably have a talk about it.

The elephant doesn’t scare me at all. In fact, I think the elephant presents a great opportunity. For most of us in our corner of the art world, money is not an issue because we don’t have any of it, so, as Peter indicates, we’re just carrying on as per usual. But that very problem – a dismal lack of income – is the number one problem faced by us all, and that’s as true today as it was 50 years ago. Independent theatre has yet to find a way to make itself a viable industry here – one distinct from the three-digit-seat, subscriber-based houses – despite tremendous advances artistically and structured organization within several of the more durable companies. It’s still struggling as an expandable business sector. So, where are we falling short? (You know what’s coming…)

Marketing. Audience Building. Trend Making. In answer to question #4: “What does independent theatre here need to do in order to make the leap into a more wide-spread city consciousness?”, Peter responds:

There will be no leaping in the days ahead. Unless you’re willing to entertain for free, or accept vegetables as barter, you and your troupe won’t be gaining any market share in a city where just about everyone’s busy struggling to survive.

And here’s where I’m going to go ahead and disagree. A city hit by an economic downturn isn’t going to stay indoors and huddle around the radio for entertainment. It’s going to change its spending patterns, for sure, but people are still going to seek experience, they are still going to want to participate in the pulse that is the very reason for living in an urban centre. And the biggest advantage offered to us as performing artists in Vancouver is the sheer amount of residents that live within the city limits. Our audience doesn’t commute. Over half of our city is residential, a unique aspect that we should be using to our advantage. We’re the low-cost cultural experience that they can turn to, and commune at, as long as they can be told that we exist.

We as a community need to keep doing what we’re doing, what we have been doing for all these years (working that day job and making great art the rest of the time), but we have to make ourselves available and increase our profile, and make sure we trumpet our inherently low ticket prices while we’re at it. I don’t care how theatre ticket prices are ‘trending’, keep them low – around $15-$18 – and keep the production quality high, and that elephant can be made to work for us. It might just be the ride we need to more financial stability.

I caught a play at Studio 16 last night: In the Boom Boom Room (in which, incidentally, Victoria Bidewell in the lead role will blow the back of your head off. The lady’s a force of nature.), and the place was packed to the rafters. On a Wednesday night in November at 20 bucks a pop. So don’t be nervous about the state of the union, embrace it, this is all work that needs to get done no matter what the market is doing. We just need roll up some sleeves.

There are others talking about this too, please check out this outstanding post from Nick Keenan’s Theatre For the Future blog called Curb Your Hysteria. An excerpt:

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

And the indefatigueable MK Piatkowski continues her “White Paper” series with this article titled “Marketing for Independents”. It opens with…

The independent community needs much better and more targeted marketing. Some are starting to leverage social networking but much more needs to be done. Collaboration between companies and creating a pool of marketing talent that could be supported by the community as a whole would strengthen this immensely.

We need to market more than our next play. We need to market our industry. And we need to do it together.


  1. I may be completely off my rocker but I believe in the Depression movie ticket sales never dipped. People need entertainment in bad times, they need their minds distracted.

    Embrace the elephant!

  2. Great post, as usual, Simon. I will admit to being one of those that was pretty horrified when I read Birnie’s interview of doom-and-gloom.
    Earlier this week, I had a phone call from a reporter at CBC radio, asking me about the state of affairs in the theatre community (this was linked to Ballet BC laying off its entire staff on Tuesday), but from my experience, it’s business as usual. Itsazoo Productions just closed “Four Course Meal” on Saturday night, with a sold-out final weekend at the Havana. “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” is gearing up for a busy, double-booked holiday season, and the months ahead bring me 8 openings between January and the end of March.
    I guess the moral of my story is, that I don’t see the current economic downturn affecting the Vancouver theatre scene in the near future. It is possible that the belt-tightening at charitable foundations, and the rampant arts-cutting of our current government may affect the 2009-2010 season, but that also corresponds with the Cultural Olympiad, so….
    Keep producing theatre.

  3. Just wanted to give kudos to Main Street Theatre Company’s Glen Gary Glen Ross for a great production within their means which invited the audience to pay what they could. I know that in an economic downturn, companies that give me that kind of flexibility with my dollars are more likely to get them.

  4. Thanks for the link, Simon. The interview with Peter was one of the more immediate catalysts for my post, so you can consider it a comment. ;-)

    I do think that the theaters that will most benefit from the coming changes – and there will be big, big scary changes – will be those that developed the most agility in the good times. I’m still VERY worried about some of the larger theaters in Chicago who rely both on investment and the subscription model. I work at one of the more savvy ones as my primary source of income, so I have a stake in making those theaters succeed as well.

    This seems to be a time – as was the depression, as was the renaissance – where the agility of theater companies will be rewarded. Actually, I think it’s always rewarded, except these days it will become a survival trait. Agility means financial flexibility. It means no debt load (which for us in Chicago, means creative itinerancy or owning your home and your production infrastructure). Agility means demonstrating dexterous use of skill sets beyond what is taught in most theater programs – marketing (from accurately identifying segments of your potential audience, to finding ways capturing those segments), audience development (basically identifying the core needs of your audience – entertainment? distraction? perspective? hope? – and providing them), and even political prowess (Politicians, at least in the U.S., haven’t been keen on supporting the arts because they haven’t seen the benefit of them to their constituents as outweighing the financial burden – which given the percentages, is clearly ridiculous. So what if in lean times, we *weren’t* a financial burden at all? What if theaters simply wanted empty spaces, something that most local governments have an abundance of, and we provided something for politicians to say: We’re doing what’s right for our future, we’re keeping the arts alive, today, cheaply.)

    Most of all, agility means identifying problems with your strategy before they become deadly and changing tactics intelligently.

    One of the reasons I’m so excited about what I see you guys doing in Vancouver is that you seem to be embracing the need for agility like this, even as small companies – and you have a scene new enough that you’re not saturated beyond your means, so there will be less of a need to have a percentage of your theaters fold like a cheap suit. That will almost certainly will be happening on some level in Chicago (you know, like a controlled brush fire to protect the health of the forest. Oy.) So it’s not a time for panic, it’s time for wide-eyed awareness and movement.

  5. Simon,

    Thank you for making the elephant in the room naked! Yes, we have to address it, make friends with it, and even embrace it. Isn’t this a time when great art can be made? None of us artists can keep our passion jarred up just because of the financial atmosphere…. Like you said, we’re kind of used to it, and if nothing else we’re probably more equipped.

    This is a great time to acknowledge the overdue need to look at marketing, and make that, also, one of our creative ventures and not something that sounds like we are selling out to the crass ways of the world. No… it also can be creative.

    When John Steinbeck wrote “Grapes of Wrath” there was strife all around him, personally and societal, and looked what he produced!

    Vive le theatre et les arts!

  6. @Lindsay: Exactly.

    @Bex: Exactly.

    @Courtney: Great shout out. Did you guys hear about this one? Proven play, big name local actors, little hole-in-the-wall space in Mt. Pleasant, name your own price. There is nothing not cool about that. Want more work like this!

    @Nick: I appreciate this Nick, very much. And, just so I know it’s been said, the work you’re doing at TftF is up at the top of the list of essential study of where we’re going in this industry. Keep it coming, please.

    Your definition of agility is spot on, I’d go so far as to call it a manifesto. With your permission I’d like to post it as such. (May I, as a guest post here?) A big part of the solution here is (I feel, anyway) to start by articulating the problem – something hardly ever done by the small companies, if at all – so that we can start allocating time in our production cycles to address it properly, and at a broad enough scope. Marketing is still an afterthought in most cases, something to cram into the last month before opening.

    I think here in Vancouver we’ve gotten good at being agile by means, there is enough of us here now that ideas are starting to coalesce. There is a core faction of about 10 companies that have been diligently building a foundation for independent theatre here for ten years with original, edge-cutting works, we’ve got to jump on that wave, now more than ever, and ride it into the consciousness of the city outside of our artists. There’s no feeling of competition amongst companies here, which is a relief, I hope it stays that way.

    @Trilby: And that’s the rub: in the performing arts field, the section of the art world that’s predicated on being in-your-face, where are all the creative marketing solutions? Our marketing should be theatre in its own right.

  7. Indefatigueable? I’m flattered and intimidated at the same time.

    But you’re absolutely right, we need to market not just each play but as an experience particular to the independent community. I keep wondering if there is some way to leverage the internet to help build this independent marketing knowledgebase, a way to share best practices. All these comments are great, but we really need to cast a wider net. I guess that’s where the conference we’re thinking about is going to come into play. I’m certainly open to suggestions.

  8. I directed the Laramie Project – and so far our first week has been incredible, granted we got some particularly special publicity – however we had five sold out shows this week and this weekend between the three shows we had we turned away at least 14 or 15 people a performance. I think that the important thing is to adapt what you do – and how you do it. Adapt your ticket prices if you need to… adapt what you decide to present – or where you decide to present it. I read an interesting article in the Sun a few weeks ago where someone from a local theatre company said that this time of year people don’t want to see dramatic work – they want to see stuff that is light & fluffy, which I agree with to a point, but obviously there are a lot of people who want to be engaged in what they are seeing as well.

    One last thought is that I think we need to keep supporting each other… it’s easy to blame the big guys – but look at the fate of Ballet BC this week… they’re a “big guy” and they’re folding too. Let’s continue to support each other in all ways. Before I start every show I implore people to go check out all sorts of smaller theatre companies. Put your money where your mouth is – go check out other shows and don’t take comps, but pay to get in… we need to show our support for each other before we can expect others to show support for us.

  9. Right on Ryan, thanks for saying that. I second the motion. I know SO many theatre artists that don’t make time to see theatre around town unless they know someone in it. WTF? Maybe see a play once every two months, just for karma’s sake? And bring a friend who doesn’t usually go to theatre, then have a drink after the show and discuss it, bad or good.

    For practitioners, there’s value in watching sub-par theatre too. At least it will help convince you that you’re needed.

  10. Absolutely. I would say I aim for a show a week -at least. In November alone I saw Cyrano, The Candy Girl Cabaret at Maxine’s, VTSL Holiday Special, Unity 1918, Bruce: The Musical, Four Course Meal and the Vagina Monologues. Of course there were lots that I missed – but I did my best. On top of that I paid for all but a couple of those. Of course some were good and some were not so good – but we have to get out there and support everyone!

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