Several 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.”
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.