LD On The DL: The Dysfunction Between Theater and Money, Part 2

Last week we spoke about theater's dysfunctional relationship to money. A lot of you commented, either publicly or privately, and you had a lot to say. This topic clearly hits a nerve. I received some interesting emails, replete with tough words for Academia. Many of you, it would seem, are not pleased with the next generation's education regarding theater and money.

Pointing fingers is all well and good, but it doesn't help chart a course for future change. So I wanted to delve deeper into the issue: What is it specifically that leads to this dysfunction we all seem to be aware of but powerless to stop? With the help of several of my colleagues, we sectioned the industry into four parts and listed some distinguishing characteristics for each section. The table below is the result, and I think it helps bring this dysfunction into better focus in three ways.

The Sectors of Theater

A table delineating characteristics of four broad categories of the theater industry.

Much of the dysfunction probably stems from having such different fundamental purposes. For over half the industry (Commercial and Not-For Profit), money is a serious concern even if for slightly different reasons. This is not true in Academia. One bad season for a Not-For-Profit theater can lead to bankruptcy. Slow ticket sales in preview will kill a Commercial show before opening night champagne is poured. This moral hazard is not present in most Academic settings.

Academia's perspective would celebrate that fact. Untethered from market realities, they are free to push the envelope and re-imagine theater in the 21st century. How will our experience of theater change in the future? Many would argue it's Academia that will chart that course. Furthermore, in the other sectors (Commercial, Not-For-Profit, and Community) training is either expensive, inconvenient, narrowly focused, or all the above. Who, then, besides Academia, is more suited to fully educate the next generation?

Well, yes, the education may be well rounded but we're clearly missing something. Many universities do teach or discuss the existence of other sectors of theater (Commercial, Not-For-Profit, and Community), however, it's really just theory. In practice universities operate, and therefore implicitly teach more of, one model only ... their own. So the young graduate enters the world and endeavors to recreate the only model they have direct, actual experience in. Unfortunately, outside the Academic setting the Academic model is doomed to fail. At some point the help, the venue, or the electric company are going to need money. You'd better have made some.

I sit here trying to imagine a degree program that included a lab every graduating senior was required to take. Everyone in this lab would mount a production, filling all the typical roles ... from actors to directors, hands to designers, management to marketing. Everyone would receive the same grade. This grade would be based solely on ticket sales and one audience survey question: Would you recommend this show to someone else? It's not very academic, but pretty darn commercial. Perhaps my lab is a pipe dream, but I think an achievable dream would be new theater professionals fluent in all the sectors of theater, not just one.

Secondly, let's take a hard look at marketing. Here, too, we can further clarify the source of this dysfunction between theater and money. We're not talking about ad buys; there's no mystery about that dynamic. However, when the seats, “Must be filled or else,” one pays rapt attention to the bodies filling those seats. What is their experience? Who are they? Will they recommend this show to someone else? After all, the seats must be filled. This inquisitiveness is no different than any business doing generic market research. At the opposite end of the spectrum in Academia, de-coupling “seats filled” from “financial survival” means the opinions of those bodies filling the seats matter less. After all, it'd be nice if the seats were filled, and since four Theater 101 classes are required to attend most of them probably will be.

I think Academia's perspective would argue they are not in the business of selling seats. Rather they train, educate, and foster the artistic development of their students first, and mass appeal comes further down the list. The Theater 101 students or their opinions are not a primary concern.

It's almost makes sense, until you conclude every sector of theater (Commercial, Not-For-Profit, Community, and Academic) should never be a one way street. Good theater is a dialogue between it and the audience. By Academia downplaying the audiences' role you implicitly teach that the audience and their opinions do not matter. For the three other sectors of theater that notion is unthinkable. And when I say audience, I am not talking about fellow theater majors or talkback attendees. I'm talking about the Theater 101 students: the future, paying public. It'd be best not to alienate this population -- our future market -- since we expect them to support theater and us professionally in the years ahead. Paying attention and listening to the opinions of the layperson is not selling out. It's participating in the dialogue. When you do all the talking, you're being selfish. Nobody likes selfish people or selfish art. We should be graduating students fluent in basic market research who are not afraid to ask tough questions from laypeople regarding their work.

In my quest to drill down into the dysfunction between theater and money, a frank discussion about the worker cannot be avoided. For roughly half the industry (Commercial and Not-For-Profit), the worker must make money. In the Academic setting, labor is usually free. However, it goes beyond that. Time itself has different meaning and value between Academia and the other sectors. In Academia, the worker, “… must learn something,” and if that takes five hours, ten hours, or all night if the worker is learning then the time spent has value. For the workers of Commercial and Not-For-Profit, time means something quite different: pay. Money is always finite, thus in these sectors time is too. Even in Community theater, where workers are often volunteers, time is not an infinite resource since workers may have families and definitely other, paying jobs. So Academia has a fundamentally different concept of time and its value from the rest of the industry.

I think Academia would say, “Well, duh.” And, they have a point. After all their primary mission is to educate. And learning any new process or system takes time, sometimes lots of time, and for a student to thrive he or she must exist in an atmosphere which allows for that.

Unfortunately, this approach is not sustainable. At some point the student must begin to adopt a new perspective of time, the one the rest of us operate on, and preferably before graduating. If the student cannot function in this environment -- a place where art must be created under time constraints because of the finite nature of money -- then he or she should be told to pursue something else. I'm sure it's a hard perspective to teach. Until someone else's time is actually costing you money, it's hard to teach what overtime “feels” like.

It appears, however, I'm speaking to the choir. I'm encouraged to see a lot of smart people wrestling with this complex issue already. One individual suggested creating a think tank, which I think is brilliant. A entity dedicated to tracking data, providing recommendations, and spreading the gospel hopefully means an American future with a vibrant theater industry that has a lot to say, staffed with professionals who are given the tools to say it.

Maybe Academic theater isn't listening. Maybe Commercial theater isn't talking. Let's leave the finger pointing behind, and get to the business of making theater and money live happily ever after. Our industry, our country, our world deserve no less.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City

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