It all started with me bitching about a Stranger review. (Come to think of it, that’s how a lot of it starts.) Now, full disclosure, I actually wrote one of the pieces in Balagan Theatre’s outdoor show King Arthur and the Knights of the Playground, but this ain’t my first rodeo, so I can assure you I’m highly unlikely to complain about a review simply because it’s negative. (Press is press after all.) What bugged me was that Goldy began his analysis of the show with a quintessentially flawed premise.
“If the best children's theater amuses and engages adults as much as children, then Balagan Theatre's world premiere … doesn't make the grade. Still, the kids seemed to love it, and you can't beat the ticket price—free—for the next three weekends in parks around the city.”
So thusly irked, I posted a link to the piece on Face Book along with the following note: “Ah the old, "children's-theatre-must-also-equally-please-adults" trope. How tiresome it truly is.”
In flooded the comments and quickly the discussion drifted, fueled at times by troll-power alone, to the larger question of whether theatres should feel free to stray from their missions in pursuit of general excellence.
Commenter “I'm not sure why you're advocating for being "middle of the road" and only pleasing your base. I want theater companies to make great theater.”
Paul Mullin Why would a children's theatre seek to have artistic viability outside of being a children's theatre? That's like asking a GLBT theatre to appeal to straight audiences. It's confounding.
Around and around we went, with narrowly scoped opinions glibly offered as evidence for the larger dismaying trends of Seattle Theatre.
Commenter You're so niche-y! Every theater wants/needs an audience. Yeah, you go after your core demographic, but it also makes sense to go after OTHER demos as well. …. Consistently ONLY targeting one group is boring and not healthy for a theater, artistically or financially.
Paul Mullin Can you back this opinion up with any facts? Because it seems to me to be a pretty viable business plan to know your audience and target it…. And I would further maintain that it's exactly when arts orgs seek to please the aesthetic intelligentsia that they start going off the rails.
Commenter Really? So Intiman/ACT/Seattle Rep should only produce shows that appeal to its supporter base, i.e. 65 year old, upper middle class retirees? Constant revivals of Neil Simon and Vanities and Dancing at Lughnasa? Isnt' that why the big rep houses are dying...they're aging along with the subscriber base?
I was just about to beg off the merry-go-round for good when a long-time friend and colleague leaned in with some extremely crisp and compelling insights.
Rebecca Olson* This is going to be very shocking, but I actually agree wholeheartedly with Mullin on this one. First, we need to separate the idea that having a clear mission (ie: ensemble generated new work) means doing work that isn’t new/interesting/pushing the box. Having a clear mission is exactly what non-profit organizations are required to do, and what a lot of theaters in Seattle are lacking. What makes a theater excellent is consistently excellent work. Having a clear mission that you stand behind does not make that impossible, and having a broad non-mission (ie: “Our theater is here to make theater,”) does not mandate good work. However, history does seem to be teaching us that having both – a clear mission *and* producing consistently excellent work (ie: Wooden O Theater) creates a lasting organization.
One of the most enlightening conversations I’ve had in my theatrical life was with the late (and very much missed) Melissa Hines, who described how when the Seattle theater scene was young, the “big” theaters (Rep, ACT, Intiman, Empty Space) each had clear missions, and filled specific niches. This is a broad generalization (so please don’t nitpick,) but basically the Rep did modern classics and newish but box office safe shows from Broadway, ACT was slightly more edgy but close to the Rep, filling in the summer season when the Rep was dark, the Intiman did classics, and Empty Space did brand new/quirky/edgy work. Audiences could subscribe to all four theaters and have a completely different experience at each theater; thus, there was no “competition” for audiences.
However, at some point the Rep/ACT/Intiman theaters began spreading out and away from their original mission/focus, and all began to look alike (and the Empty Space closed.) As the big theaters homogenized, it became increasingly clear that moving away from their original missions was not allowing them opportunities to push the envelope and try new things. Instead, it was spreading them thin with too many choices and not enough structure; when one has the opportunity to select from the entire canon, from ancient Greece to modern classics to current new regional hits, to plays not yet written, seasons start to look like a dusty college textbook of “what plays are important for you to know about” rather than an exciting collection of stories for artists and audiences to explore together.
In addition, this homogenization encouraged audiences to pick one theater and ignore the other theaters; since one season mirrored another, there was no reason to subscribe to all three. This created the climate of competing for an audience.
Finally, it alienated a lot of lifetime theatergoers, who were irritated at being constantly force fed something not to their liking. While some audiences want to see Shakespeare, others want edgy new work, and some want to modern American classics. Audiences began to feel obligated to watch something they didn’t enjoy because it was part of the season they had chosen to subscribe to. Instead of educating and challenging their audiences, over time it simply lost people completely.
Thus the crux of my conversation with Melissa, was that to have organizations that last (which are part of an artistically healthy theatre community,) we need to ask our theaters to figure out what they do that is unique and fantastic, and then ask them to do only that, and do it consistently. For example, I would be disappointed if Strawshop decided to dust off “Guys and Dolls.” On the flip side, it seems natural that 5th Avenue produced “Guys and Dolls” this year –and I would be disappointed if 5th Ave decided to try their hand at “The Laramie Project.” It isn’t that these companies are doing every kind of theater all the time; it’s that they have found their niche, and they are filling it well with consistently interesting, artistically sound productions. If I want to see a good musical, I know where to go. If I want to see productions that are intensely creative and topical, I know where to go.
I am not suggesting an organization become boxed in by a mission that is too confining to allow it to grow, develop and mature over time (ie: Our mission is to produce the plays of Paul Mullin.) I am suggesting that having a mission that is clear but not confining (ie: Our mission is to produce the plays of Northwest playwrights) gives artists/organizations a starting point and framework for choosing their seasons, and gives audiences a clear idea of why they might (or might not) be interested in attending. Missions such as “We want to produce interesting plays that challenge our audiences,” may feel like they allow for more options, but until the statement is so obvious as to be embarrassing (let us all assume that no theater is hoping to product uninteresting plays that bore their audiences), and gives no indication why exactly that organization exists, or what it is offering the community that other theaters are not already offering.
And I am also not suggesting that artists be completely tied to the organizations they primarily work with; if I belonged to a company that produced new plays but I wanted to do an all female version of Hamlet with myself in the title role, I should either pitch the idea to a local classical company or self-produce. And if the artistic director of a theater who produces classical worked decided that she wanted to direct a production of a new Paul Mullin play, I would encourage her to again, find a company doing new work to pitch the idea to, or self-produce. A non-profit organization’s responsibility is to serve the community – both the artistic community and the audience. If Seattle theatre history has taught us anything, it is that while sometimes fun for the artists who are involved, muddying the water of your organization’s mission and season with random, off point productions is confusing to your audiences and does not serve the organization in the long run.
*Rebecca is an actress based in Seattle, performing with theaters throughout the region. She also has worked extensively as a fundraiser for the arts, both on staff and as a consultant to arts groups of all sizes, as well as a volunteer for several arts boards and committees.