Space, Time, Money, and the Show

Space is a financial albatross hanging around the neck of almost every contemporary theatre company. So shouldn't we be thinking outside the black box?

Ask an Executive Director what their biggest line item cost for any given show is, and almost without fail they will say, "the rent". Whether that's renting a space for the length of a run, or leasing a permanent home, the cost of having a roof over your head almost always eats up a hefty chunk of profits. In an era where box office returns are in steadily decline with the exception of rare commercial successes, and where breaking-even is often considered a win, why aren’t more companies taking a good hard look at their largest expense, and looking for ways to reign it in?

One answer might be that many producing and executive directors simply aren’t aware that other operating models exist. The current system of seasonal billing: scheduling a docket of shows, gathering a separate production staff for each one, casting the actors, then entering into a cycle of limited rehearsals and even more limited runs, might seem to some like "the way its always been done".

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Even a cursory glance at theatre history provides us with a wealth of operating models: the state funded festival systems of the Greeks, the touring systems of the Commedia del Arte and other small traveling troupes that followed the collapse of the Roman empire, the true joint stock companies that dominated Europe from the late renaissance until the early 20th century, the laboratory systems of artists like Jerzy Grotowski or The Group Theare in the middle of last century, and the star system that has dominated touring and Broadway shows in America since the early nineteenth century, are just some of the more well known models. Why then do we assume that our current seasonal system is the best one to accommodate our audiences or our artists? And why do we assume that theaters of today have to look or operate anything like the theaters of yesterday?

Isn't it possible that modern audiences simply aren't interested in engaging in theatre in the same way their grandparents did? That doesn't mean theatre as an art form has lost its ability to affect modern audiences, only that its delivery system might need some updating. We need to allow ourselves to discover new modes of presenting our art in a way that speaks to our audiences, not their ancestors. If we set ourselves to investigating this, we might finds that some of what worked for audiences yesterday actually does still work today while other things don't. But until we commit to the experiment, we'll never really know.

The Pop Up Theatre Project continues to be, in part, an attempt to more fully understand what is really needed in order for a contemporary theatrical event to take place. In the years that we have been using this model, we've found that any group of people, large or small, can become an exceptional audience if the conditions are right. In our own modern adaptation of the touring repertory system, The Pop Up Theatre Project stages various productions in a wide range of public spaces raging from busy city sidewalks, to parks, parking lots, town squares, and anywhere else people can easily gather.  While we always invite our followers to join us via facebook, and twitter whenever we go out,by far the largest portion of every audience we have is made up of random passers by. 

The effect of watching a diverse and engaged audience materialize right in front of us, simply by offering a performance for anyone that's interested, has proven to me that we need to find new ways of presenting theatre to our local community of audience members, and by that I mean each community individually. Unlike more portable mediums such as film, television, and even much visual art, the nature of theatre is one of direct engagement with a local audience: the people who are actually able to be in attendance for that production. So we should concern ourselves first with creating theatre for  people who can come to see it. Knoxville theatre artists should make theatre that speaks first and foremost to Knoxvillians. Why concern ourselves with trying to appeal to folks in Seattle or Chicago, when chances are they will never see the art we are producing? This is not a new concept. As the most obvious example: Shakespeare did not concern himself with whether the Spanish or Italians enjoyed his work even though both countries arguably had a more robust and thriving theatrical culture than the English at the time. He wrote his plays for the people who would be in attendance.  

I believe we should move away from the popular idea that theatre has to include elaborate sets, lighting, sound, and all the highly specialized architecture required to to house it. If we begin to think about the kind of theatre that relies on and attempts to actively engage an audience’s natural capacity for imagination, then the theatre doesn’t necessarily need a theater to house it. Suddenly our opportunities for performance expand greatly. If we don’t have to pay rent, (or if rent is reduced to a fraction of its current cost) then the money saved can go toward paying artists and technicians for their time and talent, which (one would hope) will lead to higher standards of performance and subsequently a better experience for the audience.

Of course its not as easy as all that. Some plays simply can't be effectively staged without a great deal of technical support, and there are obvious benefits to dedicated theatre spaces: line of sight, acousticsclimate control, bathrooms, off-stage space for props and costume changes. But instead of simply assuming that these things are uniformly necessary for a rewarding theatre experience, we might find that we can provide equally rewarding experiences for a fraction of the overhead. And besides, we've all had successful runs in rented spaces where at least one of those things wasn't available, so doesn't it stand to reason that we might be able to have success without two or three or even any of the things we've come to think of as necessary for a functioning performance space? Shouldn't we at least take the time to find out, since both our audiences and our box offices stand to benefit? 

I'll leave you with the often quoted first line of what is probably one of the most influential books on production theory in 20th century, Peter Brook's The Empty Space

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." 

If you haven't read The Empty Space then go out and buy it right now. Or get it for $12.00 on Amazon. It is worth your money. If you have read it and its been a while, I'd suggest reading it again. Not simply because Brook expands on some of the things I'm advocating in this post, but because even though it was written fifty years ago, the wealth of insight it offers is simply staggering.

Till next time,