Sunday, July 29, 2007

Are Closed Shops Good for Theater?

I don't have a home theater. So I spend a fair amount of time surfing the net, looking for theaters that produce new work. And it seems that more and more of small theaters in Chicago that produce new work have an in-house playwright. In most cases (though not all) that in-house playwright is the only new work that theater performs. I'll admit that I find that frustrating. But I'm trying to work through that personal frustration and ask - is the practice of in-house playwrights good for playwrights? Is it good for theater?

I'll tell you right off that I don't have a full answer for this one. So I'm just going to lay out the arguments as they bounce around my head and see if people are willing to talk about closed shops.

Good for Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, the benefits are clear. Production is the greatest learning tool a playwright has. The more productions, the more chances to become a better writer. And of course there's that incredible satisfaction of seeing something you've dreamed up come to life. More productions means more of your dreams come true.

Bad For Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, there's the danger of becoming comfortably mediocre. I've watched many a feedback session turn into an exercise of group-think where everyone convinces themselves that the playwrights intentions have actually been manifested in the script. We all want to be doing important work, and sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we are despite all indications to the contrary. It usually takes an outside eye, an eye with a different agenda, to bring us up short and see how reality lines up with our hopes for the piece. I imagine that in a closed shop, that outside eye is in short supply. I'll admit, that's a major assumption - there are plenty of ways of working that will ensure there is outside input. But with an in-house playwright, it seems that the chances of that self-fulfilling feedback are much higher.

For those of us without a home theater, the "bad for playwrights" angle may be too hard to separate from professional jealousy. Outside of the in-house system, it feels like yet another opportunity to get work read or produced has been lost. That frustration makes it easy to feel like theaters with in-house playwrights are more interested in producing their friend's work than looking for new voices in theater. Rationally, I can see that those two things aren't mutually exclusive. But there is an argument to be made that by producing only the work of your in-house writer and then that one Mamet play all the actors want to do, the theater with in-house writers are shutting out other developing playwrights.

At times, it feels like the only way to get your work done is to produce it yourself. Which brings us to the good for theater question.

Grant a premise so that I may continue: the more theaters with in-house writers there are, the more playwrights are going to be interested in starting their own theaters. In other words, the fewer options for someone else to produce it, the more likely it is you'll produce it yourself.

Good For Theater
More theaters means more diversity, right? Lots of different styles, lots of different subject matter. And more theaters means more productions, so writers get better and people can see work about those subjects that they've really been dying to see. A bit rosy, perhaps, but that's the theory.

Bad For Theater
The rosy prediction rests on a couple of key assumptions. 1) That each company is doing something decidedly different - that is, that the number of companies reflects a number of unique worldviews. 2) That each company is creating their own audiences from non-theater going people.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide if each storefront out in Chicago really does have something unique to be bringing to the stage. But I've been around enough small productions to wonder about the whole audience creation idea. I've been to any number of shows where the only folks in the audience are somehow personally connected to someone in the company or cast. And as a result, I fear that the more of us that choose to create our own theaters to see our own work produced, fracture that audience even further, dividing each small theater into its little fiefdom of twenty dedicated audience members.

It seems to me that instead of each of us breaking off on our own, and producing our own work, we should look at ways to bring our audiences together. To cross-pollinate. And it seems to me at least one way to do that is to move our playwrights around from house to house.

Alright - so I have come to a working conclusion. That closed shop theaters stand in the way of nurturing writers and developing audiences. But I'm willing to admit that's just professional jealousy talking.

Anyone willing to help me see beyond that professional frustration?


Pookie said...

Closed anything is bad. But this assumption that "everything" is closed is perhaps a bit narrow.

In my experience regardless of the size, theaters work with limited resources. New plays suck up a lot or resources relative to established work.

Consider the workshoping,(often round after round of it) and the readings, and the special marketing to attract an audience that has never heard of the work. This equals lots of time and a fair amount of cash as well.

With all of that in play, there is no wonder that most theaters pay little more than lip service to the idea of new work.

The next factor is the type of theatre company. Most people don't consider this when approaching theatre companies with submissions, but trust me it's a major factor.

In Chicago Theatre there are four basic models for companies. Acting ensembles (The most prevalent) - by definition concerned with the actors and what they will look best performing (e.g. Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Shattered Globe, Strawdog-- the list is near endless).

Director's Theaters and the challenges that most want to meet as "Auteur" (e.g. The Goodman). Playwright's theatres- folk solely (or primarily) concerned with expanding the American cannon and invigorating it with new perspectives (e.g. The Victory Gardens, MPAACT, Chicago Dramatists). And lastly the for Profit houses dedicated to ---yep making money.

Most of what you refer to as "closed theaters" are in fact "acting ensembles". There is no major commitment to anything beyond the next show that will allow them (The ensemble of actors)to put their best foot forward.

On the rare occasion that they do new work it is precisely because they have a connection to the playwright. Precisely because that playwright is the only person they know who will write character's specifically for the ensemble. Precisely because it (that play)is the only thing as gratifying (read self indulgent) as their other productions of Mamet. An lastly they will only consider new work from an outside playwright with a profile high enough to help elevate the status of the ensemble.

The alternatives. Approach Playwright's theatres because they are actually interested in your voice. Approach individual director's because they are the only voices that ultimately matter in director's theaters.

Self produce because it doesn't hurt you to live in the worlds you create instead of living mostly in your head, or mostly on the printed page.

Good for theater bad for theater.

It's all good, even when it's mostly bad. The Good for theatre- bad for theatre argument falls apart for a few reasons.

One- if it's theatre "Closed or not" and audience is still investing in the experience of a live show. This means that playwright's are still relevant whether the audience is full of the powerful or just your cousins and parents.

Two --Rapport-- An intimate relationship between a playwright and director and/or playwright and acting ensemble can absolutely empower the playwright and change your work for the better.

When one is understood without the need to constantly explain yourself and your perspective, you a often freed to find the deeper truths in your work and find the most powerful resonances in the interpretation of your work.

It is on the strength of these relationships that writers are often "called out" for using the same tricks, or for creative repetition (telling the same story with a different title). It is their familiarity with you that allows them to see clearly when your work has become stuck on a topic, or a device, or a perspective.

Does this mean that I endorse the notion of a closed house? No -- there are limitations-- but as a playwright, the house is only closed to you if you never bother to venture outside. An if you haven't made it in just yet, perhaps you haven't been knocking on the right doors, or just haven't been persistent enough.

No-one said it would be easy. But all and all it's still better than wearing a suit ever day.

Playwrights - Keep writing-- We are listening (reading).

Aaron Carter said...


Your comment has got me thinking about several things - but one point sticks out: thinking about the models of the company.

With that in mind, I can see how it is pointless to get frustrated that a theater doesn't do more new work if that is not what it is designed to do.

Maybe rather than complaining about closed shops, I should ask for a little truth in advertising. I envision a submission policy that states: "You can send us your script if you want, but mostly we just do work by this one dude." I'd send a script just 'cause they were honest.

Amy said...

Well . . . having come from a "home theater", I can say that having my work produced was incredibly good for me! And, of course, having my work seen by other producers (which has led to other opportunities) has been great, especially seeing as my theater company is now kaput! (Although we were by no means a "closed shop" and produced non-original pieces as well as company-generated pieces.)

I would like to challenge the notion that it's easy to be an "in-house" playwright. At least in my situation there was a great deal of competition and scrutiny. Depending on the theater company, being on the "inside" is by no means a blank check to being produced. And while it might be a supportive environment -- it can also be a situation where familiarity breeds . . . well, you know.

And, to me, it's an audience that ultimately determines the success of a play -- not the fact that it was produced. If a play is only successful within the small confines of family and friends, then it will stay there. Hopefully it was satisfying for that small group and worth their effort - good for them. Frankly, those people probably only come out for their family or friend's shows and they aren't being siphoned off from any other venue.

In my experience, when a piece works, really works, the audience seems to find it. Instead of fracturing an audience, a good play will build one, and those people, having had a good experience in the theater, are much more likely to try another original piece.

But ultimately the audience votes and if a small "closed shop" theater runs out of indulging aunts and uncles willing to drive in from Batavia, then they will probably run out of steam and get day jobs.

The reason I moved to Chicago was because I could get my work produced (even when I was producing it myself) and REVIEWED! And the audience was willing to slog through awful venues and crappy curtain times and I was/am able to learn on my feet which is an incredible gift.

And I think Chicago audiences find pride in the fact that they can see a play in a church basement and recognize it as art. I get the feeling that many audience members are willing to sit through some mediocrity in order to find something extraordinary.

It's funny that you mention Mamet because if I'm remembering correctly, his advice to actors in his book "True and False" was that in order to work, they should start their own theater companies! Everyone is looking for a chance to do their work.

As far as good for theater/bad for theater, I can think of at least one example where "in-house" playwrights were successful. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote for the D'Oyle Carte Opera Company, and tailored roles for company members and that didn't seem to hurt their body of work!

I guess I wouldn't begrudge anyone how they get their work up. Hopefully more is more. And a rising tides lifts all boats . . . or something like that . . .

David Alan Moore said...


All good questions and valid concerns: both the personal and the more broad, "is it good for theater?" variety. My thoughts/responses are going to be quite disconnected, simply because that's how I'm operating today:

I'm in an interesting position re: this topic because I'm an "in-house" playwright at two theaters: one of which (Chicago Dramatists) is fairly well described as falling under one (playwright-driven) of the four models that Pookie lists in her comment; the other (Stage Left) is fairly unique, in my mind, among Chicago ensembles.

Well, perhaps not totally unique. The House Theatre is also a company that includes writers, actors, directors, designers, etc. And no matter how and why people will differentiate the two (age, style, sensibility, etc.), I frankly feel a bit of a professional connection between our two companies because of the collaboration that occurs when developing new work.

On the other hand, if I'm not mistaken, the House only does work created from within (as with Chicago Dramatists), whereas Stage Left also does new plays from outside playwrights (2 of next season's 3 productions are from non-ensemble writers). And, because we have 4 playwrights, we are in direct professional competition with each other: no slot is guaranteed, only consideration.

So far, I've not had anything produced at Dramatists. I've had the one production at Stage Left.

All of that is background info, to help give some sense of where I'm sitting as I jot down these next notes:

-- Theaters that say they do new work should DO new work. And I'm not saying that "new work" only consists of world premieres -- as we all know, for "newer" playwrights, getting that coveted second production of a play is ten times harder than getting the first. Next season, at Stage Left, only Mia's play is a world-premiere.

(Side note: Where are the theaters dedicated to doing second productions? And don't say The National New Play network... that's the only example that anyone can ever turn to, so I've heard it a dozen times before.)

-- More theaters should do new work. Unfortunately, the audience for new work is much smaller than the audience for "old" work, especially if the new work is not by an established playwright. Financially, it's a huge risk.

Some people love the thrill of seeing artists developing their voices, they love being engaged -- even if only as observers -- in that process. But most (based on the numbers I've seen) would rather take their kids to see "Wicked." I don't think it's a question of quality -- I think it's a question of predictability. Most people don't like uncertainty, and many of the plays that fit under the "new work" label are nothing if not uncertain (which I mean in a good way -- questioning, exploring, debating, raging, laughing -- but also in a "bad" way -- they could quite easily be terrible plays, and no audience has gone before to vett them).

-- One way of keeping in-house playwrights on their toes is to have more than one such playwright. At Stage Left, with four playwrights, the professional competition all but forces us to do our best work, at all times. If Margaret writes a kick-ass play, I know I better write a play that rocks, too.

At the same time, our positive personal relationship -- which include actors, directors and designers -- mean that I know that Margaret will give me feedback and commentary that is anything but ego-stroking. Sure, it would be in her interests to sabotage my work... but the reality is, she and the other playwrights (and other ensemble members) can be pretty damn direct about flaws and problems, and ways to improve a play -- even if that play is going to be considered for the same season as one written by another ensemble member.

I guess there's a lot more... but the phone is ringing (no, not agents or artistic directors!) and some deadlines are looming... so I may add more to this.

OK, one more thing (because the paragraph above is a terrible excuse for an ending -- how any plays have we seen in which it seems as if they playwright just stopped writing and ended it because of fatigue?). :-)

In my ideal world, every writer would have an artistic "home," every writer would be encouraged and challenged in that home, and every writer would get to visit other people's houses once in a while.

Devilvet said...

I am a playwright who started his own theatre because I wasnt interested in waiting for others to "give" me an opportunity to get produced.

I never regreted it. Some missteps even a bad play of two in the past 8 years, but my successes of which there have been a handful are all the more sweeter.

If I had waited until someone else produced a piece of mine...i would have seen all fewer productions and learned alot less about myself as a writer and a dramatist.

I think every playwright should experience directing their own play at least once if not more frequently. If they have any skill and craft as a director, they will learn a ton about their own work as a writer as they attempt to block the show and motivate the cast.

Or hell why not go and find a director. You produce the work, but let some one else deal with the rehearsals and what not?

My advice do anything other than waiting for an opportunity...just make theatre in amy way and as often as possible

Aaron Carter said...


I applaud the spirit of "just make theatre in any way and as often as possible."

But when I think of all the small theaters in Chicago struggling to get work done, I can't help but think there's got to be a better way to get just as much work done. Some effort to share expertise if not resources. Some effort to grow and mix audiences.

Or is it the nature of theater that each new company has to re-invent the wheel?

Anonymous said...


Not only does each new company have to reinvent the wheel, each new artist as they enter this or any field has to do the same...

Each company is a living breathing entity with it's own destiny as to who will support it, who is in it, what kind of work, the reputation they garner...

We (we being any theatre company other than yours regardless of who you are) can share practical advice, we can maybe let you borrow a lighting instrument, or suggest to our friends to go see your show... but aside from that...what is this "better way" that you envision?

Audiences are not ours to "mix" they are not like seeds in a garden. They decide what they want to see, they decide when they are going...they are not a tangible resource that the theater company can share with other theatre companies.

Maybe, I'm too locked in my own way, but tell me more specifically what is this "better way" that you envision. Help me to see it, be specific so as to better enable me and others to agree with you. Show me a paradigm and then maybe someone can build it.


Aaron Carter said...

I certainly didn't mean to imply that audiences are possessed by a particular theater. Rather that more concerted efforts could be made to make audiences aware of other theaters.

I don't yet have a paradigm to offer, although I continue to give thought to how theaters might interact cooperatively. As these thoughts develop, I certainly will share them and attempt to enact what I can.

One of my hopes in starting this blog was to participate in conversations about how the methods in which we choose to handle the business of making theater affect the artistic process of making theater. I question the status quo not out of naivete, but rather to encourage us to re-examine some basic assumptions about the art form.

Perhaps I have struck the wrong tone. Rather than eliciting the reaction "show me a better way," I had hoped to elicit "maybe this could be a better way."

In the meantime, I'll keep working on that new paradigm.

Devilvet said...

p.s. Aaron

I really like this blog, and do see the value to the inquiry you are making. I wasn't trying to imply naivate in my response. That is just me being as direct as possible...nuff said hopefully


"Rather that more concerted efforts could be made to make audiences aware of other theaters"

I'd like to ask a question in response to your question(huh?) it possible that the people who want to see theatre are already aware of the variety of theatre and we are getting the audience.

i.e. the audience is more aware of how to find a show than we give it credit?

i.e. that the city isn't full of non-soon to be under the right circumstance-audience but rather those who want to see any given show are already in the seats?

If the above statement were true, would acknowledgment of that enable a potential new paradigm to marketing, pr, production, reading, playwright readings and whatnot?

David Moore said...

About six weeks ago I was on a panel with Erin Gilbert of Congo Square Theatre. At the time, she talked about an initiative with three other theaters (Remy Bumppo and Silk Road being two of them, I think -- but don't quote me -- I asked Erin for more details but haven't heard from her, yet).

The idea, as I understood it, was that subscribers would have some sort of option to purchase ticket packages from all four theaters, exposing them to different sensibilities, missions, productions, etc. The goal, I believe, was to help theatergoers break out of their particular silos and self-defined interests. Maybe some will find that they're perfectly happy seeing Congo Square productions only; but others might realize that there are fine productions going on elsewhere, and become somewhat more omnivorous in their theater-viewing behavior.

I think the difference between this initiative, and last year's "hey, we're all doing Chris Durang plays, why don't we try to market together?" project on the North Side/North Shore, is that Congo, Remy, Silk Road, etc., are trying to get audiences to move beyond demographics as a motivation for supporting a certain company's work.

Aaron Carter said...

Both Devilvet's and David's comments shed light on how underlying assumptions driving different approaches.

After reading Devilvet's last comment, I realized that I had not articulated my view of how audiences are built.

If, as Devilvet suggests, that audiences are already making informed choices and are in the shows the want to see, then maybe the new marketing paradigm would be none at all! Perhaps it would be a shift from the "come see our show" message to "come see our show TOO."

In my experience, though, it seems that audiences for smaller theaters in Chicago are built of people who have personal stakes in the performance: they are the friends and family of those who built the show.

I'll admit right off that I don't have data for that - just my admittedly skewed personal observations.

So that assumption is what underlies my thoughts about "sharing" an audience. In other words (much as the example that David points out) theaters take it upon themselves to encourage people to move from being personal relationship stakeholders to artistic stakeholders by cross-marketing, etc.

Of course, if the reality of audience behavior is as Devilvet suggests, then such cross-marketing is a wasted effort.

I wonder if individual theaters are capturing the data that could be used to determine the reality of audience choices. Maybe before theaters start talking about shared subscription packages, a partnership could be built to capture and analyze that data.

Anonymous said...


I would agree with you that most small theaters' audiences are built with a majority of individuals with personal stakes in the performance and an minority of individuals would enjoy a little risk in what they are going to be seeing that night...

The reason being that for the most part these are the only people of the informed chicago theater audience who want to see that sort of small theater during the first to fifth year of it's existence.

The people who arent at those little theaters choose not to be...why?

a bevee of reasons, which will sound like a laundry list you've already heard...

a)They don't want to see a show they haven't hear good word of mouth about...becuase it is just not worth taking a chance to see a shitty show

b)They don't want to see the work of a theater company that hasn't gotten enough good word of mouth for the same reason as above

c)Most small companies are producing in more out of the way venues because those are the only kind young compnaies can afford, or they are producing at off times (tues, wed, late night)...unless the audience is convinced that the show will rock them...they aren't going to come and inconveinence themselves.

d)and on and on and on...

I guess what I'm suggesting is that it is possible that the people who aren't at your show are not there becuase they have unfortuantely already deemed your show and/or company not worth the risk. They believe that probability dictates that most small companies are putting up shitty shows in shitty spaces with inadequate lighting and sound, putting the audience in uncomfortable folding chairs they have been begged borrowed or stole, that the venues are out of the way...and the thing is 4 out of 5 times they are right.

Now this situation I'm talking about primarily relates to small companies that are lets say less than 5 years old. Once a company has been around the natural word of mouth starts to generate, usually the "survivors" have developed some fund raising and/or grant writing acumen by then, reviews and editors who for the past five years have been dismissing you becuase your too new or too small potatoes and they have shrinking amounts of real estate in their papers, start taking you a little more seriously becuase well you've been around.

David's example of a joint venture between remy bumppo, congo square, and silk for those kind of companies...established, well funded, often well reviewed, been around long enough to have some sort of reputation...

But that reputation is the key, that is what makes it work...and believe me those three companies aren't going to pull in fourth company that doesnt have equally perceived reputation. They have too money on line, why the take the risk...

The majority of people sitting in those companies shows aren't going to sit in a smaller theatre's companeis shows unless they are convinced that the smaller company is 'up and coming' or 'one of chicago's brightest young stars' until someone or some paper that has the clout to put that sort of tiara on a small company does...that small companies truest resource is word of mouth from the few risk taking audience members that have already combed the papers of the Reader or time out looking for your interesting little out of the way show or the people who have a personal investment in the performance (and this number of people will slowly grow with each show you produce)

Maybe the reinvention of the wheel should be towrds finding way to produce theatre for less money during those first five or so years so that you don't lose a mint.

Or how does one get a reputation faster? Maybe that is where the reinvention has to happen


Amy said...

The League of Chicago Theaters has LOADS of resources for Chicago theaters. In my past experience, they had data on audience demographics, etc. that was useful. I found that the League was also good at bringing together big houses and small houses for cross-pollination of ideas and shared resources. Granted, I haven't been so involved in the past few years, but it was a great resource when I was involved with my own company.

I have been lucky enough to be involved with several theater companies when we crossed that "only family and friends in the house" line. As soon as we realized that we didn't know anyone in the house, we knew we had a success. I wish there was a direct formula for predicting when/why that happened. Was it the quality of the show? Frankly, the pieces I thought were better artistically didn't always get the audience they deserved and the works we did for a lark sometimes really hit. (I'm in NYC now directing a show that I helped create 13 years ago -- we thought would last one weekend!) I had a friend who was in Lestat - the Anne Rice musical - with a score by Elton John and Bernie Taulpin - you would think it would run forever -- it drew flies. You can do your best, but sometimes it's lightening in a bottle.

After thinking about your original post, and as much as I want to believe that "more is more" - I was reminded by my friend about her theory that resources are being spread too thin. Another friend of ours works for the Donnelly Foundation and they recently did a survey about the growth of not-for-profits. They were astounded at the increase of organizations over the past several years particularly in the Chicago area. The folks at Donnelly were encouraged by this - but my friend noted that the size of the not-for-profits were mostly small -- meaning the artists probably weren't being paid as much. Realistically, artists in the theater (especially actors)ARE personally invested in what they are doing and are then consequently willing to starve to make that art. And if they are willing to starve, they are willing to do their shows for their aunts and uncles, even if they blunder a bit, and I don't think that will ever change. The best part is that some of them are getting practical experience that they can hopefully build on.

So, I guess I'm back to my original opinion that "closed shops" are good for theater!

Aaron Carter said...

I have to agree with Devilvet's assessment of theater audiences for small young theaters.

What really sparked my interest though, was the idea of finding ways to produce theater that cost less. I knew if we talked about producing theater long enough we'd get back to how that connects to the structure of a theater piece. So I'm going to pull that out and try to get a new thread going on Cheap Theater.

Thanks Devilvet!

Adam said...

I'm coming late and I'm not in chicago but I just wanted to say i feel your pain. I am no an in house playwright but gradually am forming relationships with theatres, some of which have led to productions. For me it is a process that has taken a while, and while I've had some successes I still have a lot of unproduced plays and am still looking for a theatrical home.

Aaron Carter said...


Good to hear from an writer from beyond Chicago. From your profile I gather you are based in NY. What is your sense of the numbers of in-house vs. independent playwrights in NY? I have to admit, I often feel like the high number of small store-front theaters her is a Chicago phenom - but I don't have anything to compare it to.