Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cheap Theater

In the comments on Are Closed Shops Good For Theater Devilvet offered an interesting suggestion:

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

Here are some of the ideas I've kicked around with my friends. Mind you, not one of these ideas is a complete actionable framework. But hopefully it will get people interested and maybe sharing some examples.

1) Serial Theater. A single show with multiple episodes. Its like HBO comes to your stage. Chicago has already sprouted one new effort: a "live soap opera" called The Ville. Are there efficiencies to be gained in recurring casts, one hour scripts and limited rehearsal time?

2) Site Specific Theater. Certainly not a new idea. But most of what I've been seeing is more what I'd call "non-traditional location theater." That is, taking an existing show and performing it in a bar or in the park, etc. But playwrights could be a little more proactive in this regard, creating work specifically for a location, taking into account and using to our advantage the lack of lights, problematic acoustics, etc. Don't we save some dough if we don't have to rent a space?

3) Truncated Rehearsal / Performance Periods. Ann Filmer and I had an interesting conversation just today about how changing the expectations of what the "finished product" is could change the way we go about making theater. What if actors were expected to show up off-book, and we opened the house to audiences the second the show was blocked? What if shows were intended to run only one or two weekends, compressing the series of 10 or 20 seat houses into one weekend of packed houses? What if it was perfectly acceptable for actors to be off book in one scene, but carrying script in hand for another?

4) Living Wage Theater. This is an idea I've been kicking around for awhile. Basically I'd like to take the entire planned budget for a small show, and divide that into person-hours using the Living Wage formula. In Chicago, that's about 12.85 an hour. Obviously, that would drastically reduce the number of hours a show could be developed and performed. With only those available hours, what new innovations in rehearsal and production would we be forced to come up with? Would we even produce something that we recognize as a play?

5) Guerrilla Theater. Again, not a new idea. And perhaps as much connected to Devilvet's question about reputation (ellipses and edits mine):

But that reputation is the key, that is what makes it work[...]

The majority of people sitting in those companies shows aren't going to sit in a smaller theatre company's 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 [...]

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

So there are certainly cost effeciencies to breaking out into some sort of public theater experience on the L. And maybe there's away to build a reputation quickly with something like that?

What other models of production have people participated in or witnessed? And, since this is also a playwriting blog, what is the role of the writer in crafting text that needs these alternative expressions?

1 comment:

Amy said...


Here's a different model of production:

A friend of mine was a founder of Raw Impressions Music Theatre in NYC (sadly, since closed - the majority of the writers in this group became interested in film). They produced a series of monthly gatherings of Playwrights, Composers and Performers who came together in order to create new work to be shown to the public. RIMT grew out of the nationally recognized program "The Composer/Librettist Studio" sponsored in New York by New Dramatists.

Eight composers and eight writers were randomly paired on a Friday evening. They were given some guidelines in creating a new music theater piece. The first draft was sight read by 10 actor/singers that Sunday afternoon. The writers had 3 days for rewrites. The performers had 3 days for rehearsal with 2 directors and 2 music directors. They then presented the new pieces to the public a week after the first reading.

RIMT believed in music theatre being an immediate community experience and a reflection of what's going on around us right now – not filtered by anyone and not hampered in a lengthy process before the audience receives it.

My friend said it was incredibly satisfying for the performers, because pieces were being written specifically for them and tailored to their talents. He said the playwrights benefited from the collaborations and the challenge of the tight deadline.

They were pretty successful, and managed to pay for the events from the box office. He said they were able to have high production values which gave the pieces a better chance of succeeding.

Of course a big draw to this particular scheme was that these were mini-musicals which are much more difficult to mount in 10 days, but I think this could be successful for straight plays as well.

The attraction of this model, to me,is that the actors have a chance to memorize the script and are directed and blocked.