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Art v Commerce
I’ve spent 11 years now with Jobsite trying to strike that elusive “balance” in producing theater. Not the cut-and-dried balance of: comedy, drama, classic, musical, holiday show and then your little arty piece. A balance between what we think people here will readily buy into (read: things that will actually sell tickets), and things that we might be able to challenge them with (read: things we think that are awesome but not too far gone). Between shows that appear recognizable for whatever reason on the surface and shows that are likely a lot more obscure. Between Capital-A Art and What’s Going to Move Tickets. They’re not typically the same thing, even if we think in advance they will be.
I can make a list now of shows that were colossal successes (by our standards of selling out four or more weeks) that were, all in all, pretty populist offerings: A Girl’s Guide to Chaos, anything (abridged), Dracula and now Night of the Living Dead.
Then there are a few shows I might consider on the cusp of populist and arty in Gorey Stories and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. They had major names attached in Edward Gorey and Steve Martin, though the subject matter might not have been as widely accessible as those previous shows. Still, those shows also enjoyed sold-out runs.
Then you have the The March of the Kitefliers. By far our most wildly popular original show, but it was also overwhelmingly populist, chock full of pop culture and rode a monumental word of mouth wave from people who insisted the play was about them and their friends.
When I get to what I might consider Capital-A Art, there’s not much there as far as major box office successes – just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Pillowman.
I could give you a giant list of critically-lauded shows that all failed to met expectations at the box office. That’s not to say that we haven’t done other more arty shows that have done well, or that we haven’t done a more populist show here or there that hasn’t lived up to expectations.
It’s also interesting to note that what a Tampa critic is going to like and what Tampa audiences will want to come see are often not remotely the thing. Of the seven shows listed about, the Creative Loafing critic pretty much gave five of them a dismissive, negative review yet they stand as top earners. Shows we didn’t have to give away tickets or offer discounts for that had sold-out runs. On the other side of that we’ve often been praised for choices of material that we’re practically had to drag people into the theater kicking and screaming to come see. When you can’t get people in to see a show, and you lose loads of money on your artier choices, it burns. Quite a bit.
So we try to find balance.
We’ve never believed in, nor desired, flat-out selling ourselves out just to get the most number of bodies into a theater. I’m pretty sure we could plan a season that would sell out every single performance of every single show, but I don’t think we’d be happy or fulfilled with the results. Our loyal fans wouldn’t either – I consistently get feedback from them about how they enjoy the variety, how much of what we do is off the beaten path for what they are accustomed to. I’d prefer to stick to what we believe in than play to some generic theater couple who don’t exist.
I also don’t think we’ve ever straight-up pinched our nose, closed our eyes and put something up just to sell tickets. From the potentially superficial banter of A Girl’s Guide to Chaos to the zombie hordes of Night of the Living Dead – we’ve had our stakes and our belief in each of them. We’re happy to simply offer a fun night out for the girls here and there, or giving a late-night opportunity for people to come and see something a bit juvenile and racy. We try our best to offer up something every year for Halloween, our choice in staking a holiday without doing Tuna Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life every year (and I am not saying anything negative about companies who do those shows, just noting we picked a different holiday to make a tradition of, and it’s a lucrative tradition for this company as I’ve often stated).
And it’s even easier to have some silly yet still somewhat literate fun with an (abridged) show when we know it’s going to help pay for doing a show like Rabbit Hole or Pericles. Despite the critical success of both of those shows, they underperformed at the box office and as a result, we lost money on each of them. It’s easy for critics to sit and point fingers, but at the end of the day they aren’t balancing the books and trying to keep a business afloat.
And, until there’s enough grant money and private philanthropy to underwrite losses for a company like us every year for doing more challenging things that people won’t likely beat the door down for, we have to find ways of balancing that out. That translates into making educated guesses as to what’s going to be a sure thing to balance those things that may be more arty and mission-based.
I just read a review of Stageworks production of Bad Dates, where words like “meaningless,” “insignificant” and “over-familiar” are being tossed around like grenades – much as they were for our productions of fare like Phyro-Giants! and Girl’s Guide. You know, shows that easily attracted audiences because they sounded like fun shows to go out to with a group. Shows that made money. I am sure that Bad Dates was similarly programmed: it’s a one-person show and therefore inexpensive to produce, it’s an easy pitch to Joe and Jane Tampa and there’s an opportunity the show might actually make a little money to help pay for other things. And from what I understand, it’s working. Opening weekend was pretty much sold out for that show in advance.
Perhaps that critic doesn’t understand why a company would produce a show like that because he has a very limited understanding of what people are really looking for when they go out the theater. Seeking major revelations, thoughtful and original ruminations on the meaning of life or the quintessence of the human condition is fine and dandy, and not a crazy thing to look for out of art, but that’s not everyone’s motivating factor and it is unfair and small-minded to dismiss those other perspectives. I’ll take it even further and say it’s damaging to the form and to the evolution of our local culture.
I’d be interested in making a Venn diagram of what Tampa audiences want to see, what area critics are going to appreciate, and what we feel like is supported by our individual/collective tastes as well as our company mission. I just don’t know many shows that could go perfectly into the intersection of those three circles. I’m certainly not convinced you can find six perfect candidates every season, and every company is going to have wholly different sets of criteria.
There’s not been a top-five grossing play of ours that the critics were all positive about. I double-checked. As a matter of fact, there almost appears to be a sliding scale between a major critical success and a major box office success. That has to mean something. That says something, for sure. I’m not exactly sure, even though I have a few theories spinning in my head.
So, we will continue to do things the way we feel is right. It’s served us well up to this point.
We are adamantly trying to stay at that intersection of art and commerce at Jobsite. We’re cautious, we’re vigilant. An asset to having our company run by a board of artists virtually ensures that this stewardship will continue. We can’t just produce 3-hour heavy pieces of -ist drama, and we can’t just crank out full seasons of whatever yuk-fests are coming out of NY or LA by out of work or aspiring sitcom writers.
Our mission states we want to create and produce politically and socially relevant theater and perform it for the broadest possible audience. If that ain’t populist, I don’t know what is. Relevance doesn’t have to mean ground-breaking, a work can be relevant by being familiar, by reminding us how we’re all alike. Some people take great comfort in that – laughing at yourself through laughing at someone else. If we get someone in for something light that we think still has some relevance, then perhaps they will take a chance next time for something that might be a bit more challenging based on their good previous experience.
We’re in the Business of Art, and any business not trying to find new customers while keeping their current customers happy is acting foolishly. Artists are often way too prone to want to live in their own heads like that, and then are perplexed when the support isn’t there for the work. These two things are not enemies and are not unrelated. Yes, it is possible to be savvy without being a sellout, to appeal without pandering. This is a communal effort though – critics cannot only point fingers at producers for the plays they produce, theaters cannot only point fingers at audiences for not supporting certain works or at critics for dismissing material.
The way we work might mean taking it on the chin from a critic or two, like in the case of Night of the Living Dead. Maybe it’s necessary to have that critical voice out there, yearning for more all the time and acting against whatever is actually popular. It keeps us honest, just like an audience will keep a theater honest when ignored, they vote with their feet. Or rather vote by the absence of their feet, and everything stacked on top.
In the end, it is just as meaningful for me to hear feedback from a patron leaving a show like And Baby Makes Seven saying “Omigod, I had the best time, that was SO out there and hilarious! So. Much. Fun.” as it is for me to hear someone say after a play like Blackbird “Dude, that play creeped me out. I had no idea what to make of that, it was disturbing. It had me thinking for a week. My date and I talked about the show for like 3 hours afterwards trying to come to an agreement.”Share: