Sunday, October 28, 2007

Business Models

I choose not to review television shows because they're the common medium: it's all too easy to access them, even easier to pass judgment on them (and for the most part, given how much TV we watch, accurate judgment), and there really isn't that much art left in the great many shows out there. I won't say there aren't exceptions (The Wire), or that there isn't great writing (House), innovative storytelling (Lost), or superbly self-indulgent satire (Boston Legal). But the only purpose critics serve in television is to keep a show on the air, something they've been failing to do (Arrested Development on the high end, Veronica Mars on the low).

Which brings me to the point of this would-be screen screed: NBC is all but giving away Friday Night Lights in a desperate attempt to grab fearful audience's attentions for the second season, which everybody seems to know is good, but nobody seems to watch. (It can't be that they don't know when it's on; it's actually in the title of the show.) You can buy the full season, all twenty-two episodes, for $20 through their site, and most other outlets offer it for $30, which is still a steal. Not that I'm schilling for the marketing department, though. I'm just pointing out the brilliance of their marketing. NBC has the pockets to take a "loss" on their DVD (in this case, it isn't really a loss, since making the DVD costs next to nothing -- any copy they sell, for almost any price, is a profit), but in doing so, helps to build an audience of cheapskates looking for a good value who, after stumbling into this solid, solid show, will theoretically keep watching, week after week, the "after" economics that will then yield profits for the show and the network.

There are theaters out there that have started similar initiatives, all with the purpose of dropping prices NOW so that they will have a more sustainable fan base LATER. With every ticket Todd Haimes sells for Speech and Debate, he's getting audiences (lured in by the solid production values and the $20 ticket price) interested in what Roundabout does. Every discount, be it for "young professionals," tour groups from out of town, corporations, &c., helps to build word of mouth and spill over into a large enough audience to sell out the next show on trust alone. I never know what I'm going to find when I go to Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, but I'm willing to buy a ticket because I trust the company will be doing fun stuff. When I make a small investment of money or time at PS 122 or HERE Arts Center, I'm trusting that their directors and curators are putting up shows that they actually care about, and not just trying to lease the space out. (This isn't always the case, but one can hope.)

Sarah Benson, new artistic director of Soho Rep, makes a valid point in the new issue of TONY (which is all about where the cost of a ticket goes): "The box office is a piece of the pie, but it's a small piece . . . we don't rely on it." Like Signature Theater, she is looking outside the box to find ways to keep the box office inexpensive so that she can build loyal audiences who trust the programming enough to come back should donors dry up and prices go back down. It's a circle too: the New York Times Magazine recently wrote about the kinds of people who give to their colleges (and why), and I think we'd find that donors are those long-standing patrons who feel a connection, cultivated over the years, to a good-intentioned organization.

Discounts are but a limited band-aid on the overwhelming inflation of ticket costs, and I'm liking the balls of a group like Roundabout to commit to cheaper pricing (with their ACCESS ROUNDABOUT program, say). When I saw Speech and Debate, I saw the next generation of theatergoers, and if they were simply half as impressed as I, they'll be back for more.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Get Your Read On!

OK, so I wasn't a huge fan of Soho Rep's recent production of Philoktetes, John Jesurun's messy web of ideas and images. But if you read a little between the lines, you'll note that I very much admired the script, both for educational value and poetic aspirations. This is why I'm pleased to point out that at performances of Philoktetes, you can buy a slim copy of the script. It's a Soho Rep version, published through On Stage Press, and though I'm told it's a division of Samuel French, I couldn't actually find information on buying this through them or Amazon, or really anywhere but at Soho Rep itself. (Which is odd, since the book is labeled as being $8.00, and is being sold there for $5.00.)

Anyway, I'm excited about the initiative, apparently led by series editor Daniel Manley. I guess now that Soho Rep is on an Off-Broadway contract, they can branch out into publishing, but I'm thinking of all the new premieres at small houses, and thinking just how great it would be if you always had an option to buy the script from the theater: that is, after all, the greatest point of access. Not that there aren't flaws: Soho Rep only sells the scripts before the show, not after (when you might really be inspired to pick one up), and Manley's budget apparently doesn't extend to hiring a proofreader (read: I'm available), but the idea itself, of really spreading theater not just on stage, but in book, word of mouth, whatever . . ..

I've seen books for sale at The Public and HERE Arts Center, both of which are great hubs to the arts; I hope to see discounted versions, or annotated ones, somewhere down the line. In a world that obsesses over the 2-disc or 3-disc DVD version of a film, this might be a way to close the gap between art and understanding.

Friday, October 26, 2007

McFrankenstein and the HIPygmalion Party

Two interesting discoveries while on Broadway tonight. First (and yes, as it turns out, TONY is on this one, too), while grabbing an Angus Deluxe during the 15-minute break at Pygmalion (yes, I'm a pig, but at least I don't speak cockney), I encountered big advertisements for the lottery tickets being given out for Young Frankenstein. Apparently, three hours before that show, you go across the street to this strange thing called a theater (in fact the Hilton Theater, where the show is playing), and you put your name in a lottery. Should you win this lottery, you'll also (shockingly) buy your $26.50 tickets there. However, to find if you've won, you have to go into the heart of that neon McDonalds next door two hours before the show. Now, I thought as with Signature Theater that when there were corporate sponsors, all the tickets were $15 or $20 a pop. So what's the deal with this franchising? (As for the information itself, it's hopelessly hidden on the slow-to-load, hard-to-navigate site for the show, located here.)

As for the other, because I attended Pygmalion as part of the HIPTIX program, I got a chance to see their marketing department at work, as October 25th happened to be a "Makeover Party" for all the young professionals in the audience. The event was cheery, with a few of the actors making the rounds (Jay O. Sanders and Doug Stender), and there was free Tsingtao beer and light snack foods (followed by decadent mini-brownies). There were goodie bags, too. But aside from the two charming makeup artists giving penthouse guests a "makeover," nothing about the event tied to theater itself, which I thought was the whole point of the HIPTIX program. I was lucky enough to be introduced to some other people with an interest in theater, and I had a nice discussion about some other shows I'd recently seen or now plan on seeing (The Overwhelming and Speech and Debate), but for the most part, people came for the swag and the food, and stuck with their friends, and didn't seem to give a shit about theater. Heart's in the right place, but isn't there something more we can do? Surely there's something more I can do, and I'll keep reaching out until there are enough of us to actually affect a change in theatergoing trends.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Not Your Mother's Opera

I think this snippet from the 10/26 New Yorker sums up the theatrical generation gap better than anything else I can write:
[Mercedes] Bass[, a $25M donor] said that she was thrilled with Gelb's attemps to bring a new audience into the Met, and that she understood what a commitment a night out at the opera could be. "Opera is somewhat of an acquired taste, and it is very time-consuming--you need to have three or four hours to devote to it," she said. "And then, to a certain degree you have to have the finances. I am very aware that for a couple to go to the opera, it means basically a hairdresser, a babysitter, a taxi or car, dinner on the Grand Tier. All of that mounts up to being sort of an expensive evening."
I'm glad that the emphasis is on all of Gelb's attempts to make it less expensive, as not all of us have that sort of money, let alone hairdressers, babysitters, or cars. But the fact that people think theater needs to be some sort of social statement -- not in of itself, but by those who attend it -- doesn't bode well. Note also that this is expected to be the average operagoer, which means that every night, 3,800 rich socialites are expected to make an evening of the arts. Gelb's singled out, time and time again, as an outside-the-box thinker, in that he's aired live performances in less expensive venues, like movie theaters, and that he's instituted rush seating (specifically for the elderly, retirees who can no longer afford it). But what sort of box was the previous manager, Volpe, thinking in for such a business model -- for something that is an "acquired taste" -- to ever work?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

America in a Nutshell

From a new commercial for CNBC: "I'd rather follow a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan."

Yeah, that pretty much sums up our country right now: our demand for the immediate makes us glom onto quick answers, even if they haven't been thought through, even if that first plan is so horrendous that it requires a second plan. See, I'd rather trust that the genius has our best interests at heart, and that change will come through gradual growth . . . but sure, why not take stupidity now.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dropping the Ball

So I'm just wondering, in light of The New York Times' lack of coverage of New Georges recent premiere, Good Heif, what exactly a company needs to do for a review. I know the Times is sporadic, at best, in its coverage of off-Broadway plays (and with just cause, there are too many), but can't we at least have some guidelines? (1) The run is at least three weeks: then you don't have to feel as if the review is irrelevant. (2) The show is at least in a 99-seat venue: then you know you'll have readers. If that doesn't narrow it down enough, add requirements: (3) That there be good word of mouth about the company or the venue: why the Times covered Dead City at 3LD and God's Ear at CSC but not Good Heif at Ohio Theater. Or (4) That the work be new, which, in a time of not-often-enough-produced female playwrights or American ones, should call out to the "arbiters of taste" to render some judgment, if for nothing else than to help the Pulitzer committee out. The rest, the Gray Lady can leave to the bloggers or the umbrella websites that unite them: rest assured, there are many Martin Dentons out there. But seriously: The Ritz may be on Broadway, but I'd much rather read about something totally new than about something that's back again. Given the Broadway climate, it's possible we'll start getting a new Gypsy review every year -- and miss out on some of the new works out there. (Note: I didn't like Good Heif, but it's the principle that counts, and as I've said before, the more people who review something, the easier it is to remove pure opinion from the picture.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So What's the Pointy?

That is, why write reviews at all, you know? A lot of shows that I've seen lately, and artists that I've read, seem to support raw experience over processed analysis, and I'm in agreement. Kate Fodor (of 100 Saints You Should Know) and Elizabeth LeCompte (director of the Wooster Group, as profiled by Jane Kramer in the 10/8 New Yorker) both seek to play with character and explore possibilities rather than to stodgily or solidly define -- very different, I think, than the strict definitions of Beckett, or the precise language of Albee. Fodor's program notes point out that she doesn't have (or want) the answers that her character seek, nor even know their complete histories. And LeCompte looks to "get lost in it" until she knows what she wants.

Given this, why bother trying to define art within narrow boundaries? Why try to turn the beach of the mind into a sandbox?

That said, why not search for the middle ground? I see criticism as a non-affiliated tour agency, one that visits as many foreign vistas as possible, compiling them in such a way that they can simply lay out an audience's options as plainly as possible. It's not really my job to deny anyone access to a particular play, so much as it is to educate people to the possibilities: yes, you can go Iphigenia 2.0, but perhaps you'd be happier checking out Philoketes? Or if you hate the sound of The Misanthrope, maybe you'd be more comfortable seeing something more traditional, like The Children of Vonderly.

I don't understand criticism that seeks to define something simply as good or bad, especially when it is less than descriptive, or dismissive of positive points. Maybe that lopsided black and white works for the government's depiction of axes and evils, but art is far from being that easily summarized. I'm still looking to find the aesthetic that works for my own writing, and I'm far from perfect as a theatergoer and critic, but I'm getting better because I'm staying open to the possibility inherent in every show, no matter how sweaty the space, dim the lights, or eccentric the writing. Magic is happening, and I don't want to be caught sleeping when I see it.