Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Times they Are A Changing - Part 2 - Grinder Productions

Yesterday I mused at length about the deplorable state of Canadian Theatre since 9/11. I don't know that it is totally deplorable, or that it can't recover, all I know is that I'm not comfortable with things the way they are, and I can't afford to sit around and wait for things to change.

So am I going to go and work in a bank? No! Like the title line of this blog says, we're smashing all the rules, so somebody hand me my sledgehammer.

The first rule that has to go: Name recognition counts for something. This summer I can only think of one couple who came out to see one of our shows because they had heard of the playwright, and only one other couple who came out to see one of our shows because they had heard of the play. Samuel French, in their infinite wisdom, see fit to charge a premium on plays by Neil Simon, simply because, as a well-known name, he should draw more people. Well, he didn't, and we pushed that show just as hard, if not harder, than all the others.

So what does count for something? So far the only concrete indicator, in this market, that I can find, for getting a patron to come out to a show, is that they have a personal connection to it. They may know an actor, or know me, or know the venue, but whatever it is that connection must be strong and it must be personal.

That's not to say that the product onstage doesn't matter. The product onstage can't be crude, offensive, bawdy, blasphemous (especially blasphemous) or run more than two hours including intermission. And it can't cost too much either, especially if it's your own kid you're paying to see. Rather than looking for reasons to come to a show, today's patrons are looking for reasons not to come to a show. If everything clears their personal checklist, then yes, they'll think about it, if they have that personal connection, but if there's anything amiss then they'll send an apologetic but congratulatory e-mail to their friend after the show is over.

Okay, so you're William Shakespeare. Big deal, nobody cares, or at least they don't care enough to buy a ticket.

So who does care about you enough to buy a ticket? That's a question I ask every actor in every show I do. I give them the following list of people in their lives that they can ask to come to see them in the show. I don't know how many actors actually read this list, much less actually take the time to actively ask each of these individuals and groups of people to come to the show, but if they did it would certainly make my life a lot less stressful.

Here's the list:

Just in case you were stuck for people to ask to come and see our play... who on this list haven't you asked yet?

What can you say to them? How about this:

I'm in a play! It's amazing! It's called _______________, and it runs ______________ at the _____________________. Here, have a flyer!

Your family members?
Your extended family members?
Your step-family members?
Your half-family members?
Your estranged family members?
The people that live at your house and might as well be family members?
Your best friend?
Your worst enemy?
All your friends?
All your enemies?
Your church congregation?
Your students?
Your teachers?
Your professors?
Your doctor?
Your dentist?
Your hair dresser?
The pool boy?
The landscaper?
The contractor?
The house painter?
The person that fixes your car?
The person that reads your meter?
The person you sit next to on the bus?
The person who sets up your cable?
The person who fixes your computer?
The person who rang through your groceries?
The people in your car pool?
The people where you work?
Your boss?
Your boss's bosses?
The board of directors?
Your local member of parliment?
Your local municipal councilor?
The actors in that other play you're doing?
The people in your choir?
The people in your service club?
The people on your sports team?
The people who have kids on your kids team?
The coach of your kids team?
Your neighbours?
Your neighbours where you used to live?
The cute waitress at the bar?
The ugly waitress at the bar?
The policeman who pulled you over for the RIDE check?
The bagel guy?
The people in you professional association?
The people in your union?
The people on your sales list?
The people on your prospective sales list?
The people on your e-mail list?
Your Facebook Friends?
The convenience store clerk who sells you a lottery ticket?
The person who puts gas in your car?
The people you were in your last play with?
Anyone you've ever been in a play with?
People you know that are interested in going to plays?
Your priest or spiritual adviser?
Your roommate?
Your boyfriend/girlfriend?

Okay, so most actors aren't going to invest that kind of time and effort in a play. Heck, if most actors would just invest the time it takes to learn their lines and blocking in a timely fashion ( and not a day before we open) that would also make my life a lot less stressful.

That leads nicely into my next rule that has to be smashed: You can't do your own plays and expect that people will come. That was the rule I lived by for years. I've enthusiastically thrown all the Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon and every "stock" play I thought I could produce in front of audiences, hoping that Noises Off would bring out more people than Waiting for Godot. And while in a head-to-head match up in this town Noises Off would likely come out on top (Godot has many of those reasons not to go to a play that I mentioned above built right into it), I think it would be a closer call than you might think, and I think that Godot, could it be orchestrated so as to have a personal connection with enough people, could even come out on top (apparently it was a huge success when performed before inmates at San Quentin, or some other maximum security prison in the US - the murderers, drug dealers and pedophiles thought it spoke directly to their existence).

I'll let you in on a little secret. Do you know which one of our shows did the best this summer? It was Farmer's Daughters. Why? Because we didn't have to cough up $75 a night for Alan Ayckbourn or $125 for Neil Simon. And you know what else? Nobody cared that I had written the show! I, a small-town starving artist with limited talent, few resources and a tight deadline, managed to create something that was, if not a masterpiece, good enough for enough people for me to pay for the hall and a little bit of tech and marketing. Effectively, what was left over became the royalty, and that has gone straight back into the company.

So from now on, you won't be seeing as many well-known plays at Grinder Productions. Yes, there will be some, of course, but if we can produce plays at Grinder why can't we write them as well? When I started Grinder it was to do my own plays, and the only reason I started to look at plays from other sources was because I couldn't afford to do anything else. Oddly enough, the pendulum has swung back the other way, and writing plays is no longer a time-waster it is a money-maker. I think as time goes by new works, both my own and those written by other members of the company, will become more distinct, and eventually it will become the norm here at Grinder.

Well, I think that's enough rule-smashing for one day. I'm sure there's someone out there who thinks I'm full of it when it comes to all this, that I just don't get it, that I should go and get a haircut and a real job and get out of the way of the real theatre people who know what they're doing. I just don't know that those people will take the time to read all of this.


Nanette Soucy said...

I did. And it's a fantastic post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put my friend, nicely put.