2 March 2012

Attendance is down. So what's up with that?

Our Guest Blogger Heather Inglis poses questions about the reasons for low turnouts for independent theatre in Edmonton.

Ah audiences — the Holy Grail of independent theatre. 

"We have to do what we can in spite of the fact that failure is always possible"

     ~ David Mamet

I am fortunate enough to be able to produce, direct, and create theatre for a living. I’m all about doing all the crazy things it takes to make small theatre happen. It is long hours at lousy pay - if there is pay. It is great work, it’s complicated work, it’s hard work, and at times it is heartbreaking work. From working at the inception of projects with playwrights, to grant writing, dramaturgy, getting the rights, casting, CANADIAN ACTORS EQUITY, directing (all that it is), careful choice after careful choice, painstaking thought and sleepless nights, endlessly (and shamelessly) self-promoting, working with graphic artists and advertisers and the endless fundraising, fundraising, and (did I say?) fundraising – it is all to present work I think is of value to my community. In short I want people to come to see it and be engaged by it.

I don’t generally produce comedies or musicals. It’s not that I don’t like or respect this work. I do. It is important to have the release these shows provide. It’s just that I also think theatre has an important role in allowing us to look at our lives and what is happening in our community through a more critical lens. My company, Theatre Yes, produces very new contemporary works from Canada and around the world that investigate, in the most engaging ways possible, the complexities of living in the modern world. 

And at times it is tough to get audiences. 

Really tough. 

Theatre Yes is blessed to have the funds to pay for promotions and we invest in promoting our productions to approximately the degree Edmonton’s mid-sized theatres do. We produce - with professional quality - works that have been lauded around the world. We are covered and promoted by the local media. We play at spaces that are known to the public in areas of town that attract people to hip restaurants and bars. 

Theatre Yes’s work is also challenging and far from safe. We are currently running the Canadian Premiere of David Mamet’s RACE at Catalyst Theatre, which is in the heart of Old Strathcona. The play had a successful run on Broadway closing in 2010. We’ve had great reviews, terrific word of mouth, we’ve networked with community groups that have a special interest in the issues of the play, people tell us they have seen our promotions everywhere and are well aware of the show, and… we have had unspeakably small houses. 

Now, I’ve said we don’t make safe choices at Theatre Yes. It’s our mandate not to. And maybe that is the problem here. Perhaps our content is too challenging for Edmonton. But that doesn’t sit right with me. Surely Edmonton is worldly enough to embrace David Mamet. I’m pretty sure that Dexter, Breaking Bad and The Wire have healthy Canadian and Edmonton audiences and that is the essence challenging material. So why is this happening? 

David Mamet has long runs in New York where people flock to see his work. Are people in our city are not so interested in Mamet? Hard to believe when he’s a major force in contemporary theatre and surely one of the most famous, lauded and influential living playwrights. One would think there would be people interested in seeing the show just for that.

I have questions and few answers. Are theatre audiences in Edmonton simply reticent to try attending the work of a newer company? Why? Will this change with time? What is really keeping people away? What can be done to change this? And I gotta say don’t know the answers. I really don’t.

I choose to believe that my community is interested, does want to be engaged and will come to see our work if that can be convinced to give us a try. But how do we do that? How do we get theatre audiences to take a chance and try something new? Right now, I’ll be damned it I know. But I’m taking suggestions…

In the mean time, we’ll persist. I believe in serious theatre and I believe what it does. Theatre Yes will continue to produce adventurous new works from around the world that engage, challenge and provoke. We’ll continue to promote them the best way we know how. And in spite of the fact that the grail still eludes us, we will do what we have always done -- the best we can.

Heather Inglis
Artistic Director
Theatre Yes

We invite you to comment on this article.  And for more on the subject of theatre attendance, check out our latest e-newsletter, which includes an edition of Words, Words, Words in which Daniel MacIvor responds to a similar question.  While you're there, you can also click a couple of choices on our "Why go to Theatre?" survey on the e-newsletter's red sidebar.  If you don't already subscribe to it and would like to join our mailing list, just contact the CCTC Administrator at ileung@ualberta.ca and ask to be added.  You will receive the most recent CCTC e-newsletter when you do.

1 comment:

  1. The disembodied voice in "Field of Dreams" told us "If you build it, they will come." That disembodied voice never tried to produce theatre. But to speak specifically to a couple of points in Heather's blog I feel that we aren't doing enough to tell our potential audience what they're going to experience. I think sometimes we get caught up in trying to capture a market using the words dark, edgy and challenging. The reason that I haven't read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" is because it's challenging and I don't want to feel like an idiot for not understanding it. I think that we as a theatre culture have done a good job of convincing audiences that theatre isn't "elitist", but in the absence of that we have a tendency to keep telling them that it's "challenging". "Challenging" or "Thought-provoking" aren't phrases that you see in the TV Guide and in some ways I think we overuse themes and don't utilize plot to sell our work. Dexter is about a serial killer who kills serial killers. Breaking Bad is about a chemistry teacher who starts a drug lab to support his family. This in some way tells me what I am going to experience when I turn on the TV. Race is a courtroom drama about a white man accused of raping a black woman. I think consumers are more apt to look at that plot description and decide to whether they have a story like that in them at the end of a hard day and less apt to buy a ticket to something described as challenging.

    I also think as theatre professionals that we put too much stock in a name as a way of marketing our work be that the playwright or an actor. They may be household names to those of us in the business, but I don't think they carry the weight that we think they do. Hollywood marketed "Field of Dreams" on Kevin Kostner, not on the fact it was based on a novel from WP Kinsella.

    For anyone who has self produced, we all know that "If you build it, they will come" only worked in that movie. perhaps as we are thinking about marketing to audiences we need to keep a disembodied voice in the back of our heads that says "We've built it and when you come, this is the experience you're going to have."

    Trevor Rueger