Dear Mr Sondheim, You’re Wrong

I read in a recent interview given by Stephen Sondheim that he’s not sure at all that theatre, especially musical theatre, will survive too much longer. And while I may understand his concern, given the aging of theatre audiences amongst other challenges facing producing theatre companies, I think he’s wrong.

The primary thing that theatre does for us is tell our stories, even when we can’t. Sometimes even when we don’t know that we have a story to be told. We rely on theatre to shed light on things society doesn’t know how to start talking about, and we use theatre to share the exuberance of brilliant successes. We sing because the songs of theatre fill our hearts. We dance because the cadence of theatre makes our feet move. We cry and gasp, we laugh and thrill, we are who we are, all people in all times and all places, because of theatre. This will not go away, Mr Sondheim. It will not.

But even if the cycle of theatre right now is slipping  downward – and I’m not sure you’re completely right about that, either – it will just as quickly push back up again. For the past few weeks, I have been looking for work, (specifically in theatre, although I am also looking at any marketing position in a field that interests me, in case you’re hiring or know someone who is). I am astonished at how many jobs there are currently open in theatre  – astonished and pleased! And from talking with friends who are working in thatre around Canada & the US, I have a great sense of optimism about what is out there, what is possible.

When my previous job came to an end (…) I had a few days of thinking like Mr Sondheim – that the theatre world wasn’t getting it, there wasn’t any creativity left, that audiences were curling up & disappearing (mostly by dying, because the average age of most small theatre companies in rural or suburban areas is 60+).   And frankly, I believe most theatre companies have been doing a lousy job of reaching out to the younger audience that ensure theatres stay healthy and viable.

However, more and more, if too slowly, theatres are using social media in smart ways. They are finding exciting new opportunities for real interaction with their would-be audience before the patrons even show up at the door – sometimes before they even know about the door. Of course, getting people through the door isn’t just about creative marketing techniques – it’s also about creative programming. I just happen to believe that the two must go hand in hand. I don’t think that an Artistic Director for a theatre company should write the season’s programming in stone until s/he has talked with the Marketing Director.

How’s that for sacrilege?

How’s that for reality?

I worked for an AD once who decided to do a play that had no appeal to the company’s usual audience. No appeal whatsoever. The choice was made for the challenge it provided the AD as a director. I had no voice whatsoever in making the decision, which of course was ultimately the AD’s. But if I had had the chance to have some input, I would have said that this one-of was going to turn off a lot of the company’s current patrons, so we would have to work very hard to reach out beyond what were our geographical boundaries to the would-be audience for this show.  Was everyone prepared for that effort?

We were not, and I include me in this. What marketing we did was pretty much for the entire season and, except for this one play, it was upbeat & typical for the company fare. And without the social media and guerilla marketing now so cleverly, successfully used by some theatre companies, it was difficult to find that whole new, albeit very small audience, who loved this play (it was quite well done, by the way). What we did find was our usual audience walking out, very unhappy.

The decision to produce this play wasn’t wrong. What was wrong was in not acknowledging that it was something few of the usual patrons would choose to see it, but still being prepared to sell it properly to the current audience. And we were wrong to not be prepared to find the right audience. Clearly in hindsight (although I was aware at the time, just not brave enough to act on the awareness) the mistakes started when creative and marketing didn’t talk to each other as the season was being planned.

But let’s go back to the basic premise: how do we, as theatre professionals with differing perspectives and skill sets, find a way to reach a new & generally younger audience while not losing our current & generally older audience at the same time?

Being creative in programming is essential. It keeps directors happy, it keeps actors happy, it even keeps the tech people happy because they are also stretched beyond re-painting flats and re-hemming costumes from the 2007 season. And it encourages playwrights and composers to bring us new stories and new ways of telling them. It also means finding the best of our older stories and re-telling them in interesting new ways. The playwrights we know the best are the ones who have the stories worth telling again & again. A good producer will find a way to combine new with proven… and good marketing will find a way to make both (irresistibly) appealing to all audiences. Of course, you know that these are impossible goals to achieve 100% of the time. In fact, I don’t think they’re possible more than three-quarters of the time, and that’s in a sound economy. So we have cycles in theatre companies, when we’re riding high because everything we do is a smash and then we roll
over the top and at the bottom of the swing, nothing is succeeding and we just want to wave a white towel and say… no mas! no mas!

I think we have to accept that audiences want a certain kind of show. For small town and rural companies, that seems to be musicals (and often musical revues) and comedies, generally speaking by well-known writers and composers, sometimes with Broadway or Toronto records to fall back on for name recognition by the would-be audience. We can also produce shows that are ‘in the style of’ and see some good-sized audiences develop with those.

We also have to accept that would-be audiences, theatre patrons in waiting who might not even know they’re waiting for a chance, a reason, to come to enjoy live professional theatre, want something else. I believe they want to be challenged and entertained in equal part, and are willing to see combined new ideas and new methods of presentation.

Theatre is going through another period of evolution, Mr Sondheim. Not devolution and disappearance, but change and re-birth, a period that will produce opportunities for everyone who works for a theatre company – or is mad enough to start their own – to really become part of the creative team.

Because no play is an island, just as no brochure or website or blog or twitter feet alone is enough any more. We will all need each other to succeed… and I believe we will.


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