The Perils of Playing It Safe
For a good chunk of my life, there's been a theater I've particularly cherished for its taste and daring, its embrace of the new, its fervent belief that playwriting and performance are vital to our conversation about the world. It's never been a wealthy operation, but that's part of its charm: that for years it's staged some of the best, smartest, funniest theater I've ever seen, and it's done that on a shoestring.
So when the e-mail announcing its upcoming season arrived a while ago, I opened it eagerly -- and discovered that, for the very first time, there's absolutely nothing this company is staging that I want to see. The season looked, of all things, boring to me.
That's because the artistic director, like many of his peers, is spooked by shrinking budgets and suddenly less-generous patrons. He's playing it safe, or so it would seem: choosing scripts whose track records -- on or off-Broadway, in the West End, regionally -- make them look like sure crowd-pleasers. But the crowd that fills his theater's seats has always been drawn by freshness and edge. What's tried and true elsewhere is probably not going to do the trick.
That sort of common sense may be going by the wayside right about now, as theaters struggle not to lose their foothold in an uncertain economic landscape. An actor friend put it this way in an e-mail, which he's given me permission to quote:
"'This economy' seems to be driving theatres in all sorts of crazy directions and it feels to me as if companies are blindly reacting without taking the time to examine what it is that people really want to see. There is this perceived wisdom that dumbing down or doing more familiar and safer material is the answer to shrinking audiences. I have yet to see the research to back this supposition."
I've never seen that research, either. But, as Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, told The Baltimore Sun's Mary Carole McCauley, the supposition does seem to be widespread. "Some companies have said that they are backing away from producing new work, or plays with a risky subject matter, or shows than an audience might not have heard of," Eyring said. "Instead, they're choosing plays that audiences have heard of before and that are more likely to be a sure bet."
Most likely, many of those plays are known in more than name only; these same audiences have already seen them. But is it true that, when money is tight, audiences would automatically prefer to shell out cash for something they've seen before (and, presumably, previously paid to see) than get an introduction to something new and exciting?
We don't read the same books over and over, however much we might like certain authors and genres. We don't watch the same movies again and again; Hollywood, for all its love of sequels and remakes, would die a swift death if it stopped releasing brand-new films. And while television shows might be variations on very few themes, our attention turns elsewhere when the only thing to watch is reruns.
Why, then, in a time of trouble, does theater reflexively retreat to the familiar? Yes, if you do Shakespeare or another long-dead playwright, paying for rights isn't an issue. Maybe you don't have to market as hard, either, when you have a known quantity -- but that applies only if your audience is more likely to leave the house for a known quantity. Plenty of faithful theatergoers don't fit that profile. Plenty of faithful theatergoers are looking for adventure, for a challenge, and trusting artistic directors of companies they know and love to offer them that.
Smaller casts, fewer performances, sparer sets, less luxurious costumes: All of these things make sense as cost-saving measures in less-than-flush times. All of them can be implemented without harming the theatrical experience. But new plays and the voices of unfamiliar playwrights are fresh oxygen to the theatrical bloodstream. Cut them off and we'll all start to feel faint.