Is It Just Because It's Free?
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took our four-month-old baby to a park in the center of the University of Montana campus for an outdoor performance by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, a touring company that's been bringing professional theater to rural communities in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for 35 years now. The performance was attended by about 600 other locals, most of whom - like us - brought a picnic dinner and lawn chairs to make ourselves comfortable for the free performance.
As we sat waiting for the show to begin, a girl of about six years walked past, holding her mother's hand, and asked innocently, "Mom, what's Shakespeare about?"
The performance that night wasn't actually a Shakespeare play (the company typically tours with one play by Shakespeare and one by another author, performing the two in alternation). The night we attended, it was George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House," a play that probably few people in attendance had even heard of before last week.
Missoula is not, after all, a theater-rich town. While there's usually some production or another going on somewhere in town, the fact is that Missoula's only professional equity theater company, Montana Repertory Theatre, is a touring company that spends most of its time performing elsewhere. Most local theater is presented by non-professional community groups, university students, and one-off independent production companies.
As I strained to hear the actors that night in the park, shielding my eyes from the blazing sun as it fell toward the horizon, I wondered at the fact that the crowds for these two-nights-a-year performances show up at all. With so little in the way of a cultivated local audience for theater, and given the constraints of the performance space - the poor sound, the distracting sights and sounds that come from setting up in the middle of a college campus in session, and so-on - it surprises me that these performances would draw so many people out on a weeknight in the middle of summer.
My thoughts wandered to the Missoula Symphony Orchestra's August 12 performance in Caras Park, a riverside expanse that plays host to brewfests and other events practically every weekend day during the Missoula summer. Despite a heavy blanket of smoke laid over the city that night from area wildfires, a couple thousand people showed up with their picnics and lawn chairs to listen to the orchestra play a program of light, "pops" fare.
The free concert by the orchestra has been a tradition for three years now, and each time it happens, between 1,500 and 3,000 people show up. That's considerably more people than typically show up during the orchestra's regular subscription season, even if you count both concerts in the orchestra's Saturday/Sunday paired performances.
All this has got me wondering: Why do so many people come to those outdoor events but skip the indoor ones during the rest of the year? Is it the free admission, the relaxed social codes, the repertoire, or what?
I've seen others address this question from various angles. Over at Adaptistration, Drew McManus has delved into the question, several times, of whether these free concerts really help orchestras build audience.
Terry Teachout admits having a soft place in his heart for free performances, but hasn't (as far as I've seen) gotten into why - or why he thinks others share that love.
But none of this really addresses why free outdoor concerts are such consistent hits in the first place - often far moreso than the bread-and-butter core programming of theater companies and orchestras around the country. Why would people endure bad sight-lines, lousy sound, audience noise, and all of that for an outdoor show, yet never set foot inside a concert hall? Some make the crossover, sure. But judging from the vast difference in audience numbers, one must assume that plenty never make that leap of faith.
I have my off-the-cuff theories about this, but I'm wondering first what others think.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
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American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
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New Music Box: American Music Center
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