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27 Spotlight Right: The Rise of the Mini Run

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Rise of the Mini Run

There are some very good reasons why the three week minimum run is the dominant form of new play production in New York.  The costs, both in money and time, associated with traditional theater production demand a sufficient number of shows to be even partially recouped.  Theater critics, believed to be so key to the success of a show, see little point in reviewing one that will be closed by the time they file their criticism.  Even theater audiences, view a solid run, as having a greater weight, or seriousness than the more haphazardly scheduled plays which you might find in a Fringe Festival, or a NYMF.  However, as the economic realities and audience indifference of recent years make the rental of a theater for a month increasingly difficult, it is encouraging to see so many companies in NYC embracing the concept of the mini run.

The biggest advantage of the mini run, is fairly obvious, by limiting shows to 1-8 performances over a short period time companies slash the cost of theater rental.  While it is true they have less total shows, or chances to recoup, each of those chances has a much better rate of success.  Not only does the  company condense its houses, instead of spreading their audience over multiple nights, they also better target their performances, so they avoid those Tuesday and Wednesday night shows that make small theater producers pull out their hair.  Often, spaces that offer limited runs, have more than one show programmed per night, further reducing the cost of space.

A quick look at TCG’s theater facts from 2000 and from 2010 tells the story pretty neatly.  In 2000, 21 million theater tickets were sold by TCG non profit theaters, in 2010 31 million were sold, a slightly higher rate of growth than US population, that’s the good, or at least, not so bad news.  If you look a little deeper though, you see that in 2000 those 21 million people attended about 66,000 performances, by 2010, the 31 million attended over 160,000 performances, more than double.  That means that in 2000 the average performance was attended by 317 people, while in 2010 the average performance was attended by 190.  This is why in the past few years there have been so many calls to winnow the field, to encourage contributors to give more money to less companies.  This is quite a defeatist attitude, and frankly a bit selfish on the part of those companies who feel entitled to the greatest share of the funding. 

Instead of working towards less theater, we should be working towards better targeted theater.  Of those 160,000 performances in 2010, how many were throw away nights with tiny audiences?  How many shows had strong opening and closing weekends, and floundered in the middle by biting off more venue time than they could chew?  These superfluous dates in the traditional three week or more run are a horrible waste of theater’s resources.  Not only is the artistic effort on these dates wasted, but the time and energy spent finding the money for these dead shows keeps companies from operating efficiently.

We can point to several recent examples in NYC that use the mini run to great effect.  Last month, both Larry Kunofsky and Eric Meyer had plays produced in mini run form, and both “the myths we need…or How to Begin” and “The Scavengers” were fully realized, complex works of theater, efficiently created by talented artists.  Another take is the series, The Neo Futurists “too much light makes the baby go blind”, is a different show every night, as is “Serials”, the successful late night show at the Flea theater and Dysfunctional Theater Company’s “Unlicensed” at Under St Marks .  In my own experience, Sticky which my company produces rarely offers any one play on more than one night.  Even beyond NYC producers are taking advantage of the mini run, In Vermont next weekend three short plays by Dennis Moritz will have four performances, bringing more theater to a rural area, without risking any tumbleweeds blowing through the house. 

For the mini run to take the next step in cultivating new audience for theater, it must cease to be thought of as a rung on a theater company ladder.  Most playwrights I know abhor the term “emerging”, because nobody knows what in the world it means.  At any given point in an artistic process, they are simply playwrights regardless of their depth in the river of obscurity they are emerging from.  The same must be true for mini runs.  The idea of the mini run as try out, has a long history, based in fringe and other festivals, we all the know the stories of shows exploding out of the Fringe or Under the Radar into bigger, better houses.  But those stories are the rare exception.  Producers have to realize that in reaching for that tiny sliver of pie, they have been building a new form, a new method of making and selling theater all its own.  These new forms constitute a New Theater, a faster, cheaper theater that can address things that happened yesterday, as the Civilians have been doing with their Occupy shows.  For the foreseeable future, mini runs will have a strong role to play on our stages, its time to find out what they are really capable of. 


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