Since the Washington Post reported
on GALA Theater’s disappointing decision to postpone Mathew Paul Olmos’ new play i put the fear of méxico in ‘em much of the conversation among the New York theater kids (including Olmos’ own thoughtful response, and a post from NYTR blog editor Jody Christopherson) has centered on the whether GALA’s choice is the right one. The choice they faced, by all accounts, was between a new challenging play which was less likely to enjoy large ticket sales, and a more traditional, less challenging play that was more likely to enjoy large ticket sales. But there is a deeper, frankly much more troubling issue at play here. How did we reach the point where a new play, by a hot young writer, about one of the most controversial political topics in our country, can be a harder sell than a battle of the bands and a one woman show about grief that premiered in 1979? Why aren’t we, as theater companies, able to cross over and make plays be sexy and fun events that people actually want to go to? Maybe its because we do a poor job of discovering what the audiences want.
By divorcing itself from the free market, not-for-profit theater denies itself the greatest tool for discovering what people want that was ever created: the free market. Under a free market, products succeed and fail based on the desire people have for them and their willingness to pay for them. By distorting those outcomes through artificial mission based funding, theater cannot generate the raw data needed to climb out of its abyss of irrelevance. GALA’s unfortunate case exemplifies this perfectly. By every standard that dramaturgs and theater grad students hold dear, Olmos’ play is the better choice. So why on earth would it sell less tickets?
In a meeting I recently had with a marketing firm regarding my company’s theater show, one theme emerged over and over: who is your audience? This simple question explains exactly how theater has wound up in its current trap. Clearly, in this case, GALA’s audience is older, more established in their creature comforts, and more interested in ispirational shows that we artists might find less challenging. Many companies face this reality. The reason they face it is that their economic survival is tied to this more stayed demographic, whether it be through funders or subscribers. NFPs serve the interest of the people who pay the bills. Institutions such as GALA may have a role to play in today’s theater world, but it is not, and never will be, to reinvigorate the theater marketplace. Until that new market emerges, it matters little what shows go up when.