Don't Create Good Theater. Create GREAT Theater.
Greg Allen of The Neo-Futurists wrote an exhaustive list of 26 Rules for Creating Good Theater. I rediscovered this list after several years, and want to take a look line by line at these rules, how they apply to the world at large, and how I either apply it to my work or want to apply to my work.
Rule #1: Don’t create good theater. You must intend to create GREAT theater. We don’t need any more perfectly good productions of perfectly good scripts. You are setting out to do something great or it’s not worth doing.
One of theatre's issues with drawing audiences isn't just that productions are bad. It's also that most of the productions that are good are merely good.
Many small Seattle fringe theatres produce consistently good shows. They're often entertaining. There are a few clunkers. Consistently the work is solid. Now and then I saw a show that was pretty good. Over time, I attended fewer shows: No matter how the casts and material changed, I always felt like I was watching just another two act play. Add in the slowly increasing ticket prices, yet for the same product year over year, and that was enough incentive to just stop. Even now, asking me to sit through a two act play is like asking me to voluntarily sit through a court hearing. You've got a hard sell, and you haven't even told me who's doing the show and what it's about.
I also must note that the audiences never substantially grew. It was always the same people, the same peers and the same small subset of loyal theatregoers, at these small fringe shows. They never managed to substantially grow their audience. They constantly solicited us for attendance and donations, because we were all they had. They couldn't grow their audience.
This never minds the larger LORT theatres (ACT, Seattle Rep, 5th Avenue), who were so disconnected from working class reality that their gradual decline in cultural relevance is a whole other matter in itself.
Theatre, like any performing arts medium, relies on its drawing power to stay relevant to its culture. A good show isn't going to inspire people to come back or encourage others to see the show. A great show will get people talking, get people thinking, sometimes even change people.
Theatre diehards and loyalists might talk up a merely good show, but then again many theatre nerds will talk up and promote an otherwise ordinary and unmemorable show merely because their friends are in it. That doesn't mean the show is relevant to anyone else's interests.
This may be fine if the only audience you care for reaching is your interested friends, family and peers. However, especially if you're soliciting donations and grant money, your work needs to operate on a higher level to reach a wider, more ubiquitous audience. And if you're investing substantial resources and time into producing a show, the show should be something more than merely a good show that will almost certainly be forgotten as soon as it's over, and more so by your audience as soon as the weekend is out.
Scott Walters once said, "if you want to be an artist, to play with the powerful tool of the theatre, then you damn well better have something interesting to say." I don't think the issue is social justice or cultural commentary, but a matter of challenging yourself through the process of your artistic production, rather than producing standard work the same old way and incidentally hoping the material indicates something interesting. It's the difference between paint by numbers theatre production, and a theatrical product of identity and the imagination.
I am sometimes told I have high expectations for my scripted or choreographed work. 1) No shit. 2) A statement like that indicates you evidently don't have high expectations for yours. 3) I want to challenge myself. I want to make something I find inspiring, let alone work others find inspiring. If it's like other people's work, why should I bother making it. 4) To humor that point is to let you hold me back from growing beyond everyone's expectations of me, which I don't consider all that great to begin with.
To me, living down to expectations in making performance art is the artistic equivalent of settling down, marrying, buying a house, getting a dog and having 2.3 kids not because that's what you truly want out of life but because you think you're supposed to do those things, and not doing them makes you a failure to your family and peers. I'm not ready for the mortgage and the kids, and maybe I'll never be.
I expect to make and have made some failures in my performance art. I expect to make a lot more before they put my corpse in the ground. You're not going to make great work without taking the risk of making some inspired clunkers. Better than the clunkers be inspired clunkers than missable paint by numbers bullshit.
Good theatre is about living up to people's expectations. Great theatre challenges their expectations, and risks turning off some people to inspire and blow the minds of others. (Nor does it seek to shock or disgust people, since that approach too seeks to emotionally pander rather than inspire.)
I see why theatres pander: Their donor base grows toward a specific taste and expects the company to meet those expectations. The company grows accordingly and needs their money to continue enabling their existence. This along with a company's comfort zones combines to form a formidable slow-death of a trap. They are forever at the mercy of demands for familiar mediocrity.
When your work panders to a given audience, your fate hinges on whether or not you're pleasing them. If your approach speaks to a broader audience, bound not by niches and their expectations, your financial and audience eggs are never in one specific basket. You don't have to worry about whether or not your show's going to piss off your donor or ticket base, with a wide donor base that knows you for your challenging innovation (rather than a particular product). You may lose a few people if a particular show turns them off, and even that's less likely if they know you for pushing boundaries rather than a particular brand or product. Meanwhile, the LORT company that significantly deviates from their usual lesson plan could lose a significant portion of their revenue.
Don't settle for your comfort zone and then complain that theatre is dying, unless you want to look like a fool. Theatre from a self indulgent comfort zone, or fear of retaliatory funding loss, pollutes the world you live in as much as the other theatre groups producing and charging money for ordinary, mediocre and/or crappy work.
It's also not a matter of spending more money, hiring better actors, or anything regarding the quality. Big theatres utilize beautiful sets and top actors, and their productions still bore the crap out of the casual audience. It's about bringing something new to the table, taking the risk that a new or divergent idea might not work for the chance that it will blow people's minds.