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September 23, 2009

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Kris, I think this is a very important topic. To your friend Nate's point, I do hear a lot of criticism of commercial theatre in storefront circles. Having worked in commercial theatre myself, when I first moved to Chicago, I find these criticisms both justifiable and sadly misguided.

Justifiable, because commercial theatre rarely takes the artistic risks that storefront types live for. Misguided, because nonprofit theatre directors and managers usually haven't got the foggiest clue what it means to risk a serious chunk of one's own cash in an industry that is notoriously volatile and rarely financially successful.

That aside, you are exactly right that we need to focus on bringing people here for theatre. And while we might not be able to get Columbus groups into storefronts (yet), we certainly could do a lot better getting suburbanites into storefronts. We are not doing a good job expressing the value of our storefront theatre to potential patrons outside our insular circles. Perhaps that's because a storefront theatre actually can survive for a few years just within an insular circle. And we're sometimes too small to fail. One angel donor and a shoestring can bring the whole company back from the brink... I'm not sure that is a good thing. We don't have to justify our existence at the same level as the big regionals, or commercial theatre.

I'm getting off topic here. Sorry.

Scott Barsotti

I think part of the "elitism" Nate talks about stems from a lack of reciprocation in audience. There's a larger percentage of Strawdog's audience that will take a chance on Jersey Boys than the other way around. Part of this is no doubt due to the "disproportionate attention" Kris refers to, and we can talk about artistry and risk-taking all we want, but really what it comes down to is money.

It isn't commercial theatre itself that is the object of resentment per se (and certainly not the artists working in commercial theatre), the object of resentment is the perception by many in the general public that commercial theatre has money behind it, so it must be good; storefront theatre has little money behind it, so it must be not as good (or categorically less professional).

Commercial theatre isn't "the enemy" as Nate puts it, but it's a stretch to say we're the same community just because we're all making theatre. After all, you wouldn't claim that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Wilco are in the same community because they both produce music, nor would you say Starbucks and Dollop are in the same community because they both produce coffee. That's not to say one can't be part of both communities, but I think the reality is that the majority of people don't participate in both.

Brian Golden

This is an awesome post, Kris. Important topic and I agree with your take - what could be better?

I think anything that makes a potential audience member say or think "Chicago has great theatre" is ultimately good for storefront theatres. Anything that makes it more likely someone leaves their home for a live artistic event is good for storefront theatres. At Theatre Seven, I don't believe that New Leaf, Dog & Pony, Steppenwolf or even Broadway in Chicago are our competition. American Idol is our competition. Survivor: Punaqatutu is our competition.

As for Aaron's statement that "most nonprofit theatres and managers don't have the foggiest clue what it means to risk a serious amount of one's cash in this industry..." Well, I respect the view, but I think you're wrong, Aaron.

Economically speaking, every decision has an opportunity cost. Many of us in the theatre could have chosen to do other, more financially lucrative things with our lives - for most of the high quality arts managers I know personally, theatre isn't their only skill. By choosing it, they are, in fact, risking potential earnings, potential stability/wealth in an unstable industry. Most of us choosing to lead arts organizations for little or no pay understand risk, trust me.

Brian Golden
Artistic Director, Theatre Seven of Chicago

Matthew Reeder

I could not agree more with Kris's desire that Chicago be once-again known as its own destination for theatre. I am pretty dang tired of the "export to broadway" being the barometer by which Chicago success is measured. August: Osage County is a remarkable play, but it was no less remarkable when it was piling up audiences and accolades on its home turf. Where is the "Chicago on Broadway" term that should've accompanied its export to New York? And is a play like House's "The Sparrow" a less vital chapter in our local theatre history since it was not as commercially viable and did not move to Broadway?

Even though we may be essentially a part of the same world, I do think that commercial and storefront theatres are increasingly different entities. I believe that there is a growing misconception among the general public that storefront theatre is "theatre that hasn't made it yet." As Chicago points more and more of its collective attention into the giant renovated theatres and the big pre- or post-Broadway shows arrive at a quicker pace, and as those shows take up residency for longer periods of time, and get more coverage from the media, I feel that this misconception increases. The truth is, more than a few of us are "storefront" because that is where our aesthetic lies. Even though the smaller venues are ultimately more available and less expensive, most of Chicago's successful small theatres have learned to shape their entire unique aesthetic around the intimacy of those venues. Small theatres provide a collective, immediate experience that is truly unique; they provide perspectives and tell stories that could only exist in those places. Storefront is not better than Broadway In Chicago, it is just different, and decidedly so.

Commercial vs. Storefront isn't necessarily a battle of "art." I do believe that there is room for shows like Jersey Boys and Aunt Dan and Lemon to exist in the same city. I believe the real battle, like Scott pointed out, is with perception. I think the constant media blitz surrounding Broadway In Chicago seems to say (even if unintentionally so) that Chicago is finally getting the theatre it deserves, that this is what we've been waiting for. Broadway In Chicago has the resources to loudly proclaim that this is what theatre looks like. The proclamation seems pretty persuasive, and that is what concerns me.

Matthew Reeder
Artistic Director
BackStage Theatre Company

Don Hall

I'll have a response for Buddy Nate tomorrow over in my fridge box home.

Until then - yay. I like it when you post stuff, Kris. I think you (kind of) understand the AWG (although Colbert and his alter ego are polar opposites while the AWG is just a cartoonish magnification of the real me) so rock on.

Also - Aaron? Touting the act of "risk[ing] a serious chunk of one's own cash in an industry that is notoriously volatile and rarely financially successful" is like bragging that you once drank a whole bottle of Tobasco sauce without vomiting. I mean, it's impressive in a universally stupid way but are you really that proud of it?

Eric Ziegenhagen

It's possible to have a commercial storefront theater in Chicago in the same way that almost every single restaurant in Chicago is a commercial restaurant, and every bar is a commercial bar. None of them would be commercially successful if they were only open 35 days a year. Second City and iO are proof that an establishment that uses its resources every day of the year, from noon to 1 a.m., can succeed and have employees on a payroll. The Viaduct and Hugen Hall at Strawdog are steps in this direction.

With the right person in charge of programming and the right business model, a theater can host yoga classes in the morning. A theater can host events related to nutrition, spirituality, creativity, doing taxes, starting a business; whatever it is that people want to experience live instead of on a computer or in a book. Just as a church succeeds by the events outside of its Sunday services, a theater company can succeed by what it does outside of Thursday-Sunday nights, and it can actually make money.

One exciting side effect of the current scary unemployment rate in Chicago is that some of my friends are figuring out how to make a living from what they make and whay they love to do, since there is no easy job to fall back on. They're selling jewelry on Etsy, taking steps to get their songs placed in stores and movies, and in general doing things that they wouldn't have done if they hadn't put pressure on themselves to, essentially, bring their goods to the market and sell them. Doesn't mean selling having to sell lollipops when you grow eggplants.

It's worth exploring how a theater or theater company would operate in Chicago if not-for-profit status were not an option, as is the case with music clubs and restaurants and gyms? Would any of those models work?

Rob Kozlowski

My wife is an acupuncturist and I've often joked to her that we should start up Acupuncture Theater where she can treat patients by day and we can put up shows by night, and while I'm sure the business code headaches would be enormous (if not quite literally impossible) if this were put into practice, I'd have to ask: Well, why the hell not?

Dianna

But Rob, wouldn't those business code headaches be cured by some therapeutic acupuncture??

(Typing up a more intellegent response than my joke towards RobK)

Tony Adams

I think Eric's got a good point, though even not-for-profits with spaces should do a far better job of using their spaces the 80% of the time they are dark.

I think it's very problematic that Broadway-in-Chicago is able to brand itself as Chicago Theatre, not as one part of it.

The Trib's the most obvious example, but all local pubs play a part in the disproportionate attention they get. To my mind, all the papers covering the same show with "different angles" is really no different than every theatre doing the same show with "different takes"--(like the 70 different Scottish plays going on lately.)

Then again so do all local theatres by not speaking up as a group and doing a better job of making their presence better known. We've kinda of all forgot about the concept of strength in numbers, and just turned it into noise that cancels each other out. (The 30+ facebook event invitations I get a day not withstanding.)

Michael McCray

I am not an Artist Director. In fact, I'm probably a bit of a philistine by comparison. However, as a theatre patron I agree that the problem with storefront theatre is a problem with the audience's perception. Being outside of the inner circle, I think I represent a typical theatre-goer: the kind who enjoys theatre but doesn't necessarily know who the director is, or why my theatre friends are horrified by the thought that anyone doesn't know who Director X is.

However, I do know that if I spend my Friday night and $40 for balcony seats to a Broadway in Chicago show I am going to get a show (well, a "commercial" show). There will be big sets, professional actors, big-budget costumes, I can dress up and make a big night of it, and I can even buy the soundtrack on the way out. Unless I'm going to see 101 Dalmatians (really, Broadway in Chicago?), I'm not likely to walk out disappointed.

If I go to a storefront theatre instead, the perception is that I'm taking a risk. Sure, I may get in for only $20, but what do I get for that $20? One set. 15-20 audience members. Sometimes no costume changes. Sometimes no air conditioning. Sometimes a show that is wildly inaccessible to anyone outside of the theatre loop. And this thought: "Is this play here because it's too good for the mainstream hype, or because it's not good enough to make it someplace bigger?"

OF COURSE THAT IS ALMOST ALWAYS THE WRONG WAY TO LOOK AT THE SHOW! I recently saw a show with one set, no costume changes, and no air conditioning at a storefront theatre. The actors didn't even speak - it was narrated. I absolutely loved it. I would even see it again.

The point of my comment is that I think storefront theatre needs a makeover. It's got a great personality, but the general population doesn't want to be seen with it out in public. Sure, that's our fault, not its fault, but we need some help to see storefronts as a legitimate alternative. We need someone to tell us that you can dress up and make a night of it just like a bigger show. It needs to be in more places than insider blogs. It needs to be in the RedEye or in bus ads saying: "THIS is Chicago theatre. It's not like this because it's bad. It's not like this because it's unprofessional. It's like this because THIS is the way Chicago does theatre. Don't miss out!" Obviously, a better ad-writer could do wonders.

Is there any greater organization that links the storefronts? Maybe several theaters could advertise together in a Broadway in Chicago-esque "Check out the upcoming season" booklet and offer season passes good for six shows at various theaters that the customer picks. (Maybe this already happens...) Is that a viable option for the storefront scene? Though loathe to admit it, we non-theatre buff theatre-goers are mightily influenced by flashy advertising.

Andrew Hobgood

As another friend of Nate (and the one who brought him on to associate produce on our first season), I have actually had this conversation with him a few times. Mostly because my opinions have kept evolving ever since landing in Chicago seven years ago.

Personally, I have experienced "backlash" (maybe too harsh a term, but let's just settle for it) within the independent theater scene because my opinions are "too corporate." I've been told that organizing ourselves better and branding our scene as a way to solidify and attract audiences (perhaps even create a tourist market for ourselves) would result in the homogenization of Chicago's independent theater.

So even as a guy trying to help independent theaters get more audience, trying to help find other income avenues for independent theaters, and actually running a small not-for-profit that only produces world premieres - I've experienced what Nate refers to as "storefront elitism." Which isn't necessarily what it is - it's more of a "we do it this way in Chicago!"

If that sort of talk is directed at both big commercial productions and artistic directors of one-year-old, start-up companies, then it seems like this is a bigger issue than just the oversimplification that people think "Commercial is Bad! Small is Good!"

It seems that this rift is being fueled by both sides: small not-for-profits who have confidence issues and like to blame someone else, and big commercial productions who don't support the local scene that made it possible for them to find success in a culturally educated city such as ours. It most certainly isn't a one-way street.

I can guarantee you that even if the commercial scene was to suddenly start supporting a ton of the independent theater in Chicago, there are cynics who would attack those efforts. At the same time, how likely is it that a commercial producer coming to Chicago can name even five of the storefront theaters.

The truth is - too much of the storefront theater scene hates "business." It's corporate. It's the opposite of creative freedom. It's the death of art. That's a problem that infects our scene whether commercial theater is here or not.

Andrew Hobgood
Artistic Director
The New Colony

devilvet

What is commercial theatre? It one of those terms that we all throw around, and it seems that from a connotative state that we are all talking about the same thing. But as I read the comments here, I am filled with doubt that many of us are using the term to signify the same thing.

Is Commercial Theatre theatre that which is generated specifically to make financial profits regardless of premise, genre, or production value?

Is it merely productions that constantly sell out to packed houses even if the company itself is in a constant state of financial struggle due to the fact it pays a few folks to act as administrators?

Are we talking about an aesthetic choice? If it has "wide appeal"? If it's popular, is it commercial?

Are we merely talking about the difference between going 501c3 or not?

Is it that there is always a bigger fish in the sea and that often we attribute that bigger fish to be a more commercial fish?

Or are we merely talking about the sense/comfort an audience member gets when they walk in and sit down regardless of content?

For me, the idea that there is some sort of bias against "commercial" theatre is too complicated by the fact that if one does have a problem with it there are a plethora of points as to why. And those points are convoluted by the fact that many of us dont have a firm fixed idea (as a community) as to the boundaries of "Commerical Theatre".

How/Why is TMLMBGB any more or less commerical than say Xanadu the Musical?

Content/Venue/Intent... am I supposed to consider these things when defining a "commercial theatre"?

Andrew Hobgood

Bob - you are a huge fan of the Socratic method. And those are great questions.

Pair Bob's questions with Michael's comments, and the picture really does start to focus a little more.

Both "commercial" and "storefront" (or "independent" if we want to more appropriately include mid-to-large size locally-grown companies as well) are very broad concepts. Instead of being definitions - they've become stereotypes. Stereotypes are much easier to communicate - though detrimentally so - and often lead to an US vs THEM understanding.

Which seems to be what started this whole conversation in the first place.

twitter.com/travisbedard

Andrew: The streotypes also explicit raise the authenticity strawman. The idea that my mediocre show is somehow more Authentic than Dreamgirls at a 900 seater because I spent no money on it and you've not yet heard of any of my performers.

No matter what goes on in a big "commercial space" the punk rock kids on the mean streets assume that polish and precision mean no heart - mainly because it's not to their taste...

And we live in a post-taste America now that Don Hall has enjoyed Xanadu.

But how do we stop having this argument when so much of indie theatre identity is built into the underdog mentality, which requires an over dog...

Eric Ziegenhagen

I'm thinking of commercial not necessarily as for-profit, but following the models of The Hideout (which hosts difficult free jazz every Wednesday night and a dance party every Saturday night), Thai Spoon (which features unfamiliar dishes but also offers pad thai), and any gym in Chicago. All have full-time employees, making a living wage.

Dianna

...and don't forget that technically the Goodman is a 501c theatre....wrap your brain around that one people....

Matthew Reeder

Generally, I think of "commercial theatre" as a producing organization whose primary goal is filling a theatre to capacity and making as much money as possible during the run of a show. Technically, non-profits are "charitable organizations" who are supposed to be offering services to a community. The service we provide is the theoretical culture and theoretical outreach (ahem) programs that our organizations provide. Even though non-profits are allowed to grow as organizations and have productions that are successes, we are technically not allowed to "make a profit."

There is nothing wrong with either type of organization. In fact, employing a deeply corporate structure within a non-profit organization can be extraordinarily useful. A semi-corporate structure helps to solidify structural integrity, inspires donor confidence and looks very good to certain kinds of grantors. The corporate and non-profit mindset do not have to cancel each other out. They can be symbiotic and and deeply informative to one another.

But I think that Michael, the theatre patron, who posted above clearly defines the issue at hand. Broadway-In-Chicago have successfully (not wrongly or maliciously) branded themselves as worth the patrons time and money. I find it deeply troubling that a patron is more confident spending $85 on an imported jukebox musical than he is spending $20 on a local Chicago theatre experience. Sure, the BIC shows have a marketing edge and powerful endorsements by big media, but I think we need to acknowledge the deeper truth; that Chicago storefront theatre is failing to inspire confidence in itself or its potential patrons.

I don't think programming is the problem. Storefront theatre should not strive to be Broadway in Chicago, Jr. I think visibility is a key issue. Our voices have become hesitant, quiet and insulated. It's time to step outside of the industry comfort zones and start making a little noise.

Matthew Reeder
Artistic Director
BackStage Theatre Company

Dianna

During this argument of “Storefront vs. Commercial”, I posit this question, which I posed on my blog almost 2 years ago. (https://allthingsdianna.blogspot.com/2007/11/new-thought.html)

“So here's the question (and BE HONEST):
For the theatre folk, what was the show that "hooked" you? the one that made you stare up at the stage with your mouth open like a goon and the only thoughts going through your mind is "wowwwwww....."?

The show that hooked me? My high school's production of Anything Goes.

Whats my point?
Next time you talk about the lack of artistic merit in shows like Wicked or Jersey Boys, try to remember the steaming pile of shit you fell in love with when you were 10.”

And what’s my point in bringing it up?
I strongly doubt that the majority of theatre artists feel in love with theatre with a storefront production of “Waiting for Godot”, or the like. I would love to know what the show was for everyone

devilvet

I think that one problem is that regardless of how much cross over audience there is between BiC and smaller 501c3s, that most of us aren't content with how much crossover there actually is. We believe there are hypothetically two butts for every empty seat just waiting to get in, but dont know we are there.

Something I really wonder is if some of us (not all of us) are overestimating our appeal, and that leads to this 'elitism'...?

Whereas there is an obvious cross section of audience, are we sure it is as sizable as we think? If we think there are twice the number of folks out there who want to see our show but just dont know we are here (regardless if the numbers prove or disprove it) how does that interact with US vs THEM?

Eric Ziegenhagen

The people who give the Hungry Brain and the Hideout their business aren't the same ones going to the Aragon and the United Center. The folks who pay the wages of every kitchen employee on Devon Street aren't likely superfans of publicly held restaurants in River North. At the same time, the Hungry Brain and Tiffin are viable businesses with full-time employees, paid at least minium wage for each hour they work. They aren't the right model for a lot of theater companies, but thousands of people make a living in Chicago as a producer of or participant in temporary, perishible, sensory events in a few-hundred-square-foot space.

With other storefronts in Chicago, whether it's The Book Cellar or The Publican or the Empty Bottle, does the need to turn a profit in order to stay open motivate the proprietors not to dull their work or "sell out" but to maximize their talent and the quality of what they make, reach out to their neighborhood, and somehow get strangers in the door?

Scott Barsotti

“Oh, you contemptible denizens of the commercial theatre. You’re so narrow-minded, blind, lazy, and decadent. Your tastes are boring and artistically out of touch. Why don’t you branch out and make something that appeals to the intellect instead of merely the senses you inauthentic, money-grabbing pricks?”

“Oh, you contemptible denizens of the storefront theatre. You’re so bitter, snobby, entitled, and full of angst. Your tastes are alienating and obtuse. You’re clearly just jealous so why don’t you suck it up and admit that the work you do doesn’t interest the masses you irrelevant, pretentious cry-babies?”

Culture wars, anyone? Who wants to write a book about how the Chicago theatre is a unique battleground?

Scott Barsotti

Wait...obtuse isn't the right word. What did I mean? Abstruse? What word did I want? I've only been on Twitter a day and I'm already losing words.

Matthew Reeder

I don't think anyone in these comments is inciting culture wars ...

Most of the comments on this post are centered around an attempt to find a way to convince patrons and other storefront producers that "storefront theatre" (anyone else starting to hate this term?) is as viable an option for patronage as the BIC houses.

One does not have to come at the expense of the other and I don't think anyone in this thread is claiming otherwise.

Nick Keenan

Eric - I like the way you framed that last question. I think one of the things getting in our way as a community is that we seem to have a habit of violently categorizing each other... but when we focus on the actions we take to connect to an audience, we come up with some really creative ideas.

To go back to Kris' point - One of the reasons that the frame of "Chicago theater is just as good as off broadway" is so stunting to home-grown Chicago theatre is that it's not working towards make the connection of "Oh. Chicago's theater is a destination. Full stop." It's headed in the other direction. In a different world, the comparison would also be stunting to Off-Broadway, and in some cases it is. It keeps the audience thinking along the lines of "Oh, there's a spectrum of quality of theater. Cheap, local stuff is all bad, and then it gets better as you spend more money or get closer to NYC." What we should actually be encouraging our audiences to think about - and how I believe our press should frame these stories - is: What do I like? Who makes what I like? How I can I enjoy more of what I like, quickly and conveniently?

The competition here, if there is any at all, is about shrinking column inches, it's not about audience. And the fact that a battle over shrinking column inches is playing out over ever-expanding blogospace is increasingly interesting, no?

Tom Arvetis

Isn’t what’s really going on here a bit of whining that “commercial” theatres are taking away patrons that should know about the amazing work of “my” theatre but they don’t because those same stinking rich theatres are clogging up the media and distracting suburban middle-class Joes and Janes from recognizing how “my” play will change their lives?

But, then, isn’t the real question about what a particular audience values? How could Broadway in Chicago exist if they didn’t appeal to their audience’s desires, however base we care to judge those desires? I don’t patronize BiC because I don’t share their values. Personally, I’d rather go spend $20 on a storefront show than channel surf or play video games or bar hop. I happen to enjoy immersing myself in a good story. I’m not afraid of my world view being challenged. If I walk out of the theatre a changed man, how can that be a bad thing? But that’s just me.

If you think that same Soccer mom from Downers Grove who just loves Jersey Boys is going to just love The Skriker, think again. Getting people to your theatre is one thing. Getting them to come back is another. “Of course,” you say. “That my point. Once they come, they’re sure to love us.” But is it really that simple? I’ve got lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in and around Downers Grove who always happen to be busy when I’m putting on a show. But damn it if they don’t love me when I give them that BiC gift certificate at Christmas.

It’s about values, folks. Let’s not forget.

Tom Arvetis
Producing Artistic Director
Adventure Stage Chicago

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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