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September 23, 2009


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Scott Barsotti

Matthew, I was being semi-facetious. I was just making the point (somewhat agreeing with Andrew) that these arguments always start to sound like an US vs. THEM after a short while, which to me seems to have at least the outer flank of a culture war bubbling underneath, even if we set out not to go down that path.

Nick's point is well taken, that one of the biggest struggles for storefront theatre is to dispel any notion that a work's quality is reflected in its ticket price, production budget, or geography. But this is a mistake a lot of potential theatregoers make.

However, Tom's point about the soccer mom from Downers Grove is a good one too (can we call her "Sally the Soccer Mom?"). As much as I want to believe "once they come, they're sure to love us" we all know that simply isn't true.

This makes me think of my upcoming trip home to Pittsburgh next month. PPTCO's production of THE REVENANTS is my first production in my hometown. Some of my parents' friends whose idea of great theatre is Mamma Mia and who haven't seen me since I was a child may be shocked to find I'm writing violent plays with swearing. In their case, no matter how good the show comes off, they probably won't be rushing out to see more small theatre in Pittsburgh because Mamma Mia is more in line with what they want out of theatre.

Some audiences just can't be won no matter the quality of your art or the sheen of your advertising. Let us not forget there are plenty of people who wouldn't be caught dead at ANY theatre, no matter what's playing.


Wow. Sucks to work during the day and miss out on a great conversation.

To Brian Golden, whether it is rational or not, it is a MUCH harder decision to give up what you already have than to give up what you might get in the future.

But the risk that commercial theatre undertakes is also more existential than the risk that nonprofit theatre takes. Commercial theatre is capitalized show by show, not season by season. One poorly attended production is not just a problem that can be solved by another show in the season. One poorly attended production is your investment flying away like dandelion seeds on the breeze. Nonprofit theatres, even tiny storefront theatres with little to no subscriber base can frequently survive an unpopular production. Happens all the time! So that is the kind of risks commercial theatre takes. It is very risky, if not always artistically risky. We should be rooting for commercial theatre to succeed, because they are also David against Goliath (the Goliath being movies, TV, internet, etc).

It is often stupid to invest in theatre, as Don Hall says (and don't misunderstand, Don, I've never had the means nor the inclination to invest in commercial theatre--just worked there). And it is a little bit hard to feel bad for a guy I knew who sunk $750,000 into one of the worst musicals ever written. But at the same time, Bomb-itty of Errors was a great show, produced commercially, and didn't make a profit at the Royal George, nor in the UK later. The lead producer was a first-time theatre producer, an entrepreneur in love with the theatre, and he sort of got burned by his loss. But really, every working theatre artist should want that guy to succeed and make a profit. Because if he had, he would have invested again in more theatre.

We should be in community together, because storefront, regional, institutional nonprofit and commercial theatre all gain from eachother's success.


@devilvet: OF COURSE we overestimate our own appeal. We wouldn't do this otherwise.

Andrew, I think you have a point about artists disliking business--I've seen it, too. A lot. And I used to think of myself as an artist who hated business. Thankfully, I grew up. But that dislike is not just about feeling trapped by market discipline. I think nearly all artists want to reach their audiences, and that is market discipline. I really believe that we are carrying over some Victorian prejudices that look down on business as a less worthy endeavor, crude and unsophisticated.

Aaron Andersen
Treasurer/Board Member
BackStage Theatre Co.


Well, I've never been to Chicago but I am a girl, so per your Twitter request, I will weigh in!

I see shows at my local repertory theatre companies and the big Broadway touring productions but I may be fairly unique in that regard. I really don't know how much overlap there is between the two audiences. The audience for Broadway tours (mostly musicals) seems to be a little younger than the rep audience (mostly plays).

I do wish that in Chicago, as in other cities, there could be a lot more interaction between the two. I think it's a problem everywhere. They seem to operate in separate universes.

Sadly, for people who only go to a show once or twice a year, they often think bigger is better and they want the cachet of that "Broadway" show.

I've only been a regular theatergoer for the past few years but two of the best experiences I've had were August: Osage County on Broadway and Our Town off-Broadway. I honestly never realized that Chicago was such a great theater city. I go to New York for theater trips several times a year and I'd love to take one to Chicago.

So I think there's definitely some marketing opportunities in that regard. It would be great to see the next Our Town or August or Adding Machine in Chicago.


@ Dianna: a community theatre production of Camelot when I was 4 years old in Fayette, Ohio.


I think that there is a problem with theater maybe being viewed as an event and I don't think that many people would see a show like "Tupperware." People who might not know that much about theater in Chicago would go and see a show that is big or a show that they know more of.

For example, I go to college at DePaul and a lot of people only know of the shows that are advertised on public transit, if they ride it, shows with ads on top of cabs and shows that have ads in RedEye or are covered in RedEye. That does include some non-profits, but not that many. I think that a huge problem is that there might not be enough coverage, as you do say. Not all theater companies have large budgets for ads, so they can't exactly buy ads on the back of buses, like the Goodman can. I think that if there was coverage from RedEye of some storefront shows, more people might be aware of that show because not everyone reads the Reader or TOC. (no offense, Kris) (And I'm using RedEye as an example because there are a lot of people that do read it everyday because it's free and at a lot of street corners.)

And I do think that reviews should be encouraging people to see a show, not that it should transfer. However, that's what I think that reviews should be doing period.

That's really all I have to add.


As someone who sometimes encourages the animosity between the non-profits and the commercial shows, here is how I look at it.

Commercial theatre is theatre that exists with the intent to make money for those producing it. If the producers did not believe they had a product with the potential to turn a profit, they would not invest their money, and as such, the particular show would not be produced (by them).

Non-profit theatre is theatre that exists to produce good theatre. If the artistic director/management think a particular show has merit, they produce it. While they certainly want to the show to do well, and would not complain if the show turned a profit or broke even, they do not close the show if it loses money.

I always find it amusing that within Chicago non-profits there is this great animosity toward the large theatres, particularly the Goodman. I never hear someone complaining about Steppenwolf or Shakespeare being too big, despite their budgets being comparable to the Goodman's. Where is the "outrage" about Lyric, whose budget is bigger than anyone's? All of us are trying to do good work, and bring in an audience. Just because some are bigger doesn't mean they don't care any less, they just don't have to struggle as much for the basic things, such as ladders.

We all have our target audiences, and sometimes they change depending on the show. But non-profits rarely modify the show to better sell to their target. Commercial theatre does. Commercial theatre is also more likely to be either flash-and-dance (minimal substance), or substance with "big names" in the cast, either way looking just for the largest audience draw, not telling a story. Of course they want it to be good, because no-one wants to do, or see, a bad show But they can't take as much of a risk, because the only reason they have put money into do the show, is to get more money back.

Because non-profit does not need to recoup on every show, they can take risks on shows that that may be good, but not "mainstream" enough to be done by a commercial producer. But yet when a non-profit has a great production, it is usually overshadowed by the commercial theatres, with the bigger budgets for promotion, as well as audiences that will only go to what they see on TV. The problem with this "Broadway is Better" logic, or even the incredibly insulting "off-Broadway In Chicago," is that it would also mean that you can get a better burger at McDonalds than you could at the neighborhood bar, just because McDonalds is more well known.

What irks me is when commercial theatre brings in a show from out-of-town, and claims they are part of "Chicago theatre." It's not that there aren't commerical theatre producers in Chicago, and it's not that they aren't risking their money on their own shows. But those that run the touring houses bring in shows that have already played elsewhere, have proven that they are successful, and therefore have little risk. But yet they are claiming that they are just like the rest of us, as a marketing gimmick.

Our work was good when it was here, not because it left, and not because it comes back to make someone else money.


I think it might be useful to introduce the topic of compensation to this discussion...

A major benefit of commercial theater is that it (mostly) fairly compensates the artists involved. One of the most frustrating things about Chicago theater is that everyone - directors, writers, actors, and crew - is expected to work for free for far too long. The space rental is cheap, the resources of the company go into mounting shows, and everyone, after all, "gets exposure!" Making art for free can be a joyful thing, but it's a complex problem here in Chicago.

A side note: I'm not saying Chicago should have its own version of the AEA Showcase code, but my NY actor friends who get their Equity cards in their 20's get paid - and can still be employed by Off Off Broadway companies. Too many small companies here in Chicago find their own ensemble members unusable if they get work elsewhere and go Equity.

Eric Z.

It's worth pointing out that the only places where a play can have an extended run in Chicago are Profiles and venues like the Royal George, the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, and Gorilla Tango. One way to keep shows like Bug, August: Osage County, Our Town, and others is to have a producer who sees the value in an open run.

It sure worked for Blue Man Group and Too Much Light.


@Laura: I'm with you, but "fair" is, of course, subjective. When I was a working actor, I had the good fortune to get a temporary replacement role in a CAT V commercial production. It seemed like a lot of money, though now I wouldn't think so. But it was infinitely more than the zero I got paid to be an actor in nonprofit productions.

@Patrick: Laura shows the flipside to your argument. Since commercial theatre is trying to make a profit for its producers, the talent won't work for free. They actually have to PAY the talent more than minimum wage. Novel concept, no? Yes, of course the regionals pay AEA minimums. But the jobs at regionals are as scarce as (or scarcer than) the commercial jobs.

David Cerda

God, Nate, I hate that too!

rc helicopter

Impressive blog! -Arron

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

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