The “Production Values” Question

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Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Isaac Butler also has another very good post on the question of production values and what they mean — he does a nifty job of working up some definitions. In essence, his essay is an attempt to quantify quality — and ascribe quality to the only real method we have to quantify theater as an art form, certainly in the commercial marketplace, which is the ticket price.

He divides his discussion into five sections, leading off with “What are ticket buyers paying for?,” and relates a story about how All Wear Bowlers knocked him out but not enough to $120 a ticket. Well, of course not — that’s as it should be; he’s right about that. The problem with the ticket-price argument, however, is that everything is utterly relative: $120 to you or me might be out of range of what we can either afford or feel theater is intrinsically worth (let’s not even talk about opera prices), but to another person, it’s part of the cost of participating in the international cultural buffet and no skin off their nose. You cannot assume that this is a tiny percentage of the theatergoing public, by the way — or else Broadway would not have had a $929 million season last year at $100+ a ticket. Someone’s paying it, and more.

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Walk around the five boroughs and you see condominium construction wherever you go. You may, from time to time, think to yourself, Who is buying all this real estate?, and yet new land-development deals are still being signed all the time, even with the subprime market not yet cratering nationwide, and new construction in NYC is still being purchased by the public. There is a tremendous (and global) population of people for whom $120 is very little; these are the same people who will buy $300 jeans on Fifth Avenue, or pay $1,500 for a leather jacket or always pay for first-class on an airplane or will travel here from Europe to do their Christmas shopping because the dollar is so low. (This last example is NO joke — there are people staying in Ken’s hotel at this moment who are doing this, and they’re STILL saving money.) So-called “regular” people are astonished and upset and certainly artists are offended that Broadway — well, crappy Broadway — can get away with a $120 ticket price, but it gets away with it because people are willing to pay it, and they do.

This brings us to the intrinsic worth question — to the production values question, or at Isaac smartly puts it, lavishness. (He has a very good line, by the way: “What these rationales start to do is pervert the conversation away from art.”) A good example was Vanessa Redgrave last season in The Year of Magical Thinking. The set was one chair, a series of breakaway murals, a copy of Joan Didion’s book, and Miss Redgrave — and that play was charging, what, $90? No production values there, but I think part of the commerical-theater calculus was that Miss Redgrave was, in a sense, part of the production value. Stars sell shows. People want to pay to see stars. In the commercial theater, which is what Isaac is really writing about (except for correctly mentioning that Playwrights Horizons charging $65 a ticket is outragous), it’s about salesmanship — indeed, who is the star? what is the material? what is the brand? how is the piece executed? If any or all of those questions can be answered satisfactorily, $120 a ticket it is.

This is why, by the way, the producers’ going to the press during the stagehands strike and deliberating spreading lies about the average stagehand’s salary was so outrageous. Some of those people would sell their mothers to make a buck and probably already have.

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But the other thing Isaac talks about is how all this affects the cost of creating theater for the rest of us, and what is to become of the present situation — where does the ticket-cost spiral finally end?; where does the question of production values ultimately go? Sitting through Young Frankenstein, people are absolutely seeing their $120 (or $400) on stage, and that makes them happy because that’s why they came to see the show in the first place. This also has all to do with the branding of Broadway, with what ordinary human beings, not artists, consciously or subconsciously aim to get of their theatrical experience. Isaac’s question about production values could just as easily go to the topic of standing ovations — why does absolutely everything now get a standing ovation? The answer is because a ticket costs $120 — even if that amount of money means nothing to someone, they want to feel as if they’re witnessed something extraordinary, so they stand. It seems to me that $120 is more symptomatic of the commodization of high culture than anything else.

Here’s a long quote from Isaac’s post that I want to comment on a bit:

And then there’s the possibility that (at least in New York) we’re totally fucked, that it’s just too expensive to do work here and live here. That real estate is out of control, and people will always see your work as second, third or fourth rate when you do it on a lower level. That supply so overwhelms demand that to some extent there’s no point in your putting on a show, because only your friends will see it. Etc.

I use to laugh off these concerns, but having seen more theatre and talked to more people outside of New York, I actually think they are very much worth considering. It’s important to remember exactly how fast NYC has become a playground of the rich, and that we’re still feeling the effects of the Giuliani era in ways that we probably don’t even understand.

TO some extent, there is no business model for theatre that makes any sense whatsoever. Only one out of five Broadway shows even recoups. That’s less of a success rate than restaurants. Off-Broadway commercial theatre is very hard to make work, there are fewer houses, and the ratio of labor costs to ticket pricepoint doesn’t make much sense. Outside of the commercial world, we have a world of theatre whose very nature is admitting that as a business model it doesn’t make sense traditionally. We admit this by calling it non-profit. Below that we have the smaller, indie theatre companies and artists who face serious hurdles to growing and advancing. Most sources of non-out-of-pocket funding are eaten up by larger companies, and most sources of increased audiences are eaten up by all the other shows happening simultaneously.

Of course, theatre has rarely made sense as a business throughout time. As I’ve said many times on this blog, even the Athenians had government sponsorship for the arts (in the form of ticket price subsidies) and of course by Shakespeare’s time, heavy patronage helped make everything possible.

I think that the landscape of theatre here in NYC has gone through very very rapid change, and things are at a very chaotic point right now. And a lot of that chaos is reflected in business issues, like that the price of a show at Playwrights Horizons is $65, or the fact that a week’s exclusive rental at a cheap theatre is generally over a thousand dollars. I’m not even going to pretend to know how all of this is going to shake out, but I think it’s worth looking at the different aesthetic reactions to this business reality, and what their plusses or minusses are.

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First, I’m not sure the landscape of theatre in NYC has gone through a very rapid change, or any more evolution than usual. Yes, it used to be a lot cheaper to mount an Equity Showcase in NYC, but everything was a lot cheaper. The problem is wages have not kept up with inflation, and not only that real estate has spun out of control, but that Guiliani and especially Bloomberg have not devised any legislative cushion for artists (performing, visual, etc.) adversely affected by the city’s ongoing gentrification.

The question of whether people will always see OB and OOB work as “second, third or fourth rate” is about the successful branding of Broadway, which as a notion is about 100 years old. Isaac may forget — and, actually, I think a lot of people have forgotten — what happened right after 9/11: the League of American Theatres and Producers, together with the mayor, began a very loud, concerted campaign to encourage people to come back to the theatre, to return to Broadway. In other words, Broadway used its financial and political clout to make the case that nothing else exists in terms of the theater in New York City. You’d think that OB commercial producers might be angered by that, but most OB commercial producers have their fingers in the Broadway pie, anyway, so no, that didn’t happen, and the nonprofits were too terrified and economically messed up to do much about it anyway. OOB and some OB work is seen as lesser because other forces control the message, and they continue to control the message. The only way to reassert control over the message is to look at what must be done to brand such work more thoroughly and positively.

And why ask OB and OOB to compete with Broadway glitz, anyway?

NYC has always been the playground of the rich; the problem of one out of five shows recouping isn’t new. What’s interesting to me, though, is observing Isaac figure out what Zach Mannheimer figured out — that there’s too much theater in NYC; too much supply and not enough demand. And everybody’s so busy doing their thing that there’s no cohesiveness in the community and thus it is an uphill battle to address the branding question. Maybe Zach was right to leave for Iowa or wherever.