|Terry Teachout (image: Amazon.com)|
Friday, April 26, 2013
Opinion: The Collapse of the Theatre Season Subscription Model, Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013
Theatre's Expiring Subscription Mode
by Terry Teachout, April 26, 2013
[. . . .] [N]ot only are solo and small-cast plays increasingly taking the place of large-scale shows, but I've noticed in the past couple of years that many regional theaters are also opting for significantly less adventurous fare. More familiar comedies and recent Broadway hits, fewer challenging new shows and revivals of great plays of the past: That seems to be the direction in which American theater is moving.
But is it all about the recession? Not long ago I spoke to the artistic director of a well-regarded theater company somewhere in America that's feeling the pinch. No names: I'll call her Ms. X for the sake of convenience, though "she" may or may not be a woman. In addition to running the company, Ms. X is a stage director of high seriousness, one whose work I've praised in the past. Yet her company is inching away from the kind of programming that led me to start reviewing its shows in the first place. I didn't ask why—we were talking about something else—but Ms. X volunteered an explanation, and though I wasn't taking notes, this is more or less what she said to me:
"I'm in the ticket-selling business. If I don't sell tickets, we shut down. We used to do it by selling subscriptions. That gave us money up front, and it also made it easier for me to do serious work, because people were buying a five-show package, and they trusted me to give them a well-chosen, wide-ranging package each year. We'd do a comedy, a new play or two, a classical revival, maybe a couple of modern classics. August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, that kind of thing. Sometimes they didn't like all five. Maybe they never did. But they still went home feeling like they'd gotten a balanced diet, they'd done their duty to theater. And that used to matter to people. It really did. They thought that seeing good shows made you a better person.
"Then the subscription model fell apart, for a lot of reasons. Some subscribers got too busy, or too old, to commit in advance to five shows on specific dates. Some of them couldn't afford to buy all five in one pop anymore. And young people never have gotten in the habit of subscribing to anything. On demand, that's their motto. Anyway, it all added up to the same thing: We had to start selling individual shows instead of a package. When that happened, everything changed. Instead of trusting us to give them something good, people started playing it safe, and we had to play safe with them. We didn't have any choice. The last time I tried putting on a classical revival, our single-ticket sales dropped by nearly half. And we've had to start using name actors as often as we can. Doesn't matter what the show is: It's the star that sells, not the play.
"Look, I'm as serious as I ever was. And I don't waste money, either. I didn't pile up debt by building a big, fancy theater complex, which is what's gotten a whole lot of other regional companies in hot water. And I think we're still putting on good shows here—but more and more of them are middlebrow shows. Safe shows. And more than anything else, it's the collapse of the subscription model that's done it to us. It's as simple as that."
Is it? Or was the old-fashioned subscription model always a snare and a delusion, an easy-money honeypot that seduced growth-happy companies into losing sight of their artistic missions? While I'm sure that the answer varies from company to company, there seems little doubt that the model itself is going bust. According to the Theatre Communications Group, nationwide revenue from subscribers plunged 18% between 2007 and 2011.
What now? Modernize the subscription model? Or scrap it altogether and try something completely different? If I knew, I'd start a theater company. But I do know that if regional theater wants to save its soul, it'll have to find new ways to sell tickets. Otherwise, it's going to be "The Odd Couple" and "Clybourne Park" over and over again, forever.
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other Friday. He is the author of "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.