An ongoing list of overheard theater fallacies

I’m incredibly fortunate – I actually make money in the arts. As the administrator for a community theater and a published playwright, my paychecks are directly related to all things theater. It’s a wonderful thing.

It also lends me a particular perspective. I hear from all types, including eager young actors, cynical techs, disillusioned writers, egocentric directors – and you can pretty much switch adjectives and objects at will. And so when certain clichés start to take form, I have the advantage of placing them in a certain context. Thus, I present to you an ever-expanding compendium of theater fallacies. Have you said, or believed, any of these pearls of wisdom? I know I have.

“It’ll Sell Itself!”

Usage: We need a hit, so let’s produce ‘The Sound of Annie of Oz Grease Superstar.’ No worries – it’ll itself!
The Reality: No. It won’t.

There are certain staples out there that community theaters know – just know – will be successful. We learn this from experience. JCS always seems to bring the crowds, right? And hell, the grandparents alone will pay back the exorbitant royalties of Annie or Wizard of Oz – so bring on the moppets! But it don’t always work out that way. Sure, parents and grandparents will come see their precious little snowflakes, and rock musicals tend to bring out the curious non-theater types. But hoping the name alone will entice the crowds is a big mistake. After all, once a title is part of the zeitgeist, it’s probably been turned into a movie and produced into the ground by every theater in a 30 mile radius…so much of your target audience has been there, done that. Your particular production might be the greatest thing since that bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al,” but the name alone won’t be enough to entice the crowds.

And here’s the trickier part – the people choosing theatrical seasons are, by definition, “theater people.” They possess a certain taste and insight that much of our target audience does not. You and I can name the musical that won the Tony last year – can they? When it becomes available, we theatergeeks will jump all over it, but we’re not the ones buying tickets, we’re the ones auditioning and finagling our way into free seats. Things like “Tony and Pulitzer winning” look great in marketing blurbs, but they don’t translate into sales. And I won’t even get into the production itself, except to say word-of-mouth is a powerful tool…few things can kill a show like a cast who discourages friends & family from coming to see it.

So what DOES sell a show? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Hell, look on Broadway, where it’s all movie tie-ins and celebrities – even Disney can’t tell a hit from a flop until it’s way too late. On a local scale, the only thing that really seems to work is the unadulterated enthusiasm of the production crew itself. Seems that if the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.

“If the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.”

Usage: See above entry.
The Reality: Not so much.

I’m not saying it hurts. I’m just saying that no amount of cast loveydovey is going to promote a show. If said loveydovey translates into grassroots promotion – poster hanging, phone calls, impromptu street performances – it helps. But I’ve seen many shows that faltered despite the genuine enthusiasm of the cast & crew. Sometimes, the audience just doesn’t feel the love (in simpler terms, the show ain’t as good as the cast thinks it is). But often, I think those producing the show begin to assume their love is contagious, and will spill out into the atmosphere, enticing viewers like the smell of a bone entices Tex Avery dogs. It doesn’t. I’m thrilled for those in theater who have a wonderful experience – that’s what it’s all about. Now go hang some posters, willya?

“It’s all politics.”

Usage: You know why no one will produce my play and/or cast me? I don’t know the right people. It’s all politics.
The Reality: Yes, but not quite like you think.

Theater people are notoriously…unique. Think about what we do – we devote much of our lives to either pretending we are someone else or enabling others to pretend. At some level, we are constantly auditioning, showing someone our most vulnerable side so that they may judge us and decide our fate. Or, worse yet, we ARE the judges, watching person after person (often our friends, but not at that moment) parade their talents so that we can decide whether or not they fit into our “vision.” Our level of personal security is…oh, let’s say “skewed.”

Therefore, when things don’t go our way, it is very easy to blame the politics of theater. No one will produce my script because I don’t know the right people. They won’t cast me because I don’t have a chummy relationship with the director. And there might be some truth to the matter.

However, there’s an inherent surrender in comments like these. The truth is, theater – local or otherwise – is a small business, as the awesome Gary Garrison will tell you. If you don’t have connections, MAKE THEM. Lord knows I knew nobody in the playwriting biz when I started, and I can now count many amazing and successful writers among my friends…and those friendships have led to opportunities I never imagined. And really, all I did was send emails, go to productions whenever I could, and generally make an effort to connect with my fellow writers, to learn from them, to listen to them, and (especially?) to drink with them. I’ve had the luck and fortune to be able to travel, to take classes and seminars, to visit – granted, not everyone has that luxury. But isn’t that (along with odd abbreviations and kitty pics) what the internets are for?

And as for you actors & directors – yep. All things being equal, a director will choose someone they know & love over working with an unproven entity. Again, though – theater is a small, small world, and your rep, good or bad, will get around. Trust me. No one wants to work with people they…don’t want to work with, whether the gig is paid or volunteer. So how ‘bout your connections? Take a good, honest look at yourself and your history. Did you spend time complaining about the production to your fellow castmates, people who were actually having – or trying to have – a good time? Did you talk smack about your fellow actors to your friends, leaving said friends wondering what you’re saying about them to others? Were you obnoxious during auditions? A frequent absentee during rehearsals? (Let me tell ya, folks – if you must have a vice, make sure it ISN’T being the guy who calls in sick all the time.) Trouble-makers come in all shapes and sizes, and “insecurity” is no excuse…we’re ALL insecure, brother. When it comes down to it, them what duz the castin’ are going to choose the nice, supportive person over the talented painintheass every time. Politics? Not really. Just common sense. Being at the helm is a hugely daunting task – every move gets second-guessed, not least by yourself. Those of us who do it want to make things as stress-free as possible, and that means keeping the nasties at bay.

Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t back-scratchers out there, just like there are in every gig. And it doesn’t mean good actors & writers aren’t getting screwed out of great roles & shows because those in charge had their blinders on. But if they’d rather work with an old buddy over you, hey – it’s their loss. And probably a theatrical venture you’d rather not take. In the meantime, please remember that the best, most lasting connections start by being friendly and supportive, even (especially) behind backs.

More shattered illusions coming soon to a post near you…