Florida Stage is dead, long live Florida Stage

Once upon a time there was a company that was “the nation’s largest professional theatre dedicated to producing exclusively new and emerging American plays.”

I did not know him, Horatio. I’ve never been to Florida Stage but I liked everything I read about it and I liked knowing that it existed. The letter explaining their decision to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy that you’ll find on their homepage will make you very sad if you give even half a damn about theater and new work in the United States.

The passing of Florida Stage brought me today to a tangential but related thought and rant: What is it about new plays that are so scary? New movies are not scary. People have no problem seeing new movies. People love to see new movies. People love summer blockbusters. The release of new movies is awaited with breathless anticipation.

New movie: Black Swan. Everybody wanted to see it. Reasons:

  • Darren Aronofsky. Because Requiem for a Dream is hardcore and The Wrestler will bring you to angry tears and the dude’s got tricks under his belt as a filmmaker, so what’s he got in store this time? Aronofsky doing ballet? What’s THAT going to be like?
  • Natalie Portman. Either you like her as an actress, or you think she’s hot, or you’re curious to see if she can pull off something good this time around and live up to the hype. Also, you heard she trained for a year as a ballerina to do this role, and you definitely want to see how that pans out.
  • Social currency/street cred. You’re tired of everybody talking about Black Swan and you can’t join in, or people saying things like “Yeah and the part where she’s looking in the mirror and – oh wait, don’t listen, I don’t want to ruin it for you,” or people asking if you’ve seen it yet and you having to say “No.”

I don’t think the solution to creating the same kind of buzz for new theater is to try to transpose what works for new movies onto it. For Broadway it all makes a bit more sense, because it’s a theater industry with an audience of tourists who are looking to get exactly that social currency that’ll come from getting to tell their friends back home they saw a Spice Girl in Rent or Jude Law in Hamlet. But if you’re talking about a regional theater company, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think the solution to your audience development problems could be to bring in Philip Seymour Hoffman to direct, and George Clooney to star in, your world premiere this season.

The idea of social currency should be scaled down to fit the number of people who can reasonably see the show, and it should assume that those people are local (I’m assuming that’s the audience base we want to reach; it’s the most sustainable one). Your theater company is located in Pittsburgh. Do you care if everybody around the country’s asking “Have you seen the plays at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival yet?” No. You care if everybody in Pittsburgh is asking that.

And doesn’t it make more sense to cultivate local “celebrity”? Pittsburgh (since we’re on the topic) does some great theater stuff, but why are the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO constantly bringing in actors from New York City, rather than working with and cultivating the Pittsburgh talent base? Chicago, in contrast, is a rabidly local city when it comes to theater, and I know that a big part of the Steppenwolf subscriber base comes to see Steppenwolf shows because they want to see familiar Chicago-based ensemble faces embarking on a new challenge. Sounds like a more reasonable version of Aronofsky and Portman to me.

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2 thoughts on “Florida Stage is dead, long live Florida Stage

  1. Sounds to me like some thoughts from someone who should be living in Pittsburgh and doing something about the problem she has so eloquently outlined. Just sayin.

  2. Cory – so much of this talks about artists. And the relationship of movie to the artists involved.
    We (America) have a relationship with our movie artists (tabloids, etc.), we look forward to their new creation.

    What is it about theatre? Are we not able to cultivate enough of a following as artists? Do actors need to be more involved in the marketing, especially for new works? For movies, the actors do publicity tours. The director and writers do publicity tours. Do we need to learn from our film friends and explore that model. Maybe it starts months in advance, building excitement. Should a playwright video-blog their writing process? Should they include what hit the cutting room floor? Should they writer a trailer or teaser for the piece?

    How do we in the theatre garner more excitement for new work? In Hollywood they spend millions getting the name out, getting the word out about a new work. Maybe we need to do the same in theatre. Not spend more money, but more time promoting.

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