Erika Geller's 3/8/11 post at colabtheatre.blogspot.com, following up on the Boston Theatre Conference 2011, sets an compelling agenda makes several excellent points. One in particular, got Production Designer Jason Ries thinking... and twitching... and then his hand shot up so high, it pulled him right out of his bleacher seat.
Can we not dig too deeply into the sports-as-cultural-touchstone/business-model analogy? As one who's been a sports nut since well before even being aware that performing arts were "a thing" and who continues to be far more so than any other theatre person I know (ok, fine, I can say that, this personal assertion is FAR more challenged in Boston than anywhere else I've been before), I think there's one, major difference...
At it's core, sports has become the Mega-Dollar industry that it has almost solely because of… wait for it… GAMBLING. It's surely not just the competitive development of the participants, nor passion of the fan-base, nor uber-cool merchandising – theatre and dance arts can all compete with that. Or, at least we were in the same ballpark before the advent of the DH. It’s the ability to make and lose big money on the outcome of games (and, now, even more so, the results of individual performances as opposed to the tilts themselves) that eventually broke the seal and brought big money into sports and allowed it to become the media monolith that it is now.
Until the magic moment where some enterprising young "business man" drops the analogy of "Fantasy Theatre" into the field of live performing arts, I think it's a mistake to reference the Red Sox (but... it's still ok to mention the mystical beauty of the Packers, right? ;) in looking for ways to enthuse our fan base.
I think it's finally getting easier for theatre and dance to look at Film & TV, even with some similar componentry and labor pools and say, "that's cool, but it's not what this art form does... let's focus on highlighting and leveraging what's important about the live nature of what we do." What I'm talking about here is making sure we don't get too wrapped up in trying to find the "inland passageway" of what has worked for the sports industry and waste multiple decades before we get to the point where we can find ourselves saying the same there.
There is, no doubt, something we can learn in examining the sports marketing model. But one of the strengths of dance and theatre is to evolve dialogue from (forgive this word choice, but) "static" pieces - rather than rehashing dialogue about what might be different as we "wait `til next year." That modern dance piece hopes to have the same lifts on Friday and Saturday night, forgiving an unexpected slip. The curtain comes down on Willy Loman the same way the book ends, regardless of any "new edit." Yes, each night is different, but you'd win a killing "taking the over" in body count at the end of Hamlet each night. You know how it’s going to end.
No matter how lopsided or assured any given match up is, we (theoretically, at least) don't know the outcome of any sporting event until "the last tick." Capitalizing on that is what sports (and sports gambling) has cornered for maximum financial benefit and all the trappings of "die-hard" fan bases.
Yes. Sports are cool. And enviable in their success. We know that what live art does is different. And ALSO cool. And there’s no shame in any of that.
And I think that’s what we have to keep repeating in supporting each other in our efforts to adapt and survive. Don’t be ashamed of the fact that what we have is a different way to appeal to people. It's uneasy for us to talk about this as we get so worried about sounding elitist (or, "gasp!" Canadian!) because America does more openly embrace the beauty of quick, visceral expressions of raw emotion as opposed to engagement. That's ok, too. But here's the model. The “Got Milk” folks have figured out that what they have to sell is still crucial, even as energy drinks continue to be packed with vitamins and supplements and, maybe someday I guess, hot dogs and apple pie.
We just need to keep reminding people (ourselves, those people mostly) of the value of what we do. Sure. It would be easier if we could just turn on the lights, fire up the sausage carts outside the theatre, open the gates and let the people just flock in with their "Pina Bausch #1" foam fingers. But that’s not what we do. What we do is different. And different is ok.