Yvonne Johnson reports audiences of "about 20" for Reading Stage performances at the Civic this season.
Is the local market saturated, or are people just not listening anymore?
The Civic has held a Reading Stage series for about five (?) years; ARt holds its production previews at Auntie's; both Lake City and Ignite! hold readers' theater events; and now Interplayers is about to open the second of its three readers' theater productions of this seasons (in lieu of one full production, and clearly meant to hold down costs).
Forgive Bobo if he's wrong, but with the exception (perhaps) of one of Ignite's events at Auntie's, none of these are particularly well attended.
They also aren't particularly well advertised. The Civic had a decent hook with its first season of shows: Come see the 20 best English-language plays (many of them with large casts, therefore less likely to be given full productions) -- high-quality scripts, lots of parts, therefore lots of friends and neighbors attending and lots to look at onstage. Season-long themes, it seems to me, matter less: If I decide to take time out of my schedule on a Sunday night (which I'd rather spend with my family) to see a given show, I don't much care if it's part of a 10-part series ... I won't be able to see more than a handful of them, anyway.
Possible solutions: cooperative marketing by several local theaters, to get the word out. A core repertory of the best local actors from which to draw most or at least the leading roles. (Let's face it, ya gotta be good -- If all we have to go on is your voice, then it had better be a pretty good voice.) Rotate the locations, from theater to theater. Make people comfortable; let 'em bring in a glass of wine. Don't direct statically: There's no rule that actors have to stay seated throughout. Do some blocking, use a prop or two -- I agree, don't overtax actors by having 16 rehearsals for one show, but also don't bore the audience. And reconsider showtimes -- something other than Sunday nights at the Civic, perhaps? Put readings in lobbies with comfy chairs; maybe provide scripts for those who want to read along (even at the risk that they won't be looking at actors every second).
And a commitment from local theatergoers and people who read this blog, at least in the next few months, to come out and see some readers' theater shows. There was a good, skeptical comment on this blog awhile back -- and thank you for it -- along the lines of, we SAY around here we want edgier stuff, so it gets tried out in readers' format, and nobody shows. If we want edgy shows to get a tryout, then show up at the reading stage productions and agitate for contemporary stuff during those seasons.
(And yes, Bobo is skirting self-interest here: He's directing a Reading Stage production of *Take Me Out* by Richard Greenberg at the Civic, with auditions on March 13 and performance on April 9. Sorry, ladies, it's an all-male cast. As if women around here were just dying to work with Bobo. Ha! Some folks around here -- they prefer anonymity -- are probably to boycott and throw brickbats at me and my show. What IS a brickbat, anyway?)
Kim Roberts would be best on the following: Didn't the Civic Main Stage production of *Inherit the Wind* more or less result from its having been tried out during that first Civic Reading Stage season? And aren't there others that also resulted in productions? My point is, by under-attending readers' theater, we may be about to lose as a theater community the opportunities to see live performances (in at least some form) of shows that actually take some chances.
IF we started attending edgier readers' shows, at least we'd have those experiences to remember -- and maybe get some of them scheduled downstairs at the Civic or at ARt. (Other venues, I understand, have to consider the bottom line exclusively -- I know, everybody does.)
Example: I like Neil LaBute a lot -- but then there are so many F-bombs in his plays. So he won't get done around here. But he's honest. I just read *Fat Pig* with anticipation and was disappointed. (It's his rumination on misogyny and anti-fat person prejudice; juvenile and predictable.) But "This Is How It Goes" is very do-able: cast of three, minimal set, funny and honest, but also disturbing -- sort of the Othello premise, with black guy married to white girl who's sort of attracted to the Iago-figure who also just happens to be her former boyfriend. On issues like race, misogyny, class and manipulation, it's quite good and insightful. Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet and (!) Ben Stiller in one production.)
And there's The Shape of Things and The Mercy Seat.
Another example: I just read and highly recommend Martin McDonagh's *The Pillowman,* in which the premise is that a writer of short stories (most of which deal with the torture and murder of little children, horrific stuff, not directly portrayed onstage) is being good cop/bad cop interrogated in an unnamed totalitarian state. Crackling dialogue (but full of profanity), takes unexpected turns, alternately hilarious and disturbing, great meditation of the responsibilities of the artist, society's responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens, free speech, and much to do with the Bush administration's proclivity for torturing bad guys. Kafka, Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard are all over it. But then they say "fuck" a lot in it, so I guess we'd better do The Sound of Music instead. (And I quite liked the last S of M (!!) show at the Opera House; those are delightful and even moving songs. And yet.)
What angers me is that the economics of local audiences prevent local artistic directors from scheduling a play like This Is How It Goes or The Pillowman, because of the f***ing profanity, which would horrify and discomfort the very people who would raise nary a peep about the violence.
Kill fictional people all you want, the sentiment seems to go -- we see that in prime time every night -- but don't make me uncomfortable in my theater seat by having real live actors 20 feet away from me utter the S and F and N and C words, because that violates my own sense of propriety. (We could probably do an entire alphabet of objectionable words. But violence? A couple of knife fights or drive-by shootings -- hey, that's America for ya.)
Sorry for the ramble. Take your pot shots. I want local theater to succeed. I also want it to attract younger audiences. Rodgers and Hammerstein appeal passionately to about 0.3% of the 18-to-29 crowd.
We have remember that we do handmade stuff in a machine-made world. Put a kid right there in the room with a truly convincing Leontes or Maggie or Bette, have him FEEL up close what acting is like, communally and in the same space, and he'll show up. He'll support arts subsidies. He'll urge his kids to do theater. He'll slow down to take a look at something other than the latest spectacular at the cineplex.