Expanding... Pt 5: Regional Theatres

1. The Value of Unknown Writers

2. The New Musical Process

3. Why Broadway isn’t the Solution

4. The Soul of Musical Theatre

5. Regional Theatres

6. Streaming

5. Regional Theatres

Very few regional theatres around the country invest in new musicals. When they do, it’s usually a small workshop. Mainstage productions are expensive and risky. Writers from minority communities are affected disproportionately, of course, and it’s a shame because regional theatres have greater potential than Broadway for doing specific, subversive work.

I’ve asked a number of artistic directors at professional theatre companies, “What would it take for you to produce a musical that hasn’t been on Broadway yet?” Consistently, they say,

“Well, I have to sell tickets to my subscribers, and they’ll only show up for something with

-a recognizable title (adaptation)

-or a recognizable writer

-and a story they can relate to

Then I ask them, “Which Broadway shows do you wish you’d produced?” Without fail, they say,

  • Hamilton

  • Dear Evan Hansen

  • Hadestown

I’m not surprised. But they should be, because these three shows share

  • unknown titles

  • relatively unknown writers

  • premises these producers would have run from (historical rap, suicide, tragedy)

Sometimes they include a Disney show or a film adaptation in their list. I’ll get to that in a sec.

Some of these producers have no ambition of furthering the art form. They simply want to provide their community with entertainment, and their current business model is sustainable enough. These theatre companies typically appeal to

  • people over 60 who already love theatre

  • some of their kids, who are now taking their own kids

  • young people who love musical theatre and can convince their parents to spend a money to take them

To do this, they rely on

  • getting the rights to shows that have recently left Broadway/touring

  • producing older shows that people love (and more importantly, recognize)

  • paying their skilled employees minimum wage

They get away with this because Broadway has been releasing great shows for licensing, because there are (barely) enough people on the existing subscriber list, and because musical theatre training programs supply an endless number of great performers who can be employed for cheap until they level up to Broadway, the industry burns them out somewhere in their 30s, or both. I don’t think this model is expansive in demographics or ethical in labor practice, but I get it.

Some of these artistic directors, however, do have the ambition of developing a show before its Broadway run, for the experience, the street cred, and/or for the cut of the show’s future profits. They would love to become a Papermill, Goodspeed, or La Jolla. But they want to do it without risk, and the things that do actually minimize risk are counterintuitive. Sure, getting a Disney show or a great adaptation are things they’re willing to do, and they greatly minimize risk. But the Disney shows and adaptations are going to workshop at the places who have already taken the risks, gained the trust of their audiences with new shows, invested in diversity/equity/inclusion, and worked out their development processes.

I once suggested to an artistic director with grand development aspirations, “Y’all should do In the Heights.” He said, and I quote, “We don’t think we have the audience for that.” How are you going to workshop something great if you can’t take a risk on a show that already won the Tony Award. How can Disney trust you with their slowly-cementing commitment to diversity?

Maybe he’s right. His audience demographic skews incredibly conservative, and that’s the kind of crowd that may go see Little Mermaid the fourth time they program it within ten seasons. But maybe he’s missing out on an even bigger demographic that’s willing to work hard to see cutting-edge work. He’s gotten a taste of it, with some regional premieres and a workshop of a well-known adaptation, but it takes consistent risk and investment to develop the kind of reputation that commands attendance for new works.

If I held the reins of a regional theatre, I would be asking

  • What are the issues my community is facing?

  • Are some important discussions taboo or full of prejudice?

  • Is there a perspective from another culture that my audience doesn’t have exposure to, that would offer them enrichment and empathy?

  • Who doesn’t enjoy musicals, in my community, that would if they saw their identities, cultures, and artistic interests represented on my stage?

  • Are there private or corporate donors who would donate more than usual to help mitigate financial risk in this just cause?

  • Are there systems and technologies that will help us serve new communities we haven’t yet served in our theatre, or theatre in general?

Some might say, “I wish we could afford to serve audiences in this way. We’re barely surviving.” Or they say, “We’re here to entertain and make money, not to educate and represent.”

But subversive musicals responding to community issues and undertaking just causes, are the most effective ways to entertain and make money. People love to be simultaneously challenged and delighted. Leveling up to thriving requires risking survival itself.

And if you’re focused on only serving the people that have showed up so far, you’re not asking the question “Who else?” You’re only thinking demographically. You’re missing an entire income stream.

Next: Part 6

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