Cultural Infrastructure is Sexy!

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesIn Tuesday’s on-air commentary, I suggested that the slew of openings in Los Angeles theater this weekend were a symptom of some basic calendar math and a lack of cultural infrastructure.  My argument was that local theaters were not scheduling to maximize their audience and attention by spacing openings out and avoiding direct conflicts. And when that kind of spacing was impossible, like this weekend, they were not creating an event or critical mass around those collisions. They could be celebrating the abundance of openings and scheduling a sort of mini-festival with staggered curtain times that allowed an audience to see every show.

One of the key missing components to this kind of thoughtful scheduling is cultural infrastructure in the theater community. Let’s say you’re a producer or manager at one of these theaters and you want to plan six months out.  Who, or what, is keeping track of all the productions in rehearsal, opening, and planned for the current year?

The easy answer is no one, and that’s a problem that leads to L.A. theater’s splitting audience and attention.

What would this kind of infrastructure look like?  And, who would run it?

For the first question, we can look to New York for a model: the Theatrical Index. If you’ve never seen this publication (and if you’re not involved with the commercial theater you likely haven’t seen one lying around), it’s something of a gem. Basically, the Theatrical Index tracks every production that’s either on or headed to Broadway. You can log on (they have a free one-week trial) and see the box office grosses, creative staff, management staff, opening dates, closing dates, and projected opening dates for every Broadway show (and to a lesser extent off-Broadway and regional shows).  You can search by show, search by staff, the whole deal. A calendar shows who is throwing a gala when. In a single website, the entire commercial theater community can see what’s out there, what’s coming, and who’s doing what.

So why don’t we have something like this in Los Angeles?

You need look no further than those box office grosses. The Theatrical Index is tracking the commercial theater — shows that are grossing in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars every week. This is big business and there’s money to support the infrastructure. Los Angeles’ intimate theaters aren’t generating the ticket sales to warrant or support a for-profit website like this one.  People will pay for information about Broadway theaters — it’s hard to imagine this same business model working in Los Angeles.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t need this kind of infrastructure. In fact, something like it may be the very tool to help L.A. theater discover the kind of collective sensibility that could be one of the building blocks of a larger audience and impact.  Which leads us to the question of who could run a website or service like this in Los Angeles and how would we pay for it?

The mostly likely, though problematic, agency to take this up would be LA STAGE.  I say likely because as the service organization representing L.A. theater, this should fall under its umbrella.  I say problematic because, to be useful, that umbrella needs to cover virtually every theater in Los Angeles, not just the members of LA STAGE.

Which leads to the perennial challenge in L.A. theater: How do you even wrap your head around what or who it is?

Everyone knows that part of the challenge in L.A. is both geography and classification.  In New York, it’s easy.  You’ve got Broadway, off-Broadway, downtown, etc.:  taxonomy and geography almost go hand in hand. In Los Angeles, not only are our theaters spread across a vast land mass, we have none of these easy lines of demarcation. Just try to articulate what 99-seat theater even means (beyond a number of seats)?  The companies included under this plan/code/fiasco include everything from established companies to fledgling one-offs.  Aesthetically, it runs the gamut.

It’s not easy to say, “OK, here are the 10 theaters or 50 theaters that should be included” and by extension, which theaters shouldn’t be). More about that in the Footnote

This means that LA STAGE would need to open its arms to every theater in Los Angeles for a service like this to be valuable.  Or said more realistically (since I’m sure nothing would make them happier than to represent every theater in L.A.), LA STAGE would need to provide this service for every theater regardless of whether they were dues paying members of the service organization.  That’s a tricky proposition for an organization with limited funds that’s already stretched thin and with a sketchy technological track record.

Who else might have the vision and the means to support a Theatrical Index for Los Angeles?  Would the county and the city consider teaming up to build (or even better license from the Theatrical Index) this infrastructure?  It would certainly be in their best interest to help connect all these different theaters.  Or possibly a visionary funder who believed in the power of information?  Or a tech company with a philanthropic heart and deep pockets?

The challenge is, like all infrastructure, this isn’t sexy. You only notice your water main when it breaks or the water turns brown. It’s hard to sell someone on a service that, if it’s doing its job, is totally invisible to a theatergoer.

And, of course, I’m making the “Field of Dreams” error (You know, “Build it and they will come.”) In order for this infrastructure to be useful, the leaders of L.A.’s theaters would need to use it. They would need to think beyond their own production towards a vision of the whole city. It wouldn’t be enough for everyone’s shows to be listed, our artistic leaders would need to act on that information to curate seasons across theaters, to recognize larger themes, and encourage audiences to go to other theaters, to work together in deep and profound ways, to recognize that they are all responsible for cultivating a citywide theater audience. It would require real civic vision and commitment.

Wouldn’t that be an amazing step for Los Angeles theater?


Footnote: While it’s not easy for an agency to pick the 10 theaters, that doesn’t mean those 10 theaters couldn’t pick themselves. In fact, while this kind of infrastructure is challenging to imagine city-wide, there’s nothing stopping a group of 10 (or more) theaters from making this commitment to each other. What if your 10 favorite theaters decided to plan seasons together? What if they agreed to either avoid each other’s opening nights or when they collided to cross-market and schedule curtain times together (5 p.m. and 8 p.m. with a dinner break in between)?  Or even better what if they sold a six-play subscription between those 10 theaters (similar to the old PLAY7 idea)? Could those 10 theaters grow their collective audience by working together?