Why good theater should run longer than six weeks

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backstage-with-anthony-byrnesThe last two weeks, I’ve been writing about why the lack of extensions in Los Angeles’ intimate theater represents a profound deficit in our cultural infrastructure: why six weeks at 99 seats isn’t enough for our best shows to really create a buzz or a broader cultural impact (the challenges of Time and Scale); why geography conspires against us in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles (will word of a great show in Pasadena really make it all the way to the Westside?); and the irony that, while a successful extension certainly benefits the theater company that mounted it, a healthy ecosystem of extensions really benefits every theater in Los Angeles through nurturing a healthy, expanding, city-wide theater audience.

It’s this last point that’s maybe toughest to wrap our minds around. Sure, it’s great for that show to extend but what does it have to do with your show or your theater?

Why should you care about someone else’s extension?

Let’s imagine three different audience members (or segments): a current theatergoer, a lapsed theatergoer (folks who would go see theater but for some reason don’t), non-theatergoer (people who aren’t going and aren’t thinking of it).

For the current theatergoer an extension offers validation and opportunity. It’s like when your favorite restaurant becomes the new ‘in’ spot – you feel like a genius for discovering it first. Maybe you even toss in a “well, I’ve been going there for ages.” It’s like a pat on the back that says your taste in theater and commitment makes a difference. You were right. It is a good show and you saw it first. What’s that current theatergoer likely to do? See more theater. Seek out other extensions.  Find the next great show. LA theater wins.

Okay, how about the lapsed theatergoer? They aren’t seeing theater for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s the reputation of LA theater. I hear this one every week: “well, LA theater isn’t as good as — fill in the name of the city they moved from.” Or, maybe there’s just too much and they don’t know what to pick (“I’m so busy and I only want to go if it’s really good” or “God, how do you pick a show there are so many? I just binge watch Netflix instead.”). Or, the most costly to LA Theater: “I heard about a great show but . . . by the time I got around to buying tickets – it was already closed.”

An extension of a successful show goes a long way towards tackling these challenges.

Think about anything else in your life that you love but don’t do enough of: maybe it’s read a good book, or see a good film, or music, or food. You’re more likely to read that book if everyone is talking about it. If that new restaurant was only open on the weekends and disappeared after six weeks – you’d never make it there.  You’d probably never even know you missed it.

That’s the biggest obstacle to growing our audience: taking our best work out of the marketplace before it’s created a critical mass. We’re never going to reach the non-theatergoer until theater becomes something that people are talking about and there’s a way to join the conversation.

Obviously, all this talk of extensions is predicated on there being shows that are good enough to extend. It’s not just about playing more weeks, it’s about the right shows playing more weeks. Every year, a handful of those great shows exist in LA and we aren’t letting them grow the broader audience.

Next week, three different models for how extensions could work across LA theater.

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