Monday, January 16, 2012

Partners or Competitors? My Favorite Frenemies

A little more than a week ago, the Washington Post in an extraordinary effort by a daily newspaper, published a series of articles on the state of theater in Washington, DC. As part of that series, Nelson Pressley, a frequent contributor for the Post, wrote an interesting piece on the financial status of the community. In it, he notes that in terms of capacity, the Washington theater community has grown tremendously over the past decade, while government funding has decreased significantly and according to theaterWashington, the annual theater attendance has remained the same since 1988. Mr. Pressley also cites that each theater that has expanded reports significantly increased audiences, and several have recently set all-time sales records.

In the Twittersphere, this article raised the same question that NEA Chairman Landesman asked in his now famous "supply and demand" speech given at Arena Stage in January 2011. Is there enough demand to support the increase in supply? This isn't a new question. It is something I questioned in this blog in 2008, and it is something that arts administrators discuss at every conference I have ever attended.

Setting aside for the moment the data from theaterWashington, on a positive note, I've seen some extraordinary things in the DC theater community in the past few years. I'd heard that the city can only support one or two major hits at any given time, however in the late fall of 2010, several theaters reported exceptionally strong attendance numbers for multiple shows running at the same time, including Oklahoma! and every tongue confess at Arena Stage, Candide at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sunset Boulevard at Signature Theatre, and A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre. Well, there went that long held belief. When Arena Stage was considering a 13 week summer remount of Oklahoma!, I was told that the city could not support a long sit down production of a major musical in the summer as August was completely dead in these parts, and we couldn't succeed with Congress out of session and everyone heading to the beach. Surprise, surprise when not only Arena Stage experienced sold out houses at the height of the summer doldrums, but Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company did as well with their remount of Clybourne Park. As a community, I don't think there is anything we like better than being told we can't do something, and then proving that we can.

But to Nelson's point, we have a significant challenge ahead of us. In discussing his article on Twitter, playwright Stephen Spotswood asked me "how much do DC theater companies feel like they are in competition with each other?" Soon thereafter, Peter Marks, theater critic of the Washington Post, asked me to answer the question on the record. And this is my attempt...

Are DC theater companies in competition with each other?
Yes. In my opinion, to think otherwise would be naive. People have limited disposable income, especially during tough economic times. However, we are very lucky. Washington, DC is weathering the economic downturn better than any other city in the nation. Although we have had our challenges, we have a leg up on everywhere else, and perhaps this is why we have been able to expand during turbulent times. But in terms of how people are going to spend their leisure time, theaters are in competition with each other as much as they're in competition with movies, sports, other performing arts, museums, television, YouTube, video games, etc. To say that we aren't is simply untrue.

That being said, if I am in competition for discretionary spending dollars, I want it to be with another theater. Why? I can't get patrons to come to my theater if they don't see theater as an option in the first place. My primary responsibility as a theater marketer is to get people interested in the theater. To increase the stability of our community, we have to grow the base of theater patrons in our city. We don't have any other option, and to do that, we have to view ourselves as partners first and competitors second. If we focus on cannibalizing each other's audiences, it will be a losing battle. One theater may win one year, but inevitably it will lose the next. The only way everyone wins, including the city, is if we cultivate a growing audience for all of our theaters.

In responding to Stephen's question, I would also say that I tend to think that competition in the marketplace is good. When competition is stiff, it pushes everyone to do their best. To produce work of the highest quality. To provide the best customer service. To nurture the best local talent, and to present preeminent artists from around the globe. Please forgive the personal anecdote, but I know I have a more rewarding workout when there is a strong runner on the treadmill next to me. If there is no one by my side pushing the pace, I won't exert as much energy. I want to keep up. I want to compete. And because of our competitive spirit, DC audiences will get to experience the best efforts of all.

As I look into the new year, I resolve to elevate my gaze whenever possible from being exclusively on the theater where I work to the community as a whole. I hope that competition will improve us individually, and that working together will improve us as a whole.


Mark Shugoll said...

DC arts Board chairs may be a step ahead of your New Year's resolution. Several years ago, we created the Arts Chairs and Presidents Organization (Arts CAPO). This organization of Board leaders from the region meets several times a year to address common problems and work towards a common good.

As one of the founders of Arts CAPO, obviously I agree with you that we all benefit when the community collaborates. But I also agree that it is a competitive environment, and it's shortsighted to believe they we don't think of our own institutions first. When only 10-15% of residents attend theater, this is just a reality.

Steve Spotswood said...

Thanks so much for responding, Chad. I absolutely agree that healthy competition drives theatre companies to do better work, and that support and competition can coexist in the arts community.

I also share your desire for an arts environment where audiences are choosing between two theatres rather than between theatre and movies/TV/streaming Masterpiece Mystery on Netflix.

And I wonder how theatres (large regionals and small companies alike) can strike that balance between healthy competition and supporting each other and consequently the theatre community of DC.

In case I never say it in 140 characters, I'm very glad that Arena has such a responsive marketing person.

CDG Interactive said...

This was really interesting food for thought and we referenced it in a blog post we ran today, "Arts Organizations and Social Media: Collaborators or Competitors?"