The first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one: independent theatre is not sustainable.
I promise the rest of this piece will be more positive and solutions-based, but only after one more hard truth; the general public is ambivalent, at best, to what we do.
They shouldn’t be. We all know that. The question, then, shouldn’t be “why don’t they come?” but “how can we show them that they should?”
The next time you talk to a non-theatre friend (and God, I hope you have some), try convincing them to sit in the dark for two hours without looking at their phone or talking to any of their friends.
This is the first hurdle we need to face.
We need to give the general public audience a reason to come. We need to show them that these intrinsically palpable pieces of entertainment and art we create can, and will, affect them in a million different ways.
One of the main issues I have seen and experienced when it comes to independent productions is a lack of effective marketing. There can often be a misunderstanding of – or unfortunately, a complete disregard for – actual marketing strategies from independent companies and producers, leading to a last-minute dash, or in a worst case scenario, a completely unprofessional looking production.
This doesn’t have to be the case.
Yes, most of us are but humble actors, very few of us have marketing degrees, and most of us have no idea what the fuck we are doing at any given moment. There is one thing we do all have in common though; we are all consumers.
We have all scrolled through our Instagram stories for way too long. We have all closed the Facebook app only to reopen it seconds later. This is now how we consume information, and only the rare clip or post can retain our attention for long enough for us to actually absorb its message.
As well as the traditional methods – cast announcements, publicity images, media releases – we need to start connecting the content of our shows to the rest of the world to stir up curiosity. Otherwise, we simply won’t stand out from the barrage of information and entertainment that gets absorbed on a minute-by-minute basis.
While this somewhat falls into the hands of those responsible for programming, I promise you that there is enough content out there in the world for us to find the perfect example of something to affiliate with any given show.
Some shows sell themselves, but for every Angels In America and American Psycho (side note: shows with a shirtless Ben Gerrard sell themselves …) there are countless others involving an equal level of talent and hard work that obviously deserve to be seen, and it’s our collective role as creatives and producers to explore every possible avenue to make this happen.
My favourite recent example of this kind of thinking-outside-the-unfunded-box approach was in the lead up to Alex Berlage’s amazing production of Christopher Bryant’s Home Invasion at the Old 505 Theatre in 2018.
As well as incredible imagery from Robert Catto, and all of the usual methods mentioned above, there were posts every day of failed American Idol auditions posted straight from YouTube.
The producers obviously – and wisely – didn’t pay a cent for that content, and it was the perfect way to stop people scrolling through their feed. I understand not all productions contain such a convenient opportunity to tie-in with what was once a cultural phenomenon with the themes of their show, but once you find the connection, the content is there.
This shouldn’t all fall on producers’ shoulders either.
Actors, designers, writers – if you have an idea of how your production can connect to the “real” world, make the suggestion. Producers have enough to do as they juggle everything with two hands tied behind their back, and it may just take someone with an outside eye and ear to the ground to make a connection they simply haven’t had the brain space to make. It can only benefit the production as a whole.
I haven’t mentioned a lack of funding as a reason for this not currently being a sustainable industry. That’s because I’m over it as an excuse. There are some amazing people doing amazing things to try and make it happen, but guess what? We don’t have it right now, so we need to quit complaining and work smarter, not harder. We need to stop saying “why?” and start saying “how?”
We may not have the budget, but we do have the imagination. We’re only sitting at the kid’s table because we keep putting ourselves there.
Ayad Akhtar wrote in his incredible 2017 piece for The New York Times:
“The theatre is an art form scaled to the human, and stubbornly so, relying on the absolute necessity of physical audience, a large part of why theatre is so difficult to monetise. It only happens when and where it happens. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. It doesn’t exist to be paused or pulled out at the consumer’s whim. It can’t be copied and sold. In a world increasingly lost to virtuality and unreality – the theatre points to an antidote.”
The only footnote I would add to Akhtar’s piece though, is that we need to get down in the virtual trenches and embrace the exact technology we are combating in order to be noticed, and better yet, to survive.
We have a fucking great product. We just need to learn how to sell it.