Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mercedes’ Rule


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Jonathan Reuning.

I was walking my small white dog the other morning and noticed a guy getting out of a Smart Car with his 90 pound Pit Bull and I had to ask him how the ride was in such a tiny car. The first thing out of his mouth was, “well, you know, Mercedes makes these.” Enough said, I thought, but then he added that he observed that the suspension handled the pot holes sometimes better than the larger cars he’s owned.

Wow, so, Mercedes Benz builds the Smart Car - those half sized city cars that fit two to a parking space – and now not only do I think they are more aptly named than ever but I’m left contemplating how reputation transcends size and how this ties into the topic of OOB and the Recession, which, if you’re just tuning in, is my guest topic.

In Tim Errikson’s previous blog, Size, level, and the meaning of life, he made a great point (among many) about fruitless attempts to pigeon-hole Indie/OOB companies with characteristics like “modest’ or “young” or ‘developing” or , let’s face it, “less than”. His point (sorry for the paraphrase, Tim) was that the only true thing one can generalize about us is we work in smaller venues. Colors and models may vary.

You can see this exemplified in the responses to my previous post, Ford Tough.

Daniel said he built his company and artistic goals to work in harmony with his space (The backroom at Jimmy’s No. 43) – even engineered original plays specifically for the site - allowing Rising Phoenix Rep to be, here it comes… a Smart Car.

On the other hand, Heather’s vision for Retro Productions is more traditional requiring period design, sets and costumes (and you know why she is a visionary when you see one of her shows, the design elements make you remember how much you appreciate theater as a collaborative art. See her previous blogs, Doing the Research and Gifts from the Prop Gods) HOWEVER, this Mercedes E350 sedan is bigger. It requires more a expensive parking space that costs a ridiculous amount of her budget (60%!). Should she switch to a crossover vehicle, a hybrid, or stay true to the vehicle she loves?



  1. Ha! Jon, I know there are TONS of people who think I should switch, but I'm stubborn as hell and I can't help myself! I'm the daughter of theater designers (set and costume) and a part time designer myself (properties - and don't misunderstand me, there is designing to be done in properties). I love really good design in theater as much as I love really good writing. And the truth is, I can't write to save my life, so I leave that to the people that do that WELL and I do what I do well, which is to incorporate design.

    But yes, what I do requires a real, honest to God theater. Storefronts, empty swimming pools, and other non-traditional performance venues don't really allow us to do what we do.

    But I have to say - the world would be a very boring place if we all did the same thing, and that is the best part of the Indie/Off-Off world... we all do what we do, and it is all vastly different from what other people are doing in the same world. What I do is so different from what I imagine Rising Phoenix does which is most likely different from what Stolen Chair or The Amoralists do. There is a parking space for all of us. And that is the best freakin' part of the whole deal... don't you think?

  2. Amen, sister!:) Now it's interesting you should mention The Amoralists - just caught their latest HAPPY IN THE POOR HOUSE - playwright Ahonen and the great troupe of actors just get more and more accomplished) and in under 3 years they've moved from the HorseTrade to Gene Frankel basement to 80 St Marks Theatre, from Smart Car to like a C330 Sport Sedan (God, I'm so sorry now for starting with the car metaphors!) Regardless of where they've produced, the audience experience has remained the same high quality. Like Retro, they pay rather slavish attention to detail and it has paid off as evidence by the ever expanding interest from theatergoers and media.

  3. ‘Love the car metaphor and the image of Indie Theater as the big lot at a local dealership with different kinds of cars… smaller, smarter cars. I also can’t deny the “pigeon-hole” list and that “reputation transcends size.” And while I agree with Tim that “smaller venues” is the “only true thing one can generalize about,” it hasn’t stopped outside audiences from perpetuating other generalizations as reasons to not come see our work. Is this something that we need to and can change?

    We love to rag on what is happening to us and our cars… real estate, funding, govt’, service org’s, etc… maybe this is an opportunity to raise a question about what we can do better to help our audience buy the right car for them; not just any car we’re selling. For me, it begins with understanding how our community came about. It was an outside place to Develop new work and Experiment with new forms. It used to be a place to take risks and fail – other than our own, who wants to see that?

    The number of Bway theaters is about the same as 3 decades ago, and OB has shrunk, but our community is exponentially larger now. We do really full productions as well as bare-bones workshops, staged readings, non-staged readings, experimental test-drives, and everything in between. I know how I feel when I buy a ticket to a show only to unknowingly see something book-in-hand. If I were an outsider, that would be my last Indie show. With so many models and colors of cars, new and used, I’m worried that potential audiences are scared to take a chance on us. Could we be doing better on the marketing front to help more buyers find their Mercedes?

  4. RLEWIS , you pack a nice paragraph, friend. I would figure you for a Mazda Miata kind of person? Not even close? MG? Anyway, thanks for the keen observations - The look back at OOB history is important i think, especially to compare say, Caffe Cino days to what is going on now, which I believe is way different due to the greater number of professionally trained artists who have come out of universities and pro training conservatories over the past 30 years now needing to carve out their artistic lives. Are there any proud bohemian theater amateurs (VW Beatles)left to be found in backrooms of coffee shops anymore? Yes, for sure, gotta be, but they would have had to have beaten out any number of hungry, resourceful Smart Cars for the space (see Daniel of Rising Phoenix Rep in FORD TOUGH) and your question about how one might refine an audience search made me think that perhaps what is needed is a for audiences longing to hook up with that elusive special show that was made just for them. Or vise versa - Perhaps getting away from generalized pitches, (BUY AMERICAN!), to focus on qualities appealing to specific demographics ala Amazon-type logarithm marketing. "If you like BMW 300 series you'll also like the Ford Focus for its "World Car class door knobs.".
    I just flashed on Martin Denton of NY Theater Experience who decided one day that all shows from every sized venue should get an equal benefit-of-the-doubt and get reviewed. Brilliant man,(DeLorean).
    Okay finally I can't resists saying this in respect to your "book in hand" comment which I totally relate to but still the following is equally true to my experience: If the last production of Guys and Dolls that I saw on Broadway (w/Oliver Platt) was the first I'd ever seen on b'way, I'd never go back to b'way EVER!.(That show was a lemon. :))

  5. Yes, Jon, totally agree. Indie theater has the professionals, craftsmen, and super shows that I think deserve better branding from us as dealerships. Indie should be known as more than just a community where one gambles with $18/pop. Yes too, that Bway has its clunkers, and some folks are scared to go to Bway for fear of wasting $100/person plus. All theater has its own ways to keep future audiences from buying a ticket.

    I just wish that Indie Dealers did more with our marketing to inform audiences what to expect. It was not too long ago that calling your show Experimental Theater was a draw. Now, not so much. But we still have producers who use World Premiere when they should be using Early-Stage Workshop. We still have producers who fudge to call their show Off Broadway when its not even on a union contract. We still have shows On Book with no mention of such in the marketing. And most of us are still afraid to proudly proclaim on our postcards - Independent Theater.

    I'm just worried that our fear of being honest with our audiences will turn off first-time buyers. If it's Pre-Owned, we should just say it - Used Car here. A lot of shoppers are looking for just that show and will not be disappointed with any sticker-shock. Let's sell some cars... shows... Indie Theater.

  6. RLewis, Thanks for that. One can market a Suzuki Side Kick as if it were a Porsche Cayenne for only so long before the car buying public calls it fraud. And there IS a market for the Side Kick (Drivers who like to cheat rollover death) so one should be able to pinpoint that small jeep loving public and deliver. Perhaps self esteem issues come into play when smaller producers attempt to appear as something they are not? Finding the line between aspiration and pretense can be a toughie - not wanting to sell ones product short while keeping it "real". Perhaps as long as consumers and industry reviewers separate shows by size and model, the temptation to present a subcompact as a sedan, a book-in-hand as a full production, maybe irresistible. I suspect that if the term "Indie Theater" picked up real popularity, opportunists would jump off the OB bandwagon to call themselves 'indie" as well. In a funny way, that might be a model year to look forward to.