Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Upping Up the Ante

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, James Comtois.

Well lookit this. Little Jimmy Comtois going back to long-form blogging and referring to himself in the third person! But not at his usual blog. What gives?

For those of you who don't know who I am or why I'm nattering on this site, I'm a guy who writes and produces plays here in New York, mainly through my company, Nosedive Productions. I also write for and maintain the Jamespeak blog.

If you're at all familiar with Jamespeak, you may have noticed that my blog is now little more than a news or bulletin board announcing upcoming events I'm involved in (with a few exceptions here and there). So it may be bemusing to you that I'm blogging again, but from another location. So again: what gives?

Well, the answer is simple: Shay Gines graciously asked me if I'd be willing to hijack the Full of IT blog for a week, and since I was immensely flattered and always love the opportunity to blather at a new group of people, I said yes. So here we are.

Anyway, I hope to use this week wisely and not waste your time with too much inane drivel (just, you know, the standard amount of inane drivel) and offer up some thoughts, insights and anecdotes about the indie theatre scene. We've only got a few days before I have to hand the torch over to someone more insightful and professional than Yours Truly.

I'd like to start off by talking about an idea that's been gnawing at my brain for a while now, and that's the idea of upping up the ante and stepping up one's game.

As I recently wrote in my post about prolificacy on my blog, I've always looked up to those artists who produce creative work at a rapid rate. And lately, I've been particularly into the work of standup comic Louis CK—not just because he's a hilarious comedian (though he is), or just because he's one of the most prolific comics working today (though he is), but because he believes that every new work you produce should be better than the last.

And considering this is coming from a comic who creates a new hour's worth of material a year, then discards it when the new year comes (something almost unheard of in the standup comedy field), I find that massively impressive and inspiring.

That idea of creating frequently and working hard to ensure that each new work is better than the last is something that's stuck with me of late, especially since I'm working in a scene where that seems increasingly imperative in order to survive.

There's a great deal of dispiriting news about the New York theatre scene. Venues are dropping like flies. The venues that are still around are ratcheting up their rental prices at mind-boggling prices. Funding is becoming scarce.

As the co-artistic director of a company that's been around for 11 years, this all is very troubling news. So what are the options?

One option (if we're working from the bottom up) is to throw in the towel and call it a day. A few companies, unfortunately, have done that, so why not us? Well, that seems a little pre-emptive, especially since we're (fortunately) a company that's not encumbered by debt. Plus, we don't want to close up shop just yet, and aren't in a position where we're forced to. So why not hold off on that option until we absolutely have to.

Another option is to move. There are a number of cities and towns in this country that have vibrant theatre communities, more affordable venues and better chances of funding. This seems like a better option: less defeatist, more economically viable, and possibly more practical (a Chicago playwright friend of mine told me about rental prices in the Windy City and I nearly shot iced coffee through my nose). But unfortunately, I still really like living and producing in New York. For good or for bad, this still is very much my town.

The third option is a variation of the first: keep soldiering along until we're forced to throw in the towel. I won't lie: in a sense, Nosedive has been doing that. And it can work—for a while. But in a way, that's just marking time—postponing the date of execution.

However, there is another option: to step up the game, not just in terms of artistic content but also with fundraising efforts and being more diligent and creative with venues.

Produce steadily, but make sure each production is better than the last. Raise ticket prices if you have to (and many of us are realizing that this is an inevitable given—ticket prices will have to go up), but make sure that your production feels like it's worth twice or three times the cost of the ticket.

Get better, get faster. Go big or go home.

I know this is all much, much easier said than done, but I do have hope and inspiration from other companies who, in my eyes, are doing just that—The Amoralists, Vampire Cowboys, Stolen Chair, One Year Lease, Gideon and Flux Theatre Ensemble, to name a few. They're creating increasingly ambitious works (in terms of aesthetics and content), producing steadily, and finding new ways to improve upon their business models (i.e., not just becoming dependent on grants alone).

And what do you know? It's paying off for these companies that up the ante. They're getting large turnouts from audience members eager to see what they come up with next. They're selling out performances and even entire portions of their runs. As a result, many of them are forging new relationships with audiences and new relationships with potential donors. In addition, many of them are establishing good relationships with their venues.

It's a variation of the whole, "if you build it, they will come" philosophy. And from my vantage point, it seems to be working for a lot of folks out there.

Now, look. I don't have access to these companies' financial statements or revenue figures, so who knows? They may be having some serious financial troubles. But you wouldn't know it from the quality and quantity of their work. They're showing that they're not going anywhere. And they've been able to show that by upping the ante each time they produce.

I look at what these companies are doing and realize that it's high time Nosedive step up its game, and keep stepping up its game.

So what do you guys think? I realize I'm being a bit vague and ethereal here, but that is indeed how I often roll. As theatre-makers in this fair city of ours, is this something you've contemplated and/or grappled with? If so, how do you deal with the fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to produce theatre in this town?

Going all in,

James "Silly Gambler" Comtois

1 comment:

  1. Ah, makes me miss the old Jamespeak. I still go there regularly cuz I need the links (which like every theater blog are gettin' out of date), but it's great to read you here and see you back to asking the good questions. I doubt any of us have the good answers, we're just trying different things, but this did make me ask one question about the theater we do: Who's it for? I look at the groups you mention, your group and mine too, and wonder what we're doing differently and why.

    Each group is led by playwright or director who has to choose what gets produced given the very limited resources. Years ago, my group was more regularly putting on the work of others. I was so busy producing that I didn't have time to write my own plays, moreless get them produced. Like some of the groups you mention, we had a higher visibility and bigger audiences then, because we were involving lots of other artists. In recent years, we’ve reeled it in a bit – doing more of our own projects. That’s why we started a company in the first place. But this has meant that we go public more rarely, work longer on each project, and then have to reconnect an entire marketing machine when a show’s ready to go up. It’s an awful lot of work that loses money, but like I said, who’s it for? Lately, the answer is Me.

    I’m not sure how prolific the groups you reference really are. Seems like most of them only manage to get one show up per year, and it’s usually theirs, but they also have other programs meant for additional artists: reading series, workshop space, community forums, group membership, etc. I really wish that I could focus on my art AND produce the work of the terrific artists I know, but this damn day-job really complicates things. I have to choose who my long nights are for.

    Maybe one day I’ll go back to being a less self-centered writer/director and do more producing. One can spend 24/7 just producing, but that’s not what I came here for. And if I’m gonna have to live in an unsympathetic city and work at an unforgiving day-job, then I would like some benefit for my pain. And right now, since that’s not money, it’s become more about doing my own work and less about a prolific business model. I don’t always feel good about that, but it seems akin to your question, so there’s my $.02.