Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Is Seattle's Theatre scene oversaturated?

Living in Seattle and being a theatre fan can be dizzying. The vast array of productions available on a single weekend can leave an arts fan overwhelmed. How can this many companies survive in such a relatively small city? The question facing the theatrical community is: is Seattle's theatre scene oversaturated?

It's an embarrassment of riches, but is it too much of a good thing? As established and up and coming groups struggle to draw crowds it begins to appear that supply has overtaken demand. Small companies with limited budgets are trying to make a mark, and while the scene is certainly not completely dominated by multimillion dollar companies, it can be hard for producers with modest budgets to gain traction. Where does a mid-sized or small institution find audiences who aren't already burned out or committed to other shows?

Take the case of the “little company that could” - Sound Theatre Company. Sound Theatre Company has an annual budget of under $100,000, but critically they are often on par with the bigger companies like The Seattle Repertory Theatre, ACT Theatre, and Book-It Repertory to name a few. Sound Theatre is doing things right artistically, producing excellent plays and musicals with quality talent; they produce works that include diverse casting and take on important social issues. Sound Theatre Company has already won The Gregory Award for Best Theatre Company in the face of companies that have multimillion dollar budgets, and this year Sound is nominated for 8 Gregory Awards including Outstanding Production and Best Theatre (The Gregory Awards is the Seattle equivalent of The Tony Awards and is named after Gregory A. Falls - A Seattle Theatrical Pioneer and the founder of ACT - A Contemporary Theatre).

Sound has to compete with the likes of ACT Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Cafe Nordo, Seattle Public Theatre, Washington Ensemble Theatre, New Century Theatre Company, The 5th Avenue, Seattle Immersive Theatre, and scores of small and medium sized theatre companies that don't have venues of their own. The mission seems even more foolhardy when you factor in the dozens of other performing arts options that draw big crowds in Seattle like Dance, Ballet, Opera, Burlesque, Cabaret, and live music that fill every available stage every weekend. 

Is this an impossible task for a small company that wants to start drawing bigger audiences? A city that has around a hundred shows on a Friday night is bound to have a lot of empty seats and half filled halls. While the Census Bureau lists Seattle as the 22nd largest city in the U.S. it’s definitely in the top 10 or even top 5 nationally for artistic institutions and performance options. (Non scientific, but after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, it's hard to imagine many other cities that have the artistic reputation Seattle has).

So for a company like Sound, is it worth it? Such a risky and expensive endeavor as producing live theatre yields a meager reward fiscally. And secondly, what is the formula for filling every seat in the theatre. Is it even worth it? 

The answer is a resounding yes! If the muse strikes, if the passion is there, and if the desire and inspiration gets the artist jumping out of bed in the morning, then yes - it is absolutely worth it. And If the show is quality, one would hope that it's enough to bring the people in, but that is rarely the case. How do you grab that big audience though? What's the secret? 

What's the magical ingredient to draw a crowd in a city awash with amazing theatre? Is the key social media, is it advertising, is it beautiful high quality print material, is it video marketing, is it good photography, is it word of mouth, is it hand-to-hand marketing, is it a publicity stunt, is it immersive events, is it community outreach, is it Instagram, is it is it clever uses of new technology, is it mobile friendly material, is it a press worthy story, is the show buzz-worthy, is it diverse, is it relevant, is it the kind of thing that makes you write to your family and say "hey Mom, see this show”??? The answer is both simple and extremely difficult, it's all of the above, and then some. 

What matters is the hustle and the passion and the experience. Assess what worked and what didn’t, then with a little more wisdom and a modicum of experience, you try again, even harder than the day before. So, with every resource you can muster, you do what you can, in the place that you are, with the time that you have, and hope that it’s enough.