Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Small Cast and Small Audience

I was talking with a colleague about one of my small-cast plays and I was trying to describe how productions were so "successful" (from an audience-interaction standpoint) while at the same time being tremendously difficult to justify economically.

For my two-person drama TOGETHER WE ARE MAKING A POEM IN HONOR OF LIFE, a husband and wife navigate a support group for greiving parents in the aftermath of a school shooting. In multiple productions, the play has been staged in a "site specific" way - asking audience members to enter a small room, often in a church basement or other public space. Everyone sits in a cirlce of metal folding chairs reminiscent of contemporary support groups, and the actors enter the space and sit in the chairs alongside the audience. This staging allows for an intimacy and frankness that can be very compelling. It can also be uncomfortable for an audience to give and receive eye contact - both from actors, and from other audience members. (From the very first workshop production, we spent significant time figuring out exactly how we were "casting" the audience, and what - if anything - might be required of them in any given exchange. The priority was always on consensual participation, never on enlisting audience members to "imagine yourself" in that specific situation. Most productions allowed audience members to be anonymous, "front-line observers" for a private examination of greif and healing.)

One challenge comes when you try to sell tickets. In order to maintain the intimate dynamics required, productions generally invite 10 to 20 paying audience members for each performance. (The staging usually includes 6 to 8 additional chairs in the circle that can be used by the actors, so the size of the overall circle, in relation to the size of the adopted room, becomes the determining factor.)

What happens when a play can only bring in 15 people a night? How is that sustainable? What on earth should you charge for this type of experience? How can you appropriately value the contributions of the artists involved?

I have known for a long time that this play won't make any money. I suspect that the real value lies in uncovering our deeper motivations for making and seeing theatre in the first place. Historically, theatre had religious as well as commercial intentions. The choice to stage a contemporary drama with this difficult subject matter and purposeful size constraints, means that we recognize "something else" is going on, at a more fundamental level than our everyday awareness. Calling into question the dollars-and-cents of daily living can be confusing. But the powerful communal healing that happens during the course of this 85 minutes may be worth more we could ever know.