Reflections on production runs

So, Snowglobe closed a little over a week ago, and during the inevitable bar-visiting afterward, I happened to share a beer with a friend-of-a-friend who isn’t an artist or, ordinarily, a theatergoer.  This guy knows squat about theater, and I’m ready to field whatever he throws at me, which is a bit of a doozy:

“How do you decide how long a show will run?”

To which, I respond, “Well, first you draw a circle on the floor.  Then, you take the chicken and throw it up as high as you can.  If the chicken lands inside the circle…”

Laughter, laughter, laughter.  Drink, drink, drink.  But then the guy follows up, “Seriously…How do you know how long you should let a show run?’

Wow.  Tough question.  And not tough in the sense that it’s a complicated process with a lot of explanation and advanced mathematical theory; tough in the sense that I’m not convinced a rational process even exists.

Let’s break it down.  Theaters make money.  Yes, they’re in the business of artistic expression and advancing public discourse and blah-blah-blah, but they’re still a business.  You can’t express anything if you can’t keep the lights on.  So, as an Artistic Director, you want to maximize your profits.  You want enough shows to accommodate demand, but not so many shows that you can’t fill seats.  In the case of Snowglobe, that number was twelve, Thursday through Sunday, over three weekends.

“Is that typical?” the guy in the bar asks.

Depends.  For me, yes.  I’ve had productions that ran for as many as eighteen performances.  My average is probably around fourteen.  For the Arden Theatre Company, with its comparatively massive promotional budget, “normal” is more like thirty-five shows over four weeks.  I’ve seen stuff run there for eight weeks with extensions.

For what my show was, twelve turned out to be about right.  We had a tiny, 42-seat theater, and while I believe we came close to selling out a couple of nights, we didn’t turn anyone away.  Several nights had half-houses.  On one night, during an ice storm, I think we had something like ten (which, in a 300-seat space is tragic, but in a 42-seat space, not quite so bad).

So, yeah, twelve shows was about right.  If we had sixteen, we would have had trouble selling tickets.  Yes, I’ve received emails from about a dozen people apologizing that they couldn’t make it, but I don’t think an added weekend would have made it any easier for them.  And even if it did, you have to ask if twelve tickets justifies four nights of expense.  “Diminishing returns,” some people call that.

“So, the decision was based on prior experience?” the guy asks.

Boy, I want to believe that.  Lots of people do.  We want to believe that, when a theater commits to producing a particular play, they get half a dozen smart people to sit in a room with a protractor and an armload of actuarial charts and come out eight hours later with a graph that pinpoints the exact number of performances for maximum profit.  And maybe some theaters do something sorta like that.  And maybe this one did.

Here’s the thing–and I hasten to add that I have no statistical data to back this up–but I believe that if you produced a hundred shows using a team of mathematicians and a hundred shows where you threw a chicken in the air, I doubt you could pick out which was which by looking at the profit reports.  Three ice storms hit during the run of my show, and we had trouble selling seats.  A friend of mine, Jackie Goldfinger, wrote a play a couple of years ago about a white man shooting a black man, and the Treyvon Martin case broke two weeks before opening, and I’ll bet they would have added ten extra performances if it was possible.

“Nobody knows anything,” dictated the screenwriting guru William Goldman when he wrote about how studios greenlight scripts, and it’s also true about play production.  It’s a crapshoot.  And, rational or not, logical or not, chicken-hurtling or not, we should all be thankful that somebody’s willing to pick up the dice at all.

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