Getting butts in seats. That’s the name of the game, and I think we all get in trouble when our minds wander too far from that objective. Attendance is on the decline, and there are many reasons for that, but at the risk of over-generalizing, I like to boil the problem down to this sentence: “Theater isn’t cool, anymore.” It isn’t. If it was, kids would be camping outside of box offices. They’d be wearing Team Mamet tee-shirts. They’d be memorizing Sarah Ruhl’s favorite color.
Playwrights aren’t cool. We aren’t rock stars. We aren’t sexy. But we could be.
When I was a teenager, a certain event pitted brother against brother and scarred America forever; David Lee Roth left Van Halen. Who can forget the theological debates around the cafeteria table? Such inflammatory rhetoric as, “Did Dave leave or was he fired?”, “How can Sammy Hagar possibly lead Van Halen?”, and “Is Dave’s artistic direction toward remaking Beach Boys songs heretical?” And as I step boldly into middle age, reflecting upon those conclaves with nearly thirty years of well-cultivated cynicism, I wonder how much of that controversy was orchestrated, strictly for the purposes of selling records.
We can do that. We’re playwrights. We write drama, for Christ’s sake.
Suppose I had a row with David Strattan White at his next opening? Right in the lobby…I accuse him of seducing my wife, and he accuses me of poisoning his dog. Suppose Lindsay Harris-Friel showed up at my opening and danced on a table? What if the next fundraiser for Theatre Exile devolved into a fistfight between Alex Dremman and Bruce Graham? What if we all had our own theme song?
What if Bruce Walsh walked the Barrymore carpet in a rhinestone suit? What if Joy Cutler wrapped fish sandwiches with fliers for her play? What if Jackie Goldfinger surfed on the hood of a car around Drexel University?
What if playwrights were cool?
When I proselytize to someone at a dinner party that I’m about to be disinvited to, this is the point when my dinner companion objects with something like, “That’s ridiculous! You can’t make someone cool!” But that’s exactly what marketing does all the time. Thanks to reality shows, it’s now cool to be a chef, a hairdresser, and a duck call manufacturer. You can’t convince me that duck calls are cooler than plays.
This can happen. That’s not to say it isn’t insane. It would require smarter marketers than me. And better ideas. But it seems to me that every theater is trying to bring in audiences, and I say no, they should be creating a situation where audiences are begging to buy tickets. Crazy? Sure. But when Lady Gaga announces a show, I guarantee you there is no Artistic Director trying to figure out how to get butts in seats.
I dream of a world where the announcement of a new play is a tweetable event. Where college students cut class to catch a matinee. Where every playwright is pictured on a trading card.