Monday, July 31, 2006

Commercial Attributes II: Steven Gridley and Supply & Demand

I had a bit of a hunch that I would have to go a little further with my thoughts on commercial attributes, since one of the pitfalls of the blog format is that you can really only write about 1,000 words or so before your reader's eyes roll to the back of their head (reading more than 1,000 words on a computer monitor being substantially harder than reading 1,000 words printed on paper).

Steven Gridley, resident playwright for Spring Theatreworks, made some excellent points in the comments section for my previous entry. He wrote:

"I'm afraid of what would happen if the criteria for artistic success was based solely on commercial viability. Look at how Hollywood is working. It is 100% commercial... It's a fine line. Once you become bored as an artist it's hard to image an audience becoming excited. So where does high and challenging art fit in with commercial art? That's a good question. I feel both have their merits and their drawbacks and, as such, are both respectable and necessary. Just because commercial is where the money is doesn't mean that high art should be done away with."

Very well put, Steve. This is a huge danger when only trying to create work in the hopes of being commercially viable and marketable. I can't think of a worse scenario than art being valued only in terms of how much money it made. I also hope that everyone reading this realizes that's not even close to what I'm advocating (i.e., the more money an artwork makes, the more artistically valuable it is). I mean, blech.

Here's part of my response:

I realize it's a bit tough to define "commercial" without provoking very negative connotations, especially in the realm of theatre. I also realize I'm being very James-centric with this entry. I don't think all companies should be engaged in making their work commercial (or accessible), but for me, it's important that my scripts appeal to more than just other theatre artists and friends and family members.

Now, this doesn't mean that I deliberately try to write something "popular." I have no idea how to do that. (I tried it was a complete disaster. Never again.) I think if you end up trying to write/create "populist" drama you end up finding yourself in a special sort of hell: you end up second-guessing what People (title case intended) want, which never works, so you end up writing stuff you don't want to write about for people who aren't buying it.

(The fact of the matter is it's a complete and total mystery as to what creative endeavor will be a success and what won't. No one's been able to figure out the secret and no one will [witness big budget action movies tanking at the box office]. Going into a project going, "This will be SUCCESSFUL" is being engaged in a new breed of self-delusion.)

I would add that it's a bit tough to define "commercial" at all without providing a number of caveats, exceptions and exemptions. (In a private discussion over email, Steve and I talked about this more at length. He asked me if I thought Joyce's Ulysses was commercial. I said, since a publisher bought the manuscript and decided to publish it, Joyce got paid for it and the book has enjoyed international acclaim, yes, it was, even though Joyce's primary motivation for writing it was not to make money. Steve then pointed out that if my definition of commercial is this broad, then Anne Frank's diary is commercial, since the thing has been selling like hotcakes for decades.)

Steve also pointed out that another big red flag in thinking of art in terms of being commercially viable is that, once in the mindset that having commercial attributes is important, it's very easy to look down on art works trying to achieve the status of "high art" (i.e., those disinterested in making money). I would very much agree. I pointed out that this hadn't occurred to me, since I genuinely find works of high art fun and entertaining (i.e., I enjoy looking at Degas's paintings, I have fun reading Ulysses, I find Hamlet extremely entertaining).

Having said that, I think we theatre artists should at least acknowledge the one thing we desperately evade acknowledging when engaged in these theatre discussions in the blogosphere:

The concept of supply and demand.

I'm not saying if there's no large demand for a work, it shouldn't be made. I am saying, however, as theatre artists, when we stage a show, and the response is akin to the sound of one cricket chirping, we should ask ourselves the hard questions we don't want to ask ourselves after the show closes:

Did nobody come because we didn't promote it enough? Possibly. The way to assess that is easy, though. You just check the number of publications you've been listed and/or reviewed in, the number of postcards you've sent out and the number of emails you've sent out and compare/contrast those numbers to previous efforts.

Is it because it's too ahead of its time? That could be the case, although I must say if you walk away from a project thinking that's the answer to lackluster audience turnouts, you're more arrogant than I (if such a thing is possible).

Was the timing off? Quite possibly. Doing a play in midtown in (say) mid-August (opposite The Fringe) is definitely a subprime time and location to be putting on an indie show.

Were we in the wrong location? The performance location has been known to at least hurt indie productions, but by how much?

Did we just put on a show that would be of interest to nobody except ourselves? We rarely ask this of ourselves and give ourselves an honest answer, do we? I'm not even pointing fingers here. We here at Nosedive Central have been guilty of it in the past, being unable to see the forest through the trees and not realize (until it's way, way too late) that we staged a show for which there was no demand.

Now these questions (and answers) are different for every single theatre artist (I'm mainly addressing the self-producing theatre artists here). But I do think we should ask ourselves these questions, and constantly assess and reassess and re-reassess what went right with a production, what went wrong, how important (if at all) it is to have sellable attributes, how to define "commercial" and how important the concept of supply versus demand is when staging a new work.

Again, I ask this primarily of self-producers. I realize directors being brought on board another company's production or writers being invited to submit scripts to another company don't have to worry about this since, in a way, that they've been asked to participate in another company's season/production shows that they have some commercial viability. Right?

Digging himself in deeper,

James "Mouthfoot" Comtois


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