Friday, July 28, 2006

Commercial Attributes

Frequent Nosedive collaborator (and, before he cut his hair and shaved his beard, Nosedive's Resident Jesus) Scot Williams (part of the ensemble in Nervous Boy) and I had a long drunken conversation at Tai's birthday about Nosedive's place in the theatrical cosmos. Particularly, we talked about just how in the hell any of us can make money in this field (even though none of our names are Tyler Perry). During this drunken talk we brought up the subject of grants, which, to date, Nosedive Productions has never received a single one (which comes as a surprise to no one).

Now, Nosedive rarely applies for grants. It's just too much of a waste of time. Why? Because of our mission statement (or lack thereof).

We talked a bit about how the few times we tried to apply for grants, we would hit the huge brick wall of a.) not having a mission statement and b.) not being able to come up with one that would be within the ballpark of explaining or describing what Nosedive is all about.

Now, to be fair, there are almost no good mission statements for theatre companies (seriously, they all sound alike, something along the lines of, "Fostering creativity with bold new emerging artists and innovative blah blah blah." Don't believe me? Play this drinking game: go find 20 or so mission statements from theatre companies, do a shot every time you come across any of the following words or phrases: foster, creative, emerging, innovative, daring new works. You'll be too drunk to walk before you're halfway through the list). But even knowing this, trying to come up with an even passable excuse for a mission statement been our Achilles Heel here at Nosedive Central, which has always hurt us on those rare times we get ambitious and try to apply for grants.

After this drunken symposium, Scot wrote this to me:

" seems like [Nosedive's] purpose is to create commercial theatre that is of a more 'downtown' sensibility. These guys want money, fame, and the ability to do whatever the hell they want in a theatrical context. They're not interested with any ideas of 'community' in the abstract sense, but they are very interested in making friends. They are not overtly political, except that they tend to bristle at the idea of any infringement on their artistic freedom. Their tastes tend toward the distinctly middlebrow - comedy, horror, movies, pop culture, but they are also interested in the human condition - alienation, relationships, [and] attempts to connect." (Emphasis mine.)

What's interesting is that Scot managed to come up with a mission statement for Nosedive, something no one (either in the group or outside of it) has been able to do since we put on our first play in February 2000.

"To create commercial theatre that is of a more 'downtown' sensibility."

I really don't think Pete or I could have put it better ourselves.

Scot and I have been going back and forth over email today about the rest of his assessment (I disagreed with the "middlebrow" line, which he agreed was probably the wrong word choice, and I'm not 100% sure about the "fame" line, since frankly, the level of "fame" [if you can even call it that...I sure can't] we achieved with Nervous Boy is about as "famous" as I'm comfortable with), but it seems like a good starting point in trying to define Nosedive Productions as a company, which is very bizarre to do.

(This is especially true when you think of other theatre companies in the city that have their mission statement written before performing their first play. We've known for a while what a Nosedive show is and what a Nosedive show typically looks like - as do most people who come see a show of ours - but to try to describe our company in "grantese" has been something that's been nothing short of an impossibility.)

Now, I do want to ramble on a bit about commercial viability. As always, I ask that you bear with me for a moment.

Having some sense of commercial viability has been important for me as a writer. It's very easy to say (while rolling your eyes), "Oh, I want nothing to do with mainstream theatre," when no one involved in making mainstream theatre has any interest in your work and you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of being hired as a professional writer (or actor, or director, or whatever). I do think that if only other theatre artists like my stuff, than I have failed in my job as a playwright.

This goes back to Chris Rock's line about smart comedy: "...if only smart people like your shit, it ain't that smart. If a guy drives a truck and he doesn't get your jokes, something's wrong there."

To make sure we're all on the same page, when I talk about being commercially viable, I don't mean, being a sellout or ostensibly writing derivative sitcoms for the stage. I mean being able to create something that Joe Theatergoer can see, understand and enjoy and having a snowball's chance in hell of being employed or employable by professional outlets.

Commercially viable.

John Cassavetes and Dave Sim - two independent artists in different media (film and comics, respectively) - opted to work within their creative fields independently, even though they had very commercial and marketable talents, demonstrated by their ability to find work in the mainstream ends of their fields (Cassavetes had been tapped to direct four or five movies for the major studios as well as act in major Hollywood movies and Sim was not only given an offer to sell his independent comic book Cerebus to DC Comics [he declined] but given some freelance work from Marvel every now and again). They chose to go the independent route, but it was most certainly a choice, since they were considered employable by mainstream outlets.

Like my friend Tom Penketh (Web editor at, I've always admired those artists who have managed create both popular entertainment and highbrow art (Shakespeare being one of the original masters of this).

It will be interesting to see where this line of thought takes Nosedive (if anywhere): if we're at all able to use this as a usable model to make the company profitable (we've made our money back on Nervous Boy and a few other shows of ours, but we've never [big surprise] made a profit).

Then again, none of our names are Tyler Perry.

I am curious, how many other theatre artists find being commercially viable important, and if so, to what degree?

Making commercials downtown,

James "Tyler Perry" Comtois


Blogger MattJ said...

This is a great post, James, and a gutsy mission statement.

"commerically viable" has a negative connotation that maybe it shouldn't.

I got into a long and heated argument with a business student friend of mine that made me want to find the nearest building to jump off of when he insisted that the arts shouldn't be supported more because basically, what will survive is what society wants to buy. He doesn't think theatre's going anywhere because it's been around for so long, so why push it, and in the end, if society buys the product, it will remain. insinuating that theatre must change in order to sell, in order to stay.

I couldn't even begin to tackle this complex issue is with him because "at" as it is, works under different presumptions. And theatre's evolution to pander to society is the cause of the Disnification of broadway.

That said, I think there is something to be said for the notion that "society needs to want to buy your product." Because in the end we make theatre for people. It doesn't exist without an audience. in fact, it is about them. My theory is that ticket prices are so high and New York being such an epicenter, not enough people are seeing it to know if they like it or not. So they don't know anything about it, or just have a vision of it based on Rodgers and Hammerstein.

In that way, commercial viability is important. Keeping the audience in mind, realizing it is made by them, about them, for them. It's part marketing, but also very much related to content.

Wow. Long response.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a freind make the same argument to me as the above comment, that the government should not support the arts and that we should just let the "market" decide what's valuable. Ibsen wrote all his plays off government grants. Grotowski received all his support from the government until he became "big". Many, many european artists received government funding supporting their work before they became commercially viable. Sam Shepard wrote some really fucked up plays before he hit is stride. 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. Didn't James just do a post about how boring bug budget movies are becoming? What about independant films? Why are they rarely boring? Now, it's true that I'm a writer and theatre "artist" and as such probably have a fair ammount of artistic ego and pretention. So perhaps some guy who drives a truck wouldn't like many of the things I love. But look at James Joyce. Sometimes people get angry at me when I say I like Ulysses. They look at me like I'm some self proclaimed snob who doesn't mettle in the feeble books of average "folk". Is Ulysses commercially viable? can you say that Ulysses is a serious attempt to sell books? It is true Ulysses has proven incredibly "commercial". But it's bankable aspects seem to be that it is so unbankable and so wild and crazy that people love it. Which brings me to another point. What is commercially viable? I agree that Shakespeare did manage to stradle both high art and popular entertainment, however, these days I'd hardly say Shakespeare is a "bankable" commodity. Would you rather see a random peice by George A. Romero or William Shakespeare? Let's ask truck drivers. Land of the Dead or Hamlet? I think most productions of Shakespear are artist driven and not public driven. I don't hear the public crying for more shakespear. But the artists love it. I remember a quote from Ann Bogart about regional theatres. She said that one of the big problems they have is that they're trying to please their subscrition base. They do works that they think the audience will like instead of work that THEY as artists like.

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. And let's remember that Chric Rock is a commedian. Truck drivers are his audience! He's middle of the fucking mainstream. So yeah, there is something wrong if they don't get his jokes. But is there something wrong with Ulysses if a truck driver doesn't "get it"? I guess what I'm saying is that commercial and non-commercial don't necessarily need to be at war with each other. Both are important to our society and both fill a need within us. I love zombie movies and I love Ulysses. Artists should strive for what interests them, regardless of money or prestige. You'll fall somewhere along that listhmus test anyway and be labeled as such. And you will probably feel boxed in by that label regardless.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Freeman said...

Seriously, though, what does Gridley know?

I kid because I love.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Hey, Steve! Thanks for commenting!

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 onceā€¦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'm someone who's a child of pop/crap culture. I grew up on superhero comics, Star Wars and monster movies. For good or for bad, it's definitely shaped my tastes. As a writer, although I'd like to think my stuff has more substance than middlebrow works such as junk comics or bad sitcoms, I can't deny the influence that these pop culture elements have on my writing and me, and I enjoy using those elements to try to convey new (and possibly unpopular) ideas.

At the same time, I love Ulysses as well. Is that book commercial? In the broad sense of the word (and in the way I mean), yes. A publisher agreed to publish it. It received mass (and eventually international) circulation. Mr. Joyce got paid to write it.


I would also assert that interesting indie movies, if they're at all available on DVD or playing at the Angelika, are commercial, too (someone paid $1 million or so to make those). Again, I do want to stress that by "commercial" I don't necessarily mean "popular blockbuster."

(Side note: I'm also not against funding for the arts anymore than I'm against broccoli. It's not to Pete or my tastes, since we feel more comfortable not being dependent on government or institutional
funds. They should exist, and help out very important companies and artists. I just don't feel comfortable taking money [outside private donations] from government institutions for Nosedive.)

Now, Steve, are you asking me personally if I'd rather see Land of the Dead over an Off-off production of a Shakespearean play? Is that a trick question? I mean, Land of the Dead. Without hesitation. But doesn't that say something about the problem with new companies treating Shakespeare's work as too hoary or serious? Let's
face it: the guy worked swordplay, blood n' guts and ghosts into those plays of his. (And I wouldn't be crippled with grief if more companies staging the Bard's stuff remembered that.)

Anyway, this is just sort of my half-baked response.

A truck driver,

James "Cletus" Comtois

12:04 PM  

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