Resolution: In 2016, local independent theaters should focus on solving longstanding marketing issues | Theater | Indy Week
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Resolution: In 2016, local independent theaters should focus on solving longstanding marketing issues 

Caitlin Wells gave a captivating performance in Burning Coal's Dark Vanilla Jungle. With better marketing and outreach, more people might have actually seen it.

Photo courtesy of Jillian Clark

Caitlin Wells gave a captivating performance in Burning Coal's Dark Vanilla Jungle. With better marketing and outreach, more people might have actually seen it.

January 1 is the day of resolutions, and there is much to be resolved in our theatrical ecosystem. But I mean that in a specific sense. For a moment, let's forget high-minded, abstract proposals. Instead, think math.

We all know the words from high school or the S.A.T., appearing below some algebraic hieroglyph: "Solve for x." In a way, a theater production is a series of intricate equations. A company fills in a set of variables—these actors, those designers, director x in venue y­—and the performances ultimately reveal the solution they produce. Do that once and your company has a show. Keep doing it and you've solved a greater artistic problem: durability.

But the Triangle's theatrical ecosystem faces a larger problem. The math almost all of its members have been using hasn't changed in years, and it contains basic miscalculations of the optimal potential audience. As a result, its solutions have been provisional at best—guesstimates that don't meet the companies' actual needs or the needs of their community. Yet the math has seldom been challenged in years.

As a result, our independent theaters have embraced artificial limits that not only compromise their individual potential for improvement and growth, but that of the ecosystem we all live in as well. For that reason, on day one of the new year, we suggest that every independent theater company in the region should abandon the outdated formulas on their ledgers and re-solve for 2016.

I am not prepared to believe that, in a progressive region of 1.4 million people, one-tenth of 1 percent, at most, could be persuaded to take in a show at Burning Coal Theatre Company or Manbites Dog Theater. But that is the practical ceiling those organizations have set for themselves. A sold-out three-week run in both rooms maxes out between 1,000 and 1,800 seats.

However, neither of these companies regularly sells out entire runs. A mere handful of patrons was present when I saw the July performance of Burning Coal's Dark Vanilla Jungle, a five-star show that deserved packed houses and added dates. The work onstage was brilliantly complete. But clearly, the work offstage, equally necessary to the production's success, was incomplete. Since the show wasn't effectively marketed and publicized, it ultimately reached a smaller audience than Burning Coal's already modest average.

This is not meant to single out Burning Coal or Manbites Dog as dramatically worse at marketing their work than most theaters. No regional company has truly solved that problem; none have effectively connected with more than a fraction of their potential audience. Most appear to have given up trying. In so doing, they've locked themselves into a mathematics that doesn't permit real growth.

Marketing and promotion are one indication of how diligently and consistently theater companies seek out and meaningfully connect with their communities. A company must do these things before its constituency can grow.

Instead, a mentality of "enough" has crept in among too many groups: enough supporters and audience to keep the lights on, fund the next production and pay the artists—no, not a living wage, of course. Just a token sum, enough to keep their collaborators impoverished but still coming back for more.

In reality, this mythic "enough" was never truly enough—not to upgrade the nights-and-weekend rehearsal model that holds local theater back, and certainly not enough to end the day jobs that split the attentions of most local creators.

Nor is it enough to establish support structures artists need to realize their best work. So directors keep rounding up props and working on costumes, actors hang lights and distribute flyers and everybody pitches in on set construction. And since everyone has so much more to do than focus on their roles, the production is ultimately compromised.

That's been the fate of hundreds of shows. And the math that keeps producing this result is wrong. In 2016, the costs of creative infrastructure and professional-grade marketing should be factored in as mission-critical, as much as paying royalties for scripts. If you haven't connected with your audience before putting on a show, you simply have to hope it's not too late.

More than 18 months ago, the region saw two important get-togethers in theater and dance. Artists resolved to create structures to support their work, continue their development and cross-pollinate with others from around the world. Through cooperation and radical hospitality, they co-promoted and produced, and provided residencies where creators could refine their work. Culture Mill is becoming a regional force; DIDA, Durham Independent Dance Artists, has launched two full seasons. Both have helped focus their community's efforts and made independent dance, and other performing arts in the case of Culture Mill, more vibrant and viable here.

A year and a half later, theater artists are still searching for a similar course of action that enough companies will agree to follow. In 2016, will next-generation theater artists, including Honest Pint, Mortall Coile, Sonorous Road, Black Ops and Delta Boys—and old guards like StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance or Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern—resolve to cooperate in the joint scheduling, promotion and support of one another's work? When they do, will they call their effort RITA: Regional Independent Theater Artists?

We'll find out. Happy New Year.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Enough isn't enough."

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