A couple of weeks ago some friends and I attended a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Guthrie Theatre. It was a real night on the town, with dinner beforehand, and excellent seats to a truly entertaining production. For those of you not in the immediate area, it should be noted that the Guthrie is a world renowned theatre that attracts exceptional, even famous talent to it’s stage and behind the scenes, and it isn’t unusual for Broadway bound shows to begin at the Guthrie. Streetcar was no exception, boasting a killer cast with remarkable pedigrees, and even pulling in a bit of pop culture with the casting of Ricardo Antonio Chavira from the ABC show Desperate Housewives in the role of Stanley Kowalski. The role made famous by Marlon Brando in the 1951 film. This isn’t a review of the show. My feelings for the production are pretty straight-forward. I loved it. The staging was perfect. The casting was brilliant. Everything about that show made for a perfect evening. But for the last two weeks, one moment has been gnawing at me and I wanted to share it here, to get your thoughts, and perhaps contribute to a conversation that has got to move forward.
We were seated just before curtain and our seats in the theatre were excellent. I was thrilled. The lights were dim, the stage was set, the warm glow of a streetlamp the brightest point in the room. That set was impressive, it looked like an actual spot in New Orleans. The weathered brick, the dingy interior, the colors and textures perfectly muted to suggest a certain age to this exterior. I pulled out my iphone to take a picture of this gorgeous set and as soon as I got it up to eye level the usher was next to me telling me the set was copyrighted and I wasn’t allowed to photograph it. I nodded and tucked my phone into my pocket. That was that. Only it wasn’t. There wasn’t sufficient light for me to get a decent picture anyway. But that wasn’t the point. I really just wanted to rave about that initial impression of the set and the mood it set for the audience. But, the set was ‘copyrighted’ and that wasn’t ok.
These last couple of years arts organizations have taken a big hit with the economy. Seeing plays falls low on the priority list when you are watching your finances take a nose dive. As this sort of entertainment falls lower on the list, it may fall away from the radar. Certainly arts orgs are countering the effects of the economy with more aggressive marketing and trying to pack a lot of value into ticket prices. But non-profits never have enough money to really market the way they want to. There are always corners being cut. Meanwhile, someone like me, with zero interest in ripping off any set construction ideas, and a couple thousand followers on Twitter, has a desire to do some free marketing for an arts org, and I can’t. It makes no sense.
Recently, Meghan and I have conducted a series of workshops for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. We talked about websites on a budget and the basics of social media. Sure, the Guthrie didn’t have anyone in attendance. But they aren’t entirely unlike so many of the arts orgs we talked to. Because of budget constraints and different priorities, arts organizations are sort of slow to recognize the power of web and social tools. They know they can sell tickets on the web. They know they can present marketing messages there. But, beyond that, they seem to focus much of their dollars and energy into the things they’ve always done. I am a closet theatre geek, and I’ve watched that slow progress with a special interest. My old college theatre took forever to get a Facebook page, and they made little, if any, use of their website. They weren’t on Twitter, and I doubt that they are there now. And yet, ticket sales and community support are vital to the ongoing health of that department. Even here, the biggest, most prestigious theatre, The Guthrie, took forever to invest in a redesigned website. Settling for a giant image as backdrop for their site for years. Now they seem to have a dynamic, Drupal powered website and a very active Facebook page. In fact, the Guthrie is doing some of the things we talked about in the MRAC discussions — letting their audience in on how elements of the stage come together. It’s so compelling watching the actual craft of stagecraft assemble whole, realistic sets. Theatre isn’t just about the actors — the set and the costumes tell the story too. Sometimes, as in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, the set IS pretty darn close to a character. Hot and heavy and dingy and weathered and well traveled, and noisy – setting the tone and even aggravating the heat and tension of the plot.
Having worked on a number of stage crews in my youth, I know how tedious getting to that final set can be. But how miraculous it seems when everything comes together. It’s a real art – deciding how to present a setting, considering the staging, the actors and what they need from a set, what the text requires combined with what the director envisions. There is so much that plays in to those choices that would, honestly, be riveting to some audience members or potential theatre-goers. Not to mention the opportunity to reach new audiences, sell more tickets. Maybe the Desperate Housewives guys wasn’t such a great draw to some. But perhaps that set would have inspired someone to want to see it close up.
I guess I just think that arts orgs, and especially theatre arts, need to start embracing some of the new social tools and abandoning the way it’s always been. Sometimes we stick to what we know because it works. But these days, when the economy is in the toilet, and people are staying home, we can’t afford to be stuck. We have to look to our evangelists and our ambassadors to do what comes naturally — to talk about us. To rave about us, even. There is something romantic about going to the theatre. The whole experience, the entire event, has an air of romance. A good theatre experience can take you along for a multi-sensory ride and when done right you’ve got something to think about and talk about for days or weeks. Let us talk about it. I’m not going to steal your set. Chances are anyone who does have unethical intentions around your ideas has other ways to pursue them. We don’t need to get crazy and shoot flash pictures during a performance. Nobody wants that. But I do think letting us borrow details to tell the story and talk about our experience with it will only serve the production, and the theatre itself, very well.