This past fall I had the opportunity to give a presentation on unlearning at the Theatre Communication Group's annual Fall Forum in New York City. Before my presentation I had the pleasure of listening to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori Parks speak. I especially appreciated her final statement to the audience: "Entertain all your far out ideas."
It was great advice but often once a person or an organization has achieved some success it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace this advice. The reason is not so much that people are afraid of the unknown but, rather, because they are afraid of letting go of the known. This is true even if the person or organization's original success was based on a "far out" idea.
The theatre is no different. For an industry in the business of changing peoples' lives many within the field are surprisingly resistant to change. Without re-hashing my entire presentation here are a few "far-out" ideas the industry should consider:
#1: Forget "Big" money; corporate sponsors and large endowments. Instead, try tapping into "slow money" or "local money" movements such as the 3/50 project. A growing number of people recognize the value of theatre to their communities and are willing to invest in them.
#2: Judge screen-plays on a "blind" basis. New research suggests that the screenplays of female playwrights are rejected at a higher rate than their male counterparts. This is in spite of the fact that female-written screenplays are more commercially successful.
#3: Try freeing your organization from the chains that bind you. A number of Holiday shows are financial successes and have become annual traditions (and they often help underwrite other shows throughout the year) but how can new traditions be established unless something new is tried?
#4: Got a problem? Try turning it on its head. For example, instead of bemoaning the idea that more and more Americans are becoming couch-potatoes who watch only reality TV, turn this into an opportunity. For example, much as Guinness turned it's biggest problem into an asset, theatre could do the same thing by creating counter-intuitive campaigns along the lines of: "Theatre: Couch potatoes need not apply" or "Theatre: The original reality TV."
#5: Appeal to non-customers. Just as Nintendo become the best-selling video-game console provider by creating the Wii — which appealed to senior citizens and non-gamers — theatre could do the same. One way to do this is by not listening to your best customers and critics. That's right: Ignore your best customers and critics. Why? Because you already know what they like and, usually, they aren't afraid to tell you if they don't. If you want to appeal to new audiences try listening to them. Their ideas may be "far out" but if you entertain them the result may be continued — albeit unconventional — success.