Friday, April 11, 2008

Innovation in the Theatre

Innovation Versus Funding
One of the topics in theatre that I find interesting is how theatres are, and can be innovative. There are two main ways to be innovative, in my mind. The first is to use innovative techniques in production, and the second is to produce innovative works. You can have one without the other, but they do go hand in hand. Theatre scale (Lort A vrs Lort D) difference is another item of interest to me, relates to this issue very closely. It seems to me that the larger the theatre (leading to the conclusion that it is also better funded), leads to a theatre that takes less risks. Programming must not be potentially offensive to the season subscribers or the donors. Mistakes within the productions must be minimized. This leads to an environment where innovation is low. You can’t try new materials or techniques because there is little time (and other resources) to experiment, and to correct issues prior to impacting the show. The result is ironic – where you have the largest scenery budgets, you take less risks. Larger budgets are quickly used up with the larger scenery demands of course, and automation systems are built up. But there isn’t money to experiment with. It almost seems like I have been able to experiment more when working in smaller places - when you don’t have the money to use in the first place. Then you take what resources you do have and create something that will work. Smaller, more flexible, avant-garde venues then seem to impact the following:
Time – there isn’t enough time in any production it seems, but in a small show there is less scenery, meaning that each piece may use a larger piece of the pie. Secondly, as pay is also smaller or nonexistent, it’s more about the desire to create and do than work.
Fear of failure – without as many patron expectations, trying something new doesn’t have as many ramifications if it fails. I remember working on a small show in a LOA theatre about a decade ago where we really wanted a trap. We designed a system, and worked for days to get it to work, but ultimately the show didn’t need to have it, and the show when on without a trap. (The trap was only being used to lift a piece of scenery into place). It was hard to let go for all of the people involved, and looking back to that event, I know I could have made it work if I knew then what I know now. But because of the environment we ‘could’ fail. It didn’t hurt the show, it didn’t hurt the bottom line of the budget, and everyone involved grew a little. However, there have been a lot of other places where I have been where if a desired technique didn’t work out as expected, even if it was a new idea, technique, or process – it was a major issue.

And I think the major issue really is failure. If the show flops in some way that the audience can see, people won’t buy tickets. People who see the show might feel that the show wasn’t up to par. It seems like here in Chicago movie tickets and theatre tickets are often comparably priced. I certainly don’t expect movie quality sets, transitions, or the like in a live performance, yet when I do spend 100 per person to see a major show I have expectations that increase to reflect what I have spent.

I guess the perfect resolution would be that as funding, tickets and scale increased that there would be an increase in the amount of time and funding that was available for innovation. New materials could be tested prior to the need in an upcoming production. A mock up or a prototype could be built for a scenic unit for an upcoming show could be built and tested prior to the real design / production phase for testing.

The other challenge that enters here is the need for time on both the production side and the artistic side. Directors want time to play, and to be able to introduce new ideas at any time. Technical directors want the set to be created as far in advance as possible so that they have the most time to work on solutions.

There’s a lot of rough ideas here – what do you think?

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