in the Clowns
By Kathy Ceceri
recycled pop songs and singing nuns are good box office, theaters
have trouble filling seats when the play is serious
Max is fed up. The producer of Curtain Call Theatre in Latham
is practically tearing out her hair as she talks about the
frustration of trying to make a schedule that balances the
plays she wants to do with what her audience likes to see.
This season, Curtain Call’s lineup included two Pulitzer Prize
winners, The Gin Game and Talley’s Folly, one
a bittersweet portrait of old age, the other a romance between
two complicated people. Both plays featured humor and mature
characters. But the audience just wasn’t there.
been year-round as a theater for six years now, and every
year we’ve done at least one, and sometimes two, serious plays,”
Max says. “They’re nowhere near as well-attended as a comedy
or a farce. I used to think maybe they’d seen it already,
so I called 40 patrons, just to get some feedback. Unanimously,
they all said the same thing:
‘Carol, there’s too much stress in the world today. If I want
to be depressed, I’ll put on the six o’clock news. We need
Max is seeing what a lot of other regional theater managers
are noticing as well: Audiences are just not as willing to
come out for serious plays as they used to be. Those who got
into the field to move or enlighten people are being faced
with a growing population that just wants to be entertained.
Some, like Max, are having to rethink what shows they can
do each season in the face of changing tastes. Others are
looking for different ways to attract the next generation
of theatergoers, and the one after that. But all of them agree
that, no matter what, they won’t give up the kind of work
they feel is important, both for individuals and for the community
As the old show biz saw goes: “If the people won’t come, nothing
will stop them.” But Max is trying her best to fill the 100
seats in her small theater, which puts on an ambitious eight
shows a year.
can produce anything I want to produce for my own satisfaction.
But the theater can’t be just about me, because last time
I looked I wasn’t buying any seats. That’s why you have to
listen to the customer. They still have to want your product.
They’re the boss.”
And so Curtain Call is slowly shifting the balance toward
used to do two comedies, now we do four,” Max says. “We used
to do one mystery or thriller, now we do two.”
Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill has seen the same kind of decline
at Capital Repertory Theatre, where she is producing artistic
director. Based in downtown Albany, the venerable professional
company will present seven shows this year, two of them musicals.
That ratio isn’t going to change, says Mancinelli-Cahill.
But she admits ticket sales to the company’s more serious
plays “are significantly down.”
this year,” she notes, “if we take Woman in Black,
A Walk in the Woods, Times Like These and The
Syringa Tree”—a Victorian ghost tale, a Cold War “dramedy,”
a story about a Jewish actress in Nazi Germany, and a one-woman
show about South Africa—“all of them together didn’t equal
the single ticket sales to Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” (the
Fats Waller musical).
Up in Saratoga, Stacie Mayette, general manager of Home Made
Theater, has noticed that often the risky choice in the company’s
four-play season will be the drama. While a familiar title
can help draw audiences in—“This year, the phone is ringing”
for a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—shows
like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Shirley Valentine,
and Dancing at Lughnasa have proved to be less popular.
like The Lion in Winter was really down there (in sales),”
The problem isn’t unique to this area, says Max.
talked to 15 or 20 regional theaters across the country. If
they do dramas, it will be something new. But they will do
a lot of comedy, a lot of musicals, because they’ve got to
pay the bills.”
Even Broadway is shying away from serious drama, relying on
TV and movie stars and revivals and screen-to-stage adaptations
to sell tickets—Spamalot, the new musical based on
the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, being just
the latest example of a trend that includes Mamma Mia!,
a musical built around the disco hits of ABBA.
Most theater managers say they have no problem doing comedies
or musicals, but the dwindling interest in serious plays troubles
about the classics?” asks Max. “Will 35-year-olds never see
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, never see Death of
a Salesman? That worries me. Yet these are the plays that
are hard to maintain.”
One company that still performs the classics—the Greek tragedy
Agamemnon was on last year’s schedule—is Main Street
Stage in North Adams, Mass. With barely 50 seats in its tiny
storefront theater, Main Street has an advantage over bigger
venues with higher production costs. Even so, it’s been a
struggle carving out a niche for the company. Although home
to MASS MoCA and surrounded by cultural institutions throughout
the Berkshires, this economically depressed, blue-collar city
is still wary of serious art.
been in North Adams for a few years, but I still feel like
we’re missionaries up there,” adds Spencer Trova, Main Street’s
Main Street’s latest production, The Unexpected Man
by the French author Yasmina Reza, a series of alternating
monologues that demands the audience’s full attention, is
hardly the type of light entertainment audiences seem to be
asking for. But, Trova insists, “These pieces are important
just fortunate that we’re this small little theater,” McDonald
says. “It allows us to take chances.”
Jonathan Whitton’s company the Objective also has managed
to break even by thinking small. The 2002 Skidmore College
graduate has chosen to target a specific audience: the college
crowd. Theater’s core constituency has always been older,
and local companies keep that in mind when choosing material.
Whitton knows younger audiences crave edgier writing.
Simon feels dated to them,” he says.
Last summer, the Objective scored with Phaedra’s Love,
a modern reworking of another Greek tragedy involving murder
and incest. Ads cautioned, “Not intended for the faint of
heart or weak of stomach!” and performances at Caffe Lena,
in the heart of Saratoga’s bar and restaurant district, started
at 11 or 11:30 PM.
marketed it as blood-and-sex, off-the-wall, Jerry Springer-type
show,” Whitton explains. “It was a weird little event they
could see when they got off waiting tables at night.”
Whitton, who also sits on the artistic board of Home Made
Theater, knows larger companies just don’t have the luxury
of offering the kind of controversial material he can produce.
will never see Torch Song Trilogy, sadly, at Home Made
Theater,” he says.
It costs at least $300,000 for the nonprofit professional
resident theater Capital Rep to mount a production. Even shows
that sell out all 286 seats recoup only 65 percent of those
lose money on all of our plays,” Mancinelli-Cahill says.
With almost 500 seats, filling the WPA-era Spa Little Theater
building in the Saratoga Spa State Park is an even bigger
challenge for Home Made Theater.
we sit down to choose a season, it’s more and more difficult,”
says HMT’s Mayette. “There’s more and more pressure to make
the ‘right’ choices. If we could make 200 seats go away, we
For Carol Max, Curtain Call Theatre is a business that has
to pay its own way. Lately, that’s been a struggle.
could have packed houses and expand the theater if I did a
season of farce. But do I want to? Is that my mission?” she
asks. “I didn’t go into owning a theater just to do fluff.
I want them to leave the theater and have something to think
Why are audiences so reluctant to see a play that will make
them think? Theater people have their own theories.
a dumbing down of the American populace, much to the glee
of a lot of people who hold power in the country,” says Main
Street’s artistic director and cofounder, Bruce T. McDonald.
Mancinelli-Cahill believes this new attitude is a lingering
remnant of the changes that swept Americans four years ago,
on Sept. 11, 2001.
lives shifted on 9/11,” says. “How we think about our leisure
time, how far in advance we plan to spend that very precious
discretionary money is changed. They’re skittish. They wait
before they decide to do something.”
For theaters, that means fewer subscribers to help companies
stay afloat with an influx of cash at the start of the season.
But nowadays even the single-ticket buyers have been hard
to attract. Competition from other media, coupled with less
free time, may be part of the problem.
through the entertainment clutter is very difficult for independent
theater,” says Mancinelli-Cahill. “How many cable stations
do you have access to when you’re home? How many more hours
are you working or shuttling children around? People are busier
than they used to be. For some people, going out feels like
And the traditional ways of bringing in new audiences aren’t
working, either. High-school and college students no longer
want to stand on line for discount “rush” seats—and they’re
more likely to spend money for a concert than for Ibsen. One
way Capital Rep is trying to counteract that is by inviting
public schools to shows like A Raisin in the Sun, with
the goal of grooming future drama lovers. Theaters have also
stepped up their presence on the Internet: Capital Rep recently
added online ticketing to its website.
But the most sweeping change may be in what patrons see on
are different philosophies about what live theater needs to
be,” Mancinelli-Cahill explains. “Theater now needs to be
an event. It has to have an ‘aura’ around it.”
What works for big musicals and avant-garde productions like
Phaedra’s Love can work for serious plays, when they
have an attention-grabbing gimmick.
had very high ticket sales for The Blue Room,” Mancinelli-Cahill
says. “But you can’t do every play with nude people. A thoughtful
play like A Walk in the Woods is not going to be an
event. But is it as worthwhile? Absolutely.”
Carol Max agrees, even though plays like last year’s Taking
Leave, which deals with Alzheimer’s, cut too close to
the bone for some of her audience.
lot of people walked out at intermission,” Max recalls. “But
I would do it again. It educated people and it brought out
Main Street’s McDonald says, “Theater is the key to a better
place for us all. We work on the presumption that the audiences
are intelligent enough to handle these plays. We have to hope
people are going to walk into the theater and say, ‘Oh wow,
what have I been missing?’”
Ultimately, Capital Rep’s Mancinelli-Cahill says that if it
takes a musical to get ’em in the door, she’ll accept it.
a heartbreaker for an artistic director not to have lines
out the door for a play like The Syringa Tree,” says.
“It’s ephemeral, you won’t see it on television, there won’t
be a DVD. It’ll be one time and never again.
don’t care if people love musicals, if they come to my theater.”