Was Rocco right? Is there too much theater out there?

Leave it Rocco to create a little controversy.

Last week, our National Endowment for the Arts Chairman had this to say about the economic challenges facing theaters around the country today:

“You can either increase demand or decrease supply.  Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

This frightening rational argument set the blogosphere ablaze with comments defending our ability to increase demand.  There was a rallying cry of “We can do it!” heard from theater folks all over the country, and some even called for Rocco’s resignation for his seemingly defeatist attitude about our inability to increase our audience.

But was he wrong?

Rocco was referring to regional theaters in his speech, and since that isn’t my area of expertise, I’ll refrain from chiming in.

But I will talk about Broadway.

If you’re been reading my blog for awhile, then you know I’ve been jumping up and down and waving my arms like a crazy person about our attendance figures.  For the three years prior to this season, our attendance has dropped . . . a trend which has not occurred in 25 years.  (Gulp)  We are picking up some of those last bodies this year, but we’ve got a long way to go to get back to earlier levels.  At the same time, we keep celebrating because our grosses get bigger and bigger every year.  Less people but more money.  (I’m not sure if raising prices to make up for the gap is the most sound economic policy . . . you?)

So as Rocco said, demand has not just leveled off, it has dropped.

At the same time, this past Fall saw an increase of almost 10% of the number of playing weeks of Broadway shows.  Yep, despite less people coming, we produced more shows.  And all of this in the middle of an economic pullback.

We have to be one of the only industries in the history of industries that in the midst of a recession, actually increases production!  Imagine if right after asking for a bailout, Detroit decided to start producing more cars.  Imagine if in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, a construction company said, “What we need to do is build more homes!”

But that’s exactly what we do.

And some of the shows that have been produced, let’s face it, might not have needed to be.  (I can name at least 2 if not 3 shows that could have stayed off the Broadway boards this year and saved a lot of folks a lot of money.)

But the free market allows for anyone to produce anything, as long as they can raise the money and get a coveted theater.

What might be better for all of us, is if we took a second look at shows before we rushed out and got them done.  Slowing production, or decreasing supply, as Rocco said, might make us . . .

  • Focus on the audience that is here and give them better quality shows that they’ll enjoy more
  • Save investors money since there is more risk for failure if there are more shows than there is audience
  • Create more competion between our vendors and therefore stabilize or, God forbid, lower prices.

So, while I do disagree with Rocco in that I believe there are a number of things we can do to increase demand, and we should . . . he wasn’t wrong about the state of our supply.

We just might not want to hear it.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.