“What if . . . instead of relying on gut reactions and chemistry, we figured out a way to describe, observe, and measure what we are looking for?”
At my blog Love’s Labors Lost, I asked, “What if . . . Indie theatre played Moneyball?”
Inspired by the film currently playing at a theater near you, the idea is to peel away layers of assumptions that go into our collective wisdom about how to make theatre then replace them with processes that incorporate the scientific method and statistical analysis. The goal is to reveal true value as opposed to guestimating and hoping for the best.
On the surface, the idea may seem counterintuitive, even blasphemous. Am I suggesting that we, as artists, replace our instincts, gut feelings, and experiences with cold, hard statistics?
Oftentimes what we call intuition, gut feeling, or instinct confirms rather than challenges our biases and habits and expectations. What this can lead to is a narrowness of vision that, instead of seeing what’s really there, can only recognize what it already knows. How does this play out in today’s theatrical landscape? A theatre community that is overwhelmingly White, male, and middle to upper class. Naturally, this is not a result of some moral failing on our part, but because the norms which have shaped our lives become the default that we work from unless deliberately and consistently challenged.
For someone like me, who cares very deeply about the fact that despite the reality of diversity in New York City, our stages reflect only a narrow subset of the people who live here, “moneyballing” theatre presents a fantastic opportunity to overcome the disparities we often reproduce in spite of our best intentions.
What if, instead of relying on gut reactions and chemistry, we figured out a way to describe, observe, and measure what we are looking for?
The answer to this question presents far-reaching implications for the way we select works, choose cast and crew members, engage our audiences, secure funding, and even how we structure our organizations and institutions.
As artists, representing artistic qualities in measurable terms may seem paradoxical, even impossible, but this does not make the idea less valuable. It just means that the effort will require more creativity and rigor on our part.
It starts by asking: Where are our decisions as theatre makers governed by conventional wisdom that is not supported by fact?
Let’s take an idea we take for granted that is closely paralleled in Moneyball. That is, the idea that, if the people we work with are good enough, we will be successful. Is that really true? Does the crème de la crème rise to the top while the dreck languishes in obscurity? Do the productions that sell the most tickets and get the most positive reviews fully represent the most interesting, vital, and engaging theatre happening right now?
At the risk of undermining my own point, I doubt that is the case.
Which is more likely – that the people working on these successful productions are truly the best of the best, or that these productions have found a way to synchronize and maximize the unique talents of each individual?
So why do we spend so much time, energy and money on auditions, headshots, printing and mailing scripts, crafting our resumes and curricula vitae, and other things to convince others that we are good enough? Why do we spend so much time looking for “good enough” when we don’t even describe how “good enough” looks, sounds, moves, and functions? If our goal is to discover each artist’s unique value, why do our methods for finding it fail to consistently do that?
Furthermore, how can we replace conventional wisdom about what makes someone good enough with concrete descriptions of what we need people to do? What are some small changes we can start making right now to make it easier to do just that? What would it take to make these changes?
At #2amt, we talked briefly about what “moneyballing” theatre would be like, and a few ideas emerged:
- clearly stated expectations in plain-English terms
- practical, honest self-assessment of our abilities as theatre makers
- alignment between artist and the organization’s mission and aesthetic
- An example that came up was an audition notice that describes what actors would need to do, such as “must know the lines cold by first rehearsal and convey traits ABC in a compelling way.” Imagine play submission guidelines that were upfront, such as, “seeking a play of a running time between 90 and 120 minutes for a cast size of 2-6 that has a starring role for a woman aged 25-35 that is not a mother, damsel in distress, or sex object.”
How would you “moneyball” different aspects of the production process?
SHAWN C. HARRIS (Playwright, producer, founder of Crossroads Theatre Project) Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and currently residing in Brooklyn, Shawn found playwriting through an unconventional path involving role-playing games, attempts at screenwriting, and a creative writing course during her sophomore year at Florida A&M University. Tulpa, or Anne&Me is her second full-length play and the first piece developed by Crossroads Theatre Project. Shawn is committed to using theater to transform how we understand the world in order to lead to justice, freedom, and healing. You can find Shawn online at Love’s Labors Lost and Ars Marginal.