What If…Theatres Played Moneyball?

by Shawn C. Harris

in What If

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(Learn more about the What If…? Project and what comes next)

“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?

Well, yes.

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.

  • http://www.BlackOpsArtist.com Michael Wayne Rice

    Love this post. It is high time we start to make some drastic changes to our community. I am, for one, all for the idea of applying more scientific principles to our art form, although I am no statistician.

    For some reason it is scary for artists to have clear goals and expectations put down on paper. I think part of that fear may come from the fact that artists are constantly bombarded with negative comments from society (“Ohh you’re an actor? You spent all that money on a degree so you can make no money?”. And comments like that). Having clearly stated goals and expectations makes it very easy to see where one is failing and who needs to see that right?

    Well I say, we all need to see that. We all need to see what is working and what is not. It is how we grow and expand and succeed.

    Personally, I have an artistic business plan. I run a website dedicated to the marketing, branding and using the art of influence to help artist move ahead in their career. I also have a paper called THE PERFORMING ARTS PROFIT MANIFESTO, that I propose will help theatres GROW by addressing some of the biggest problems our industry faces and proposing a simply solution.

    I am about identifying problems and offering solutions. Practical ones.

    Thank you for this post. I am glad to see someone out there looking outside of our industry to help come up with solutions to our problems.

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    Thanks for your response.

    To be honest, it’s funny that you mention looking outside of theatre for solutions to theatre problems. I’ve never been shy about borrowing ideas from a variety of sources, provided that they work.

    Do you believe theatre artists are reluctant to seek inspiration or solutions from non-theatre or non-artistic sources?

  • http://www.BlackOpsArtist.com Black Ops Artist

    I really, really believe that although I think that with the increased velocity of change we see with new technologies pushing the web forward, the theatre community is slowly starting to come around to accepting that they much change.

    It is my personal belief that if theatres had been looking outside of their industry long ago, we would not be in the hot mess we are in as an industry.

    It is no secret that as an industry and as artists many are stuck in the “but we don’t have any money” mindset, and because of that think that they cannot learn from the for profit sector.

    Many don’t realize that the open source movement, which if you think about it actually began with the advent of the internet (but only within the last 10 to 20 years has been something that the general public has really embraced), provides us with many free tools to help us better spread the word.

    Also I think that because of the avg age of the practitioners who control the theatre community, and the avg age of the avg theatre goer, the theatre community has been ridiculously slow to adopt web technologies. Our audiences are, in general, just to old to really care about web technologies.

    Overall, theatre just doesn’t get how new technologies can help them because they have been entrenched in elitist thinking, the preaching of risk taking but a lack of risk taking action, and the unwillingness to break free of what I call INCEST MARKETING.

    Here is one place where 98% of theatres get it wrong: Copy writing. They don’t know how to write to attract audiences. So we see webpages with esoteric ramblings of what a show is about. We see the same on their postcard marketing campaigns.

    Another area that they get wrong is the information they put on their websites. They love to have copious amounts of text about the artists, about their history, about the staff, about their past productions, etc. When in fact the main thing they should be about is selling a ticket. Very few people outside of the industry go to a theatres website to learn all of the stuff that theatres put up on their website. It’s boring, and says nothing about what a company can offer the consumer. And when a consumer is looking up information, wondering where they can spend their entertainment dollar, they want to know what value they are getting.

    Oh I could continue on this rant, but let me stop. No wait. One more thing that no theatre has really gotten right either. How to run a blog. Every theatre blog that I have been to thinks that consumers want to see and read about the rehearsal process. WRONG!!! And very boring to read about. It’s okay if all you want to attract are some insiders,  the people already practicing within the industry, but I ask you, how many times can you read a blog post about the rehearsal process before getting bored? I am sure you do not seek out to read blog post about the rehearsal process from multiple blog sources. Theatres DO not know how to offer value to the consumer with their blog posting.

    Okay I will stop now :)

    Thank You RVCBard
    P.S. Now I am going to check you out via the interwebs :)

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    Funny that you mention copywriting, as that’s something I do here and there to pay the rent (though I can’t claim any sort of real success at it).

    I agree with you that the web copy for many theatre companies seems designed to bore the reader out of seeing a show. It’s almost as if they put the text of their grant applications in web format. You know what I notice they don’t put front and center? How to buy tickets and/or how to make donations.
    But I digress. Now that you bring it up, I’m almost glad that I came to theatre later in life than a lot of people, as I don’t come with all these ideas of what a production “needs” besides an empty space and people.

  • http://www.BlackOpsArtist.com Black Ops Artist

    Ohhh you hit the NAIL ON THE HEAD with the buy tickets. I have been drumming up interest in my PERFORMING ARTS PROFIT MANIFESTO. because of this I have recently, in the last 3 days, come across at least 350 theatre websites, and I saw 3, I repeat 3, that got the buy tickets right. 2 of them are DadsGarage.com and Boderlandstheater.org. Can’t remember the third. All other theatres, you have to almost strain your eyes to find the buy tickets button. So sad.

    I am going to go the opposite with you on the donation button. I see far too many theatres who have the donation button front and center. It would be interesting to hear from theatres how many donations have come thru via their website donor button. I bet it is a low number. But if they are getting donations from the button, I will almost guarantee it is from some person very familiar with the organization, not some random consumer looking to see a show.

    P.S. I like your blog content. I will be perusing it.

  • Cynthiajclay

    The scientific method on the one hand is called the
    deductive-inductive method because both forms of analysis are used—observe natural
    phenomena, come to general statements of truth about them; make a general
    statement of truth, follow rules of logical to conclusions. It also requires
    experimentation in which you have to compare at least one control group with an
    experimental group. If three independent groups do the experiment in the same
    way and get the same result, the results are assumed to be true. Statistics are
    a form of mathematics that are used to determine trends. Statistics prove
    nothing and can not be used to prove anything. Science is a lot about proving
    things true, so neither the deductive-inductive method nor the experimental
    method is particularly useful to theater.

    Statistics, on the other hand, are useful to theater for it
    reminds us “to know your audience.” Look at your audience. Who are they? Who is
    actually sitting in the seats? If your audience normally consists of women, why
    do you keep doing plays about men? If your audience is multi-cultural, why do
    you keep doing plays about one culture and one race? Also, if you are only
    attracting one sort of audience, what is the audience you are not attracting?
    Who tends to buy tickets is a trend that needs to be tracked, exactly what
    statistics is for.

    However, making theater dramatic, theatrical, and meaningful
    can not be done through the scientific method nor through statistics. It is
    done through the techniques and inspirations of our art. Therefore, if your
    theater is not doing well because you keep doing plays by men about men doing
    things men like and your audience consists mostly of women, well, hello, use the technique of doing the
    opposite of what you are currently doing. If you only produce plays written by
    men that are about men doing things men like, then switch that to plays written
    by women about women doing things women like. However, if that is too much of a
    risk for you, you need only do the opposite of one or two elements: a play by a
    man about women doing things men like; a play by a woman about men doing things
    women like; a play by a man about women doing things women like; a play by a
    woman about women doing things men like.  

    I just visited NYC to see some plays. I saw Love, Loss, and What I Wore. This play
    has run for better than two years and was well attended the night I saw it. It
    is cute, not the best show, but it was practically the only show about women.
    The house was full of women. I also saw War
    Horse, which was great theater, but I was annoyed that the singer, a woman,
    used a low voice, mannish singing, and that the little girl role was about
    pathos not girls’ bravery. The little girl was brilliant and was not given her
    own bow at the curtain call though she deserved it. As theater artists we know
    exactly what to do to break our chains, but a commitment to breaking those
    chains has to be made.

    Cynthia Joyce Clay

  • http://profiles.google.com/troycamplin Troy Camplin

    You might find what I’m doing at Austrian Economics and Literature of interest:

    http://theliteraryorder.blogspot.com

    I will be linking this there today.

    I am also a playwright, btw. If you know of anyone interested in verse plays, let me know. :-)

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    I’m interested in verse plays (even wrote one, if you can call what I wrote verse), but I know of no places that is producing new plays written in verse. :(

    BTW, I’m looking over your site now, and it looks like interesting stuff, especially with making culture primary.

  • Anonymous

    Shawn–this is a great post, and I look forward to seeing how you may build on this idea. My only minor quibble would be that points 1-3 are things that most theatres do, or think they do. Ask 100 theatres if they do “practical, honest self-assessment of [their] abilities as theatre makers” and if they’re  “aligned between artist and the organization’s mission and aesthetic” and they’ll say yes. To be honest, I’m not even sure what that second one means.

    But when you get to the fourth point–really specific casting notices with clear expectations and very clear, specific submission guidelines–I see something I haven’t seen before. I also like the ideas mentioned in the comments to make sure your ticket-buying button is easily accessible (RVCBards), and to do more plays about women (CynthiaJClay) (Company of Stranger’s newest play, “Dreams from a Dead City,” featured a cast of 5 women and 3 men, and it most definitely was *not* about women in traditional gender roles (one of the women played a Steve-Jobs-like CEO with mysterious powers). At no point were shopping or boyfriends mentioned.

    So, fellow theatremakers–how else can we take advantage of hidden resources?

  • http://profiles.google.com/troycamplin Troy Camplin

    I have had only one of my plays produced, for a competition. It won. Audiences, at least, do want verse plays. It’s a shame that theatres are apparently not aware their audiences still love such plays.

    I ended up writing verse plays after I transitioned from writing short stories in my M.A. to writing verse poetry under Frederick Turner for my Ph.D., and writing on tragedy for my dissertation. Combining storytelling with verse to write plays seemed a logical combination. :-)