My Life As a Seat-Counter

by Justin Maxwell

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Last July, I walked through the Connolly bookstore and into The New Theatre, counted the number of seats, and thought: this’ll probably be a good show. I was in a theatre I didn’t know, in a city I didn’t know, in a country I didn’t know. The venue was unknown to me; the company was unknown to me; the script was unknown to me. But I knew I was probably going to have a good time because the house had 66 seats. The show came up; it was about James Joyce’s parakeets and their struggles to be successful electronic musicians—the parakeets were played by an actor in a parakeet costume and by an actual parakeet. I had a fabulous time.

As I left the theatre, I realized I had become a seat-counter. I walk into theatres with more than 250 chairs and I cringe. 250 down to 100 and I’m hopeful, but hesitant. 100 chairs or less and I get excited. I value theatre that takes aesthetic, stylistic, and conceptual risks. I like to leave the theater feeling like I just got off a roller coaster and asking: “what the hell was that?” After all, the answer to that question can be anything. The siren call of that question draws me to the unknown night after night in the theater and day after day at my writing desk.

Most people outside of the arts resist the question “what the hell was that?” because it feels like a threat instead of a promise. People avoid threats. Not enough people perceive the promise to fill a 250 seat house for a full run. A small venue can build a community that values the opportunity to ask “what the hell was that?” It can get 100 like-minded art-lovers, lovers who will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, who will fill a small house for a run. We need to make theater for theater-makers. This isn’t exclusionary (non-theater people aren’t coming too often anyway); this is a pragmatic survival tactic. It’s how we begin to thrive in the heretofore unexperienced paradigms of contemporary society. We need to nurture the theatre community we have and ignore the false paradigm of perpetual growth that causes so much trouble in late-stage capitalism. The poetry world should be our model. I started my writing life as a poet, and didn’t become a playwright until grad school; I saw the poetry world deal with a small and shrinking readership. Yet within that context, I’ve seen the poetry community thrive.

The poetry community thrives because it has become small, integrated, and lean. Small presses with small runs are the norm, with a strong contingent readily adopting new media. While individually small, their collective might makes these presses the fourth largest publishing house in the world. A single ant is powerless; an ant colony can change an ecosystem. Because of inter-community communication, poetry (and the rest of the small press community) integrates in a way we don’t. Albeit on different nights, I’ve heard Ann Carson read in the same room as Richard Hell, both sponsored by the same institutions. Any community that supports an icon of Classical scholarship and an icon of punk rock is an integrated community indeed!

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an artistic director dismiss risky work by casually saying “that’s not really theatre” or “that’s not right for our audience.” Such intrinsic privilege is a remnant [revenant?] of the theatre world before the ubiquity of electronic media. If I want entertainment, I can have it from Netflix with three clicks of a mouse. I can do it from my couch, and it costs next to nothing. Such a singular experience may deprive me of a shared experience with a collective of strangers, but of course, if shared experience were my primary motivator for seeing theatre I’d attend nearly any semi-pro sporting event, which would provide me with a much larger “community.” Simply calling a given night’s audience a “community” is a red herring dragged out to draw us to the memory of profitable, entertainment-driven theatre. What poet, painter, or sculptor puts entertainment before art? A desperate attempt for the last few entertainment dollars of a denuded capitalism keep us mired in aesthetics that would be laughed out of the poetry or fine arts communities.

The poets read each other’s poems, buy each other’s books, and honor each other’s aesthetics. None of them get rich, most of them get by. The small presses get by too. Their runs sell out; their basement offices are a tax deduction; they are paperless until books arrive from the printer. Poetry communities are far from perfect and prone to all the foibles and cruelties of the human condition, but even with those problems, they are thriving where we are floundering.

Many theaters still have the memory of fat, and their bodies miss it. On a particularly telling weekend in Minneapolis, I met with an artistic director who was worried about her photocopier. It was failing, and a new one was beyond the company’s shrunken means. The artistic director couldn’t see how to possibly operate without one; they read scripts on paper, after all. The next night, I met with another company that ran their entire theatre off a smart phone, including the box off and credit card sales. One company needed office space and a support staff; the other company needed a shirt pocket. One company put 90 people in a 200 seat house and wept; the other put 80 people in a 75 seat house and rejoiced! Who doesn’t prefer joy to weeping?

In another moment of joy, I and a director were at rehearsal and joking, as theatre makers often do, that we were too busy making theatre to go see theatre. We realized our entire cast and crew wanted to attend a show that another company was staging, but our rehearsal schedule completely covered their run. The director promptly cancelled one rehearsal (freeing a block of time already set aside), so our company could attend the other show. We bought a block of tickets for a group discount and went together. The night off, the celebration of our art form, and the stronger bonds we formed gave us a better show than another night in rehearsal would have. As an added bonus the company we went to see was so impressed that they name dropped our show during their curtain call and then came, as a group, to our performance. Two small and lean companies were willing to integrate and both thrived for that choice.

At the end of the day, small, integrated and lean applies to spaces too. A show of mine with a demanding set, very complex staging, and elaborate video elements was staged at The Shadowbox Theatre in New Orleans, a small, lean space that’s learning to integrate. My demanding show and its fragile stage—for pictures of the Minneapolis premier, see American Theatre magazine’s “Production Notebook,” Feb 2014—was followed by a messy late-night burlesque show. The venue owner and producer helped devise a set that with ten minutes of attention could accommodate both shows. He could have our show and then the burlesque show. He got two box office takes in one night. The two shows had little in common: both were funny, and both consciously used sexuality as key parts of their narrative. This was enough to begin some integration. Our curtain call mentioned the sexy, comedy burlesque that followed, and some of our patrons stuck around, bought a drink or two in the lobby, and watched the next show. The burlesque audience was told about our show and came back the next night, since they now associated the venue with a good time. More importantly, both audiences intermingled in the lobby. No advertising could sell either show better than excited patrons talking to each other. The Shadowbox’s steps towards integration built community—the burlesque community joined up with the theatre community and vice versa. Keep in mind, this wasn’t us reaching out to them but each community reaching out to itself, i.e. actors talking to theatre patrons, burlesque performers talking to burlesque patrons. Each group talked up the other community to their own community. Audience members with nothing to gain talked honestly to each other—the language poets talk to the slam poets talk to the nature poets. Both shows sold out more nights of their run because of their integration.

I never chose to become a seat counter, but I’m always searching for innovative work. Counting seats helps me find it. The current struggles in our communities are struggles the poetry world moved beyond a generation ago. If we want to thrive in the current economic environment, we need to follow their models. Start counting for yourself, and see: a 250 seat house is a headache; an 85 seat house can be anything.

Justin Maxwell’s An Outopia for Pigeons was recently performed by Swandive Theatre in Minneapolis and The Shadowbox Theatre in New Orleans. Justin is currently developing a work with the Minneapolis-based dance company Mad King Thomas, titled “The Weather Is Always Perfect.” His play Your Lithopedion is published by Indie Theatre Now. Justin is a founding editor of the literary journal Midway and an Assistant Professor teaching playwriting in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans.