Theater Business Models: The Next Frontier

Scott Walters, Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina, encouraging arts organizations to really consider innovation in performing arts' business models

I’m a theatre historian, and as such I am prone to making sweeping generalizations without batting an eye, especially when I am trying to cover 2500 years of theatre history in a single semester course. Here’s an example of such a generality: theatre people spent the first 2000+ years innovating about theatre spaces: they invented the arena theatre of ancient campfire storytelling, the thrust stage of the Greeks and Elizabethans, the moveable stages of the medieval mysteries and commedia, the proscenium of the Italian Renaissance. Throughout most of that time, while storytelling techniques waxed and waned, generally speaking we had a fairly consistent form: plays written in verse with a presentational relationship between the actors and the audience (i.e., usually somebody talked directly to the audience), and a mixture of words, music, and dance. We then spent about 300 years getting really good at writing plays — Shakespeare, Moliere, etc. Then in the 20th century (if you extend the 20th century back to the 1870s), we spent most of our time developing “isms“: realism, naturalism, expressionism, symbolism, dadaism, theatricalism, absurdism, and so on. Postmodernism stands as the end point of the “ism” period, an admission that we’ve pretty much discovered all the isms there are and now all that’s left is to create mashups out of them.

So we up until now innovated about space and about form — what’s next? Well, in my opinion, the next area for innovation is (drum roll, please) in theatre’s business model. […] Back in 1947, Albert Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Well, without a new business model (or, better yet, many new models), I predict theatre will end up back gathered in a circle on the threshing floor telling stories around the fire, the theatrical equivalent of sticks and stones.

 

This is a subject that really fascinates me, particularly when I'm at board meetings for arts organizations.  Most artists work very hard to look ahead, to create ahead. Sure the great ones know the history of their craft very well, respect it, and they look ahead. On the other hand the boards and operations, in essence those artists' support systems, seem determined to continue to do their work, their art, only in ways that worked before.  

The fact is, as Walters mentions on his blog, most regional theaters, and I would venture most performing arts organizations, are working on the business model first made popular by Danny Newman's Subscribe Now!, first available in 1977. 

Marketing and advertising struggle with this as well, with a changing world that may not be interested in what they have to offer unless is presented in a better, more relatable way.

Technology on the other hand is all about innovative models, sometimes very risky but often revolutionary. Arts organizations need to start thinking a bit more like startups, reconsider how they get funding and how they make, market and sell their "product." We don't like to think about art as a product but the truth is the audience we need for the arts to survive thinks of it that way. 

We need to learn to trust the artists we align ourselves with that they will create worthwhile art, while they in turn have to learn to trust us, the behind the scenes, that we will create worthwhile ways of telling the world and make money. The status quo is no longer a successful business model. 

 

 
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Antonio Ortiz

Antonio Ortiz has always been an autodidact with an eclectic array of interests. Fascinated with technology, advertising and culture he has forged a career that combines them all. In 1991 Antonio developed one of the very first websites to market the arts. It was text based, only available to computer scientists, and increased attendance to the Rutgers Arts Center where he had truly begun his professional career. Since then Antonio has been an early adopter and innovator merging technology and marketing with his passion for art, culture and entertainment. For a more in-depth look at those passions, visit SmarterCreativity.com.

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