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Are New Plays Risky?

ART TIMES Sept, 2004

I’m talking about doing a play that’s never been staged before, the “world premiere” production (and what an empty piece of hype that phrase is! But that’s another rant altogether.)


They certainly have a reputation for it. Just about anything you read that discusses a theater company that premieres new work will have some sort of reference in it to the risk factor of doing new plays.


I think the theory of this is a theory about audience risk: that because the play has never been done before, nobody knows what it’s about, so nobody knows whether or not they want to come and see it. There’s also a concept of artistic risk involved; since the play has never been done before, nobody knows what the best way to do it might be.


I think both of these theories are full of holes.


Let’s take first things first. What is the audience risk of doing a play that’s never been done before? It’s true, of course, that nobody knows what it’s about. That’s true of 90% of the plays that exist in this world. Even among theater artists, how many people can rattle off the plot line of Ion, by Euripides? Of The Second Shepherd’s Play? Of The White Devil, by John Webster? Of Beyond the Horizon, by Eugene O’Neill? Very well-read theater experts know these plays, which are in fact classics of the world’s theater. Everybody else who buys a ticket has to be educated about them, just as if they’d never been done before.


And that’s not just true of the less well known classics. How many people, ordinary ticket buyers, can tell you the story of any three plays randomly picked from the London and New York seasons of the past three years? Yet those plays are at the peak of the profession.


The fact is, unless you’re doing the forty-five-thousandth production of Fiddler on the Roof or My Fair Lady, any of a half-dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, or any of a dozen or so truly famous modern plays, you have to educate your potential ticket buyers about what they’re going to see if you expect them to actually stop by your box office. Classic play, modern play, new play, world premiere—it doesn’t matter. Unless your ticket buyers think they have a good reason to expect to enjoy it, they’ll do something else that does give them that assurance, and there’s no difference between an old play or a new play—they probably won’t ever have heard of it in any case.


And why should they? It’s our business to know the plays. They rely on us to pick good stuff for them. We’re the experts, they’re the people who rely on the experts. If we consistently do a good job of giving them a good experience in our theaters, they will trust us. If we don't, they won’t. It’s that simple. And that complicated.


What about the artistic risk? That’s another story. Tune in next month for another rant!

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