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Theatre For Thought, October 20, 2012
THE COST OF THEATRE
I’ve been in New York for five minutes when I meet Jennifer Lopez. Sitting on the F train, trying to make sense of the colored lines that zig zag from Manhattan into Brooklyn, I am interrupted by a heavyset woman with dark frizzy hair. “I’m Jennifer Lopez,” she tells us. “But not that Jennifer Lopez. I’m the homeless one. Will someone give me a dollar?”
Meanwhile, in the pages of the New York Times, a more genuine entertainment story is breaking. Rebecca, a musical based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, was set to be the big opening on Broadway this Fall. Rehearsals were set to start the week I arrived but less than 24 hours before the first read-through, the production had been scuttled. According to the NY Times, stockbroker Mark C. Hotton likely invented four crucial investors who were set to bring in $4.5 million dollars of the show's $12 million dollar budget. The show had other troubles, having suffered cancellations and the death of a major investor earlier this year.
I find myself at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, not far from the corner of West 11th. It’s the place where the poet Dylan Thomas had his last drink
The shocking thing about the story, at least for me, was not the allegations of fraud but the cost of the show. “$12 million dollars?” I asked my producers. “Isn’t that a little much?”
The producers laughed at me. “Silly Canadian,” they said. “In New York, that’s relatively cheap.” This is the world, after all, where Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark came with a $75 million pricetag; meanwhile, the musical version of Shrek was $25 million. That’s how Broadway shows are measured these days: in millions.
Later that week, I find myself at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, not far from the corner of West 11th. It’s the place where the poet Dylan Thomas had his last drink; it’s also the place where my friend, a lifelong New Yorker, is enlightening me on the economic mess that is New York Theatre.
“My buddy’s doing a show off-Broadway,” he says. “Not much production values but the whole thing costs $900,000. Even if he sells out every show of the run, he’ll never make his money back.”
I grimaced; I was trying to imagine asking the Canada Council for the Arts for $900,000. I was trying to imagine going to a bank and asking for a loan on a business that was incapable of turning a profit.
Canadians like to be pretty smug about the fact that we aren’t Americans and yet I had to admit that all of this was sounding eerily familiar. The Rebecca story has echos of the Garth Drabinsky / Livent scandal while Canada’s theatres, large and small, continue to scramble for creative ways to turn a proft. For nine years I produced theatre in Montreal; each time I sat down to draw up a budget, I looked at the numbers and saw the same thing. “Even if I sell out every performance,” I said, “I’ll never make my money back.”
Obviously we shouldn’t be going the route of Garth Drabinsky or Mark C Hotton
In science there’s something called the Uniformity Principle: it’s an assumption that the natural laws of our part of the universe can be applied elsewhere. This principle appears to apply to both solar systems and theatre companies: things are the same all over. Whether it’s Montreal, Toronto or New York, the situation appears to be the same: nine times out of 10, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see a profit.
There’s definitely a certain value in producing art simply for the sake of producing art. But if theatre is going to evolve, it must find a way to make itself into an attractive investment for even those who are not artistically inclined. Obviously we shouldn’t be going the route of Garth Drabinsky or Mark C Hotton – embezzlement and phantom investors probably aren’t the best way to win friends and influence people (or am I being naïve?).
Still one can’t blame them for trying to get creative. Terrible movies are made every day because even terrible movies make money; but when even good theatre can’t put investors in the black, one has to worry about the future of the theatrical arts. Producing theatre, said my friend, is pretty much akin to buying a really expensive scratch ticket. Yes, yes, the folks who produced The Fantastiks in 1960 have made a 250% profit; but then there’s all those poor sods who thought putting their savings into Rebecca was a really good idea.
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