How small theaters could win their fight with the calendar

[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

So here’s the challenge of L.A.’s small theater in an appropriately tiny nutshell: It’s almost impossible to grow an audience or generate any cultural buzz in a theater smaller than 99 seats with a run that’s only six weeks.

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesLet’s assume that the goal is to build an audience beyond the regular ticket buyers at any given theater. The challenge is twofold.

First obviously is size. With less than 99 seats, it’s challenging to make an impact on a county of 10 million people.

Second, you’re fighting the calendar. Let’s assume that your show opens and instantly gets both great reviews and fantastic word-of-mouth (the latter being more valuable than the former). Even if every person in your audience tells their friends to see the show and everyone who reads (or hears) the review decides they should go – you’re already in week two. Your new (potential) audience member still has to make plans. Let’s say that takes a week. Now you’re in week three. Your show is halfway through its run. You see the problem? By the time the news of a great show has made it beyond a theater’s existing audience, the show is ready to close.

That’s why I’m always excited to see a play in Los Angeles extend.

It’s evidence that the show:

  1. Found an audience.
  2. Has producers, artists and a theater that have the capacity to extend.
  3. Has a chance to create buzz beyond the regular theater community.

That last point is the most important. While L.A. theater has its fair share of bad theater, that’s not really the problem. The problem is really good theater is closing before a critical mass of Angelenos get a chance to see it. Shows that are worthy of an extension (or a longer extension) aren’t getting them. As a community, we’re not making the most of our best.  Extensions are a sign of health and growth.

But an extension at 99 seats (or at least the same 99 seats) is really only tackling the calendar challenges. It’s an extension in time, not an expansion of scale.

The missing piece in Los Angeles’ theater ecosystem is an infrastructure that encourages not only extending plays but more importantly transferring plays to other theaters. A transfer is when you take an existing production and move it, usually, to a larger theater. We hear about off-Broadway to Broadway transfers all the time.)

I couldn’t help but think, as the house manager crammed yet another seat into the tiny Atwater theater for “Watching O.J.” last Sunday: Where is the midsize theater for this show to transfer to? More importantly, where is the producer with both the infrastructure and the capacity to move this show and help it find a larger audience.

Now, I’m not sure that “Watching O.J.” could make the leap from 60 seats to 300 but I am sure that until we see small theater in Los Angeles both extending and transferring to other theaters, we are not going to make a dent in either the size of the audience or the reputation of intimate theater in Los Angeles.