Artistic Director Karen Azenberg and Managing Director Chris Lino talk about the results of our annual Audience Survey.
“One of the annual rites of the theatre season at PTC is our audience survey, a tradition that dates back more than thirty years to Keith Engar’s tenure as Artistic Director. For all those years we’ve been asking our patrons to give us their reactions to musicals and plays we’re considering for the following season.
“Almost as interesting as the survey results themselves are the questions our patrons ask in the comments section, and in letters and e-mails to us.
“We’re putting the finishing touches on our 2013-14 season, which we’ll announce in the next few weeks, but we thought we’d take a moment to answer some of the commonly asked questions we receive from patrons:
With all the new musicals that have just come out on Broadway, why don’t you do more new musicals, rather than revivals of old musicals?
“We’re always on the lookout for new musicals, and in the past few years we have produced the Utah premieres of a number of new musicals— Ragtime, The Light in the Piazza, Next to Normal, and In the Heights—which we thought our audiences would enjoy. There are several other fabulous new musicals—Once and Newsies are examples—that we will produce as soon as we can get the rights.
“At the same time, there are some musicals—the “blockbuster” musicals like Wicked and The Lion King—for which the rights are simply not available, and won’t be available for professional regional theatres for many years. Generally, if a show is still running on Broadway and the national tours of those shows are out, the rights to those shows will not be granted to regional theatres like PTC. Bear in mind that when PTC produced Les Misérables in 2007, we were the first theatre in the country to be given the rights to produce that musical—and that was more than twenty years after it opened on Broadway.
“Finally, to be blunt about it, every year there are a number of musicals which open on Broadway which we just don’t think are very good. Sometimes those shows have great titles and marketing hooks (we won’t mention any names, but you passionate musical lovers may be able to guess what shows we’re talking about), but they just don’t measure up. I (Karen speaking here) see every musical and play on Broadway every year because I’m a Tony voter, and every time I walk into a theatre on Broadway I’m hoping I’ll be blown away, but it doesn’t always happen. It costs PTC between $600,000 and $1 million to produce a musical, so before we invest those kinds of dollars in producing a show we have to really believe in that show.”
Why produce a musical like Fiddler on the Roof when you’ve done it before and so many other theatres in Utah have produced it recently?
“OK, we’ll take some of the suspense away: we’re not doing Fiddler next year, even though it was the most requested musical on this year’s survey.
“But this does raise a very challenging question for us. There are a relatively small number of musicals that are generally regarded as masterpieces of the musical theatre form—Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, (add your own favorite to the list). And, when you include community theatres, high school productions, and Ward productions, there are a lot of theatres in Utah, and they love to produce these musicals.
“But if we only did musicals that no one else produced, we’d be limiting ourselves to most of the Stephen Sondheim catalogue (no offense, Mr. Sondheim!) and a few other interesting but fairly obscure titles. And, like the classics of Shakespeare, we happen to think that great musicals are worth revisiting, not every year but what we’ll call generationally—that is, roughly twenty years apart, when a new generation of theatergoers will be experiencing these shows for the first time.
“And, at the risk of sounding egotistical, we do believe that we can produce these shows at the highest professional levels—at our best, as good as you’d see on Broadway—and we think there is value in that.”
Clybourne Park was fantastic. My friends and I loved it and have been talking about it for weeks! Why don’t you do more challenging new theatre like that, rather than the safe, conservative theatre that is done by a lot of other theatres in town?
Clybourne Park was disgusting! Why do you do shows like that when your audience doesn’t enjoy them? The night we were there the theatre was only half full, and many people, like us, left at intermission.
“Well, of course, these two questions answer each other to a certain extent. In Salt Lake City, as in New York and everywhere in the world that theatre is produced, musicals and comedies draw larger audiences than challenging new work. But a significant portion of our audience—let’s say, unscientifically, from our box office results 60% of our season patrons— crave challenging new work and would like to see more of it. And there’s another theatre audience out there, generally younger, who only comes when we do this kind of work. They find our older shows boring, and if we don’t reach out to them with some of our programming choices we’re going to find ourselves with no audience in twenty years.
“At the same time, to our audience members who wish we would do more challenging work, you have to recognize, as we do, that the audiences for those shows are smaller than for other types of work we do. It would be nice if every show we did had a huge and inexhaustible audience, but it just isn’t so. The 500 people a night who came to Clybourne Park are all very well and good, but if we didn’t produce a few shows that drew 800-900 people a night, we’d be in serious trouble pretty fast.
“And, in the final analysis, a season of nothing but uplifting and pleasant musicals would get pretty bland very fast, just as a season of nothing but serious, topical and thought-provoking dramas would be pretty overbearing and, frankly, exhausting—for us and for our audience.
“We’re just like you: we like to laugh, we like to hum the tunes as we leave the theatre, but we also like, from time to time, to be challenged. And so we try to tread a very careful line in mixing up our season offerings.”
You say you’re committed to classics, but that seems to mean only Shakespeare and the occasional Tennessee Williams. Why don’t you ever do other classics—Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw or, on the American side, Albee, Miller and O’Neill?
“That’s a fair criticism. We should mix up our classic offerings, and we’ll look to do that in coming seasons.”
And, speaking of Shakespeare, when you do Shakespeare, why don’t you do it in the period Shakespeare intended, rather than trying to show us how clever the director is by setting it in different periods?
“This is a tricky question to answer, because in fact in Shakespeare’s day he produced all his plays in Elizabethan costumes, no matter where and when the play was set, with men playing the women’s roles, because those were the conventions of the time, and what his audiences expected.
“We think the legitimate criticism behind this question is, “If the setting you choose for a Shakespeare play doesn’t improve our enjoyment and/or understanding of the play, then the production hasn’t succeeded.” That is a good point, but we’ve both seen Shakespeare productions set in different periods that worked marvelously well, and others that didn’t, and we’ve seen Shakespeare productions in Elizabethan settings that worked marvelously well, and others that didn’t.
‘We agree that the setting and period for Shakespeare should increase the audience’s enjoyment of the piece, not distract or detract from it, but we don’t agree that only productions set in Elizabethan periods can do that.”
Thank you for all your feedback, and watch for an announcement of another fantastic season of theatre that explores the breadth of human experience!
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