Archive for July, 2010


As the title of this blog states, I’ve promised to share the latest items from my active desk with the readers of my blog. So this week, this open letter is the most pertinent thing crossing my desk, so here it is:

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Dear Patrons, Supporters, Volunteers, Media and Friends,

By this point, it is likely that you have all heard of the pending foreclosure on the Vandivort Center. This is a situation of which we at Springfield Contemporary Theatre have been aware for the past ten days and have been waiting further developments.

We want to assure you all that this is an issue between our building owner; ABG, LLC; and the bank that holds the note on the building. Like many others, we at the Vandivort Center Theatre are tenants of the building. Ultimately, what this means for us is that we might be getting a new landlord in the immediate future. Likely, this change will only effect behind-the-scenes building issues that impact Executive Producer Lou Schaeffer and myself on a daily or weekly basis and will have no bearing whatsoever on the public presence of the organization. In our sixteen years, the building has changed hands before with no impact on our patrons.

We appreciate all the support and kind words that have been pouring in since the reported and in some cases misreported news of this foreclosure. It is honestly a testament to the presence and reputation the Vandivort Center Theatre has brought to the Vandivort Center property that we are often viewed as one and the same entity. We are anxiously waiting with our fellow tenants to see how this issue will be resolved.

In the mean time, we continue to focus on our mission of bringing the best in contemporary theatre to downtown Springfield and serving the community that has shown its support over the past sixteen years. There is a reason we are the largest and oldest tenants of the Vandivort Center and that is because of all of you.

This current situation reminds us of the harsh economic climate we are all facing. We have maintained a strong professional relationship with AGB, LLC in their time owning and managing our building and our encouragement goes out them in this tough time. As we are spending our season restructuring and building our own organization for the future, we continue to remind our patrons and friends the most important thing you can do is attend and support local arts organizations. The richness and diversity of our community thrives on the vibrant and active arts community we are all working to build.

Sincerely,

Richard Dines
Managing Artistic Director
Springfield Contemporary Theatre at the Vandivort Center

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A re-occuring topic of conversation between myself and others involved in producing or presenting contemporary theatre: Why is it so hard to get audiences excited about coming to see fresh, new works of theatre? This is a topic that producers are dealing with on all levels from Broadway to the smallest of regional theaters.

It would seem that theatre-goers want to go to the theatre and attend shows they have already seen before. A production of “Hello, Dolly” will most often sell more tickets than to say “She Loves Me.” Likewise, tickets to “The Rocky Horror Show” will sell better than those to “Zombie Prom.” I drew the above parallels due to the type of show. Like “Hello, Dolly,” “She Loves Me” is a wonderful classic book musical written by some of the best writers of the American Musical Theatre. However, the show is not as well known. It’s just as strong of a romantic comic musical, but for some reason never took off in the same way. Likewise, both “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Zombie Prom” are campy, off-Broadway horror musicals both with mediocre scripts and scores, but one is a cult classic and the other is relatively obscure.

The thing is that the audience for “Hello, Dolly” would love “She Loves Me” if they were to give it a chance and likewise for the other two titles. So the obvious answer is… well, no one knows “She Loves Me” and “Zombie Prom” that’s why they won’t sell. Thus I pose this argument in regards to ticket sales and attendance. If movie theatres only ran films that were previous box office successes and older films that were classics and included no new films, how long do you think they could stay open? The movie-going public is a much larger percentage of society than theatre-goers. To look to them as a model, they demand new content when they go to their local cineplex. They don’t want to see the same flick they saw last year. Why is then that theatre audiences seem to demand to see the same shows they saw a couple years ago rather than seeing something new?

By all means, this is a topic that could fill a book rather a weekly blog. However, I’ll tackle a few of the things we know. First of all, a movie ticket is most often cheaper than a theatre ticket. There is less risk involved. If you see a movie and hate it, you haven’t wasted as much cash. Also, the movie studios have a few things at their disposal that those of us in the theatre don’t such as huge marketing budgets, star power, internationally regarded and known directors/writers and sequels. While Broadway has tried cashing in on several of these items with varying degrees of success, in the regional theatre we don’t have most of these resources at our disposal.

Basically, Hollywood can succeed in constantly marketing new material due to the “familiarity quotient.” I love Julianne Moore as an actress. I’ll see anything she does on screen with little knowledge of what the film is about or how it faired amongst critics. That kind of selling power can be difficult to harness on a local level.

Thus in theatre to use the familiarity quotient to much success most theatres have felt the need to keep remounting the same shows that audiences have seen over and over again. This seems to work most of the time. Theatre audiences seem ready to shell out their money to see a show they know no matter the quality of the production due to the fact they know they like the show itself. Also keep in mind, while you can pick up your favorite movie and watch it on video any time you choose in the comfort of your own home, you have to catch your favorite play or musical while someone is producing it in a theatre.

We also see this familiarity quotient reflected in the current Broadway shows being produced which are often based on films or other familiar sources: The Addams Family, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Wicked, Shrek, Green Day’s American Idiot, Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Elf, Leap of Faith, Catch Me If You Can and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark just to name a few.

And here’s my conjecture: I feel that most people who would be willing to go to the theatre do not necessarily educate themselves or even know how to educate themselves on what theatre they would most enjoy, so they default to the familiar. This isn’t a knock on the more regular theatre-going public. I truly believe that there are many more people out there that would be willing to go to the theatre, but they don’t know how to pick the shows that they would most enjoy, so they tend to go to the ones they have heard of before regardless of whether that show fits their specific tastes. Then if they aren’t too excited by these shows, they assume all theatre is like this and quit going.

I frequently talk to people who are going to be traveling to New York and would like to see some theatre while they are visiting. They ask me what they should see. Usually the first thing I ask people is to tell me about some shows they have recently seen elsewhere that they really liked. Then I can make some better recommendations to their tastes. I’ve been known to recommend people to see shows I hated, because I knew the shows might be their cup of tea even though they weren’t mine.

I am baffled when speaking to non-theatre-going friends and family who have never been to New York when they say they want to go to New York to see “Phantom of the Opera.” When I ask them questions to better determine their film or music tastes, I can’t figure out why they would want to see this show. I would think there would be a much longer list of titles that would better fit their style. But they insist they want to see “Phantom,” I think, because they’ve heard of it. This is not a good reason to plop down over $100 see a show.

In order to succeed at producing contemporary theatre on a regional level, it begs the question do you strive to present the best quality plays and musicals you can get your hands on or do you find the show with the strongest ‘familiarity quotient’?

Like our locally shot film “Winter’s Bone,” an unknown piece with no stars (and thus no familiarity quotient) can defy the odds and be a success, but how often does it happen?

In my curtain speech before each performance I mention a box we have in our program that states:

HELP!
We need your help. Like so many others we are struggling to keep afloat.
One of our major problems is how to get on people’s radars. You can help us by going home tonight and e-mailing, Facebooking, Tweeting, texting or calling five, or more, friends:
“I saw Springfield Contemporary Theatre’s production of [Name of Show] at the Vandivort Center Theatre and really enjoyed it. I encourage you to attend one of the remaining performances, running through [Closing Date]. Call 831-8001 for more information and tickets.”
If you didn’t enjoy this production, please e-mail our Artistic Director at richard.p.dines@gmail.com.

We appreciate all the promotional help you can give us.
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The content of this message is something we couldn’t feel stronger about. Over the years, great deals of money have been spent trying to figure out the best way to market and promote our productions. In the end, the most effective thing is word of mouth. Nothing sells tickets like having a friend tell you they saw this really great show that you have to see.

We feel just as strongly about the request for responses from individuals who didn’t enjoy the production. We do get some notes from patrons. Executive Producer Lou Schaeffer and I have both been diligent about immediately responding to all letters we receive. Often these letters are in reference not so much to a production, but to a specific element of their experience at the theatre (temperature, noisy patrons, etc.).

Today I received a letter from a patron in the mail. It came without a return address and without a signature. Since I have no way of personally responding to this patron, I’ve decided respond publicly to their concern. I am not publishing this letter and response in a manner to embarrass or disrespect the writer, but rather I would like to respond, but due to the lack of identity on the letter I can not respond privately. Hopefully, the writer of this letter will be reading. Here’s the letter (I have not edited or changed it in any fashion):

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Sir:

We went to the opening on 6/25/2010 of your play “Out of Order”.

You requested us to let others know of the play…and to let you know if we didn’t like the play…..

We did not like the play…..not knowing the plot of the play adultery etc….we would have thought twice before coming. Since we did not know the content of the play and was coming to support one of the players we came.

Ultimately the foul language completely embarrassed us. How sad…..

On a positive note…..the acting was good…..The senator/congressman’s aid absolutely took the show…..with the waiter coming in a very close 2nd.

The reception you had was also very nice…how thoughtful for the actors.

A relative wanting to see it asked me of it and I could not recommend it….what had the foul language have to do with anything…..absolutely nothing…

Such a sadness that one has to lower oneself to this level.

It does look like a good play is coming up later on and I am hoping to be able to go see it “The Secret Garden….. I do hope that it is not ruined by low standards of language….I am going to give it another chance because it is wonderful to see the folks in a setting so easy to see and be comfortable….otherwise it will be our last time supporting your endeavors….

Respectfully submitted

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My response:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I thank you for taking the time out to write to us regarding our current presentation of “Out of Order.” It means a great deal to us that you take the time out to put down your thoughts in regard to our production. Thank you for your kind words regarding the performers. I will be sure to pass these nice words along to them. Also, thank you for complimenting our opening weekend receptions. We do these in order to show our great appreciation not only to our casts and crews, but also our audiences for their support.

In regard to your reservations about this play, I can only say that at Springfield Contemporary Theatre we stand by the work of the playwrights whom we choose to produce. We don’t censor their works. We do not feel that is fair to their or our artistic integrity.

That said, we know that it is our choice to produce works containing such content. As we are a company committed to producing new and original works from contemporary voices, it is to be expected that these works will often contain the language of the day. The plays we choose to produce are brought to us by our team of committed and talented directors. We then select the plays that balance our season and bring a diversity to the works we produce. We are looking to produce shows that speak to a diversity of audiences and raise issues that not only entertain, but also challenge our collaborative artists and audiences.

It is not our intention, however, to mis-lead our audiences in regards to the plays we put on stage. The play description that we have published in our print materials and on our website do include a description of the play that does speak of “Conservative Congressman Richard Willey…attempting to have an affair with one of the secretaries of the House Majority Leader…” and the description does end with “This production contains adult situations and brief, partial nudity.” Our box office is also happy to answer any questions as to the content of any production when taking ticket orders. I personally have fielded a call or two in regards to this production. I was recently ¬†asked by a parent thinking of bringing their teenaged children to the show if the show contained any objectionable material. I told her of the occurrence of any objectionable words and the number times they appeared and I explained in detail the staging of the brief nudity in play. She decided that she was comfortable bringing her children to this production.

We understand that it is the audience member’s decision on whether or not they are comfortable bringing themselves and/or their friends and family to our productions. We want to educate them the best way possible about what to expect without giving away any surprises in the plot of the play. However, we are happy to answer any direct questions when they are of concern to our audiences.

I am sorry that you were not able to enjoy this experience at the theatre due to the play’s content. I do think that “The Secret Garden” will likely be a wonderful show that may fit your tastes. In future, I encourage you to ask our box office if you have any concerns over content in the future, they will be more than happy to help you make a confident decision in your ticket buying.

Thanks again for your patronage!

Richard Dines
Managing Artistic Director
Springfield Contemporary Theatre at the Vandivort Center

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Now the question I pose my blog readers: Is it the job of the theatre producer to put ratings on theatre as the movie studios do? Should we as producers be putting ‘parental blocks’ on our ¬†plays in order to protect our audiences? If we feel that editing plays shows a lack of artistic integrity, should we choose not to produce certain works of contemporary theatre due to the inclusion of strong language and content that might offend some audience members? I pose this question to my readership and our patrons. In doing so I do ask that no personal attacks be made to the patron that took out their time to do just what we have asked and registered their complaint to our production. This was a legitimate concern on their part and for their bravery and honesty to respond I commend them.

So… talk amongst yourselves… what do you think?