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The Power of Working for Free: Part 2

The audience left us by our forefathers is anemic, in the last throes of death. We have to take responsibility and build our own audience, never resting on our laurels, never catering to one tiny niche of people with money. We need to develop a new relationship with our audience, and sometimes that means giving it away for free.

Free2Jordan Dibe on How Presenting Free Theatre Can Save us All

This article is a follow up, of sorts, to Mack Gordon’s “ THE POWER OF WORKING FOR FREE” which appeared on TheatreIsForSuckers two or so months ago.

 Mack, being a far shrewder, more agile mind than I, lobbed the idea that working for free, particularly in the current drought we face in arts can be not only an artistically fulfilling venture, but more importantly, a long-term investment in pursuing a fruitful career.

It was a great piece.  Networking at a fundraiser or party, shaking hands, ingratiating yourself socially is all well and good…but in my experience I trust the people I’ve worked with before. I value the people whose work ethic I’m confident in, whose artistic vigor and exuberance I’ve had the honour to enjoy first hand. And when it comes time for me to cast a play or film for which I have some real money to spend, I’m going to cast the people I know and trust and have worked with before…  Mack Gordon is a smart guy…you should read his blog. (link)

Reading his piece I could recall people on my facebook raging that I shouldn’t be producing a free show.  “You can’t give it away!”  But frankly Mack’s thesis, working for free is the best kind of networking, strikes me as just as true, if not more acutely appropriate for a theatre company.

The Theatre has neglected its audience, like a cat who gets more love, attention and food from the kids down the block, and eventually doesn’t come back. We sit at home, wondering where he’s gone and finally conclude that he must be dead… but he’s not.  And audiences for the theatre aren’t either. People whine and complain that in a digital age there is no room for theatre, but in reality our industry should be thriving.  We have an incredible advantage over film, television, video games and the internet…we’re in the room with our audience. This isn’t virtual reality, it IS reality. We are in an age overwhelmed by stimulants. We sit idly watching torture-porn, murder, thirty car pile-ups, and the most spectacular space sequences, all of it on a screen for a desensitized audience.  In a theatre you are there.  You can feel the breath on you, taste sweat in the air… audiences should be lining up down the block.

David Ferry, in the midst of an erudite and wide reaching debate on the state of theatre hosted on the dispositito blog last year said, “the wholesale adoption of the subscription season model by alternative and mainstream companies in the 70′s has had a devastating long term effect on the work on stage and is a major contributor to the greying of those companies’ audiences and the resultant abject failure to get younger people in seats there.” Colette Nichol, another TIFS.com contributor, wrote “Playing to Tumbleweeds and Grasshoppers in 2043” that touched on the same idea.  David Ferry is smarter than all of us, so we should listen to what he has to say, and Colette is much smarter than me so listen to her too.

We’ve inherited a broken system; it has resulted in a gaunt and specialized audience.  Worse than pruning the breadth of audiences for the theatre, the subscription system has actively alienated new audience members entirely.  A disturbing, destructive Ouroboros, “we survive on subscriptions, therefore we must cater to our subscribers…”  Newsflash your subscribers are getting old…and you haven’t done a thing to encourage younger people to pay the huge sums to subscribe. This is unsustainable.  Theatre (or the idea of it) has been enshrined at the top of a pyramid, both economic and cultural, a generation of people has been created who won’t go to the theatre because, at the base of it they think the theatre looks down on them (my supposition).

This is unsustainable, lets call it audience extinction.  I refuse to be an audience extinction denier.

Theatre doesn’t deserve an audience, the audience deserves theatre. That’s the distinction.

The audience left us by our forefathers is anemic, in the last throes of death.  We have to take responsibility and build our own goddamn audience, never resting on our laurels, never catering to one tiny niche of people with money.  We need to develop a new relationship with our audience, and sometimes that means giving it away for free.  Sometimes it means being humble and submitting yourself, your work, your art to your audience.

Some people have a pavlovian response to the idea of working for free.  Get over it.  We have to network.  We could mingle, we could shake hands, and market and tell people theatre is worth seeing, or we can do what Mack did, we can work for free, because the best way to network is to get to know someone, to show them what you can do, what you stand for.  Christ we’re in the theatre, Mimesis is our bread and butter.

I’m really proud to have done a free show…and I’m incredibly excited to do it again.  If someone sits down to see my free show, (and if that show is good, and entertaining, challenging and titillating) then they are more likely to one day pay to see another show, maybe mine, maybe not, but maybe, at the end of it, she’ll be proud to call herself a theatergoer. And Christ knows we need more of those.


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Jordan Dibe

Written by Jordan Dibe

Artistic Director of Mnemonic Theatre Productions

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