Too much of a good thing?

Life in the Theatre

Yesterday I read this article in my daily You’ve Cott Mail e-newsletter. Rob Weinert-Kendt’s article/speech is about the Los Angeles theatre scene:

“Too often, truth be told, L.A. theatre’s awesome diversity feels like utter incoherence; its creative fertility can feel like rampant self-indulgence; its stunning resilience sometimes looks more like the sheer Sisyphean persistence of folks who feel they’ve got to keep putting on show after show after show or their doors will close because the dues money or the rent will stop coming in. To put it brutally, week in week out, I’ve begun to feel in my gut that there are just too many goddamn plays in Los Angeles. And that rather than creating a vibrant marketplace of theatrical artistry, or offering that many more exciting consumer options for the region’s eager theatregoers, the sheer glut of productions on Los Angeles area stages creates a kind of white noise, a traffic jam through which established theatre companies of quality must navigate to compete for audiences, reviews, editorial attention, grants, and awards. … For too many L.A. theatres, the 99-Seat Plan’s cheap labor and its built-in freedom to fail provide an incentive to keep failing, and when they do succeed, its economics prevent them from building on that success.”

Weinert-Kendt is referring to L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan specifically, which provides for small theatres to hire Equity actors for extremely little pay. In this regard, it’s hard to compare the situation to any other city, since the 99-Seat Plan is unique to L.A.

However, I read his speech and felt a little pang of recognition. There’s something relatable to the question of whether there is too much theatre being produced in the Chicago theatre scene. With over 200 theatre companies in Chicago, even great shows can get drowned out in the “white noise” of Chicago theatre. Similarly, because of the very low financial cost of many productions (the “freedom to fail”), and the even lower potential financial gain, “failure” can lose its power to weed out the unworthy shows/companies, while “success” for most people never actually facilitates a living wage in theatre. (Of course, who decides which shows or companies would be truly “worthy” or “unworthy” is an obviously fraught question.)

My friend Brendan (@rantmo on Twitter) argues that the speech is not applicable to Chicago at all, since the theatre scenes in each city are so different from one another. He makes a reasonable point. He further argues that so much of the work created in Chicago is so good that it would be difficult to justify cutting back the amount of theatre in this town; thus, it’s hard to say that there is “too much” theatre in Chicago. I agree with him on this point, too; I think that the quality of a majority of the theatre in Chicago is exceptional. Of course, that only makes it more disheartening when great plays draw tiny audiences, begging the question again whether there is simply too much of it.

The speech presents a somewhat cynical view of the L.A. theatre scene, and I hate to project that onto my own community. There is so much that I love about creating theatre in Chicago, not least of which is, in fact, the sheer amount of theatre in this town — because it engenders a strong community of artists and a wealth of creative opportunities. I also love that Chicago is friendly to artists who seek to create their own work, something from which I have certainly benefitted.

Ultimately, I’m more intrigued by the question than by posing a definitive answer. If anything, I’m part of the “problem” since I myself have no intention to stop creating theatre anytime soon, and I wouldn’t want my friends to stop, either. But since Weinert-Kendt’s post definitely made me think, I’m sharing it here. Chicago theatre folks, how do you respond to it?

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