Feature: Festival fever

Can North Bay theater companies create a year-round buzz?

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The recent 38th annual Mill Valley Film Festival drew more than 68,000 people to films, panel discussions and musical performances. Photo courtesy of MVFF.

by David Templeton

“Festival Mind.”

It’s a phrase I first heard from actress-comedian Brooke Tansley, who describes it as the unique attitude people have at film festivals and theater festivals.

“Festival Mind is an attitude, I guess, of grateful expectation, of excitement and anticipation—where everyone knows that the more movies you see, or the more plays you see, or the more comedy acts you see, the better your chances are of seeing something that’s really, really great,” explains Tansley, who’s performed on Broadway as Belle in Beauty and the Beast and on the Los Angeles comedy stage as a member of Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade improvisation troupe.

I was thinking about Tansley’s Festival Mind idea last month, over the course of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF). Having just completed its 38th year, the MVFF has pretty much fine-tuned the art of creating Festival Mind, effectively building—and keeping—an audience of filmgoers who are willing to set aside the usual movie-going or theater-going mindset of cautious skepticism and prove-it-to-me reluctance, entering instead into a kind of gleefully gluttonous, bring-it-on, all-you-can-eat, happy-to-be-here, more-is-more optimism in which a disappointing show or two actually enhances the fun instead of killing it dead in its tracks.

Which is what every live theater company I know of is deathly afraid of: Screwing up, killing theiraudience’s interest, accidentally staging a show that, for one reason or another, underperforms, and as a result loses that company whatever momentum they might have started with their previous show, which was very possibly a hit.

And you know what?

Theaters should be afraid of that.

Because—with one or two exceptions—most live theaters in the Bay Area (and other places, too), have been inadvertently cultivating an audience imbued with the exact opposite of Festival Mind. Call it Creeping Pyrophobia Mind (CPM)—a crippling fear of getting burned.

It’s CPM that makes theatergoers tread cautiously when choosing: A. Which season announcement brochures to get excited about; B. Which theater companies to become subscribers to; and C. Which never-heard-of-it-before shows to take a chance on. Creeping Pyrophobia Mind is arguably the cause of: 1. Slowly audiences; 2. A reduction in advance revenue that companies once depended on from subscriptions; 3. The erosion of private and foundational wallets that were once wide open to nonprofit arts organizations; 4. A palpable job security threat for various theatrical executive directors and artistic directors; and 5. A motivation for companies to raise their ticket prices, forcing them to take fewer chances, while lowering the overall quality of theater in the region, resulting in more A through C and 1 through 5.

So what can theater companies do to reverse the trajectory of CPM, and replace it with a great big dose of Festival Mind?

One way to start is to take a look at what lessons and tricks can be learned from the Mill Valley Film Festival, along with organizations such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the San Francisco FringeFestival and the like.

And no—sorry, you boards of directors, you actors, you directors, you hardcore fans of local theater—it’s not the audience’s responsibility to catch the Festival Mind fever. And it’s not the responsibility of the press to pump up expectations, especially if the quality isn’t there to match it.

Nothing contributes to CPM more than overpraising a show (“It’s as good as anything you’ll see on Broadway!”), filling your seats with expectant people, happy to have paid premium dollar for something they have been told is awesome, only to realize that they were duped. Creating a culture of Festival Mind is the theater community’s job—and there’s no way around it.

“In a region where demographics are changing,” says director Mary Ann Rodgers, vice president of the Ross Valley Players (RVP) Board of Directors, “at a time when the traditional theater audience is being replaced by younger folks who haven’t grown up going to the theater, what we have to do is to just find ways to make going to the theater a whole lot of fun.”

Among the state of California’s oldest continuously running community theaters, Ross Valley Players has not always been seen as a source of fresh ideas and radical theatrical invention. But in recent months, there has been a notable shift in the energy around RVP’s beloved Old Barn Theatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center.

“We haven’t thought of it as ‘Festival Mind,’ exactly,” Rodgers says, “But we have been thinking of it more along the lines of ‘creating the sense of an event.’ With our recent production of Pirates of Penzance, we worked hard to turn it into more than just a play. We added a ‘Dress Like a Pirate’ day. There was a photo booth there where people could put on a pirate hat and have their picture taken. There were a lot of engaging add-ons to the show, creating a more immersive experience for the audience.”

Rodgers says that more and more directors are pitching shows, not based on the script or vision of the production alone, but in terms of how it might be turned into something more, something unexpected, something worth spending their time and money on. Even for something as simple as a stage reading of a new show, a little extra thought can make the experience extra special—and make attendees feel more likely to attend another event in the future.

Last weekend’s two-night-only staged reading of Gary Wright’s Nevermore—about the life of Edgar Allan Poe—included a snack bar selling Dark ‘n’ Stormy cocktails (rum and ginger beer) and cookies in the shape of Edgar Allan Poe’s head. Visitors to the company’s Facebook page could find all kinds of entertaining Poe-related material in the days leading up to the reading.

This month’s production of Ladies of the Camellias—about warring divas from the Golden Age of theater—will feature more audience costume nights with historical drinks and snacks.

The goal isn’t to make money from selling cookies and beverages … but to have a bit of additional fun. Because in this climate, fun equals money.

“For years,” Rodgers says, “the theater has been thought of as a place where you go to be exposed to something cultural and important and special, and it is, but now we want people to also think of the theater as a place where you get to go and play.”

And in redefining what “theater” is, any successful theater today must look at how they define themselves in terms of their audience.

“We’re a community theater,” Rodgers says. “We know that. And one thing we have started to reclaim is that we need to be more community minded, meaning we’re thinking of everyone who might benefit from seeing a show, and thinking of ways to reach out to them.”

Later in the season, when Rodgers directs Anna in the Tropics, about cigar factory workers from Cuba during the 1920s, the company will be pulling out the stops to make the show available to the local Latino community, using a show that will appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences as an opportunity to demonstrate how much fun the theater can be.

So, what else can theater companies do to create an attitude of Festival Mind?

Lots of things. Price is a major factor. Sorry about that. It is.

Would you go to Denny’s for a plate of macaroni and cheese and think it’s fair if they charged you what the Buckeye Roadhouse charges for their gourmet macaroni and cheese?

Sorry Denny’s. Buckeye’s is better. Deal with it. Either make yours taste just as delicious or charge less for it.

Same thing goes for theaters.

By staging a play you know to be a solid community theater show, and charging the same thing that the superb, fully professional Marin Theater Company charges, you are inviting people to feel burned. And you will lose them as audience members.

It’s not the average theatergoer’s cross to bear that you have a high mortgage. That’s what your donors and corporate sponsors are for. The average theatergoer doesn’t see going to a show as an act of charity. They see it as buying a product, and it’s not enough to tell them that you are a nonprofit.Tell that to someone with millions of dollars looking for a project to fund. Most regular people only see one or two entertainment events a month.

If you make them pay premium prices, they will expect premium quality. The same way you would.

Because of this, most festivals have creative pricing, where you get discounts for buying more tickets, and the more tickets you buy the more perks you get: VIP seating or early entrance so you get the best pick of seats; discounts on merchandise and invitations to special events; handwritten thank-you notes and early notification of upcoming seasons and events; automatic entry into raffles and giveaways; free peanuts. Whatever.

Giving your audience a sense of value-for-their-dollar is huge, and that can be done by making the prices appropriate to what they are getting, or by adding extra stuff. One of the things that makes the San Francisco Fringe Festival work (from an audience point of view) is that the prices are low enough that people can afford to see two or three shows, and if some shows aren’t up to snuff, it’s no big deal. Their “Frequent Fringer” card is a great innovation. Buyers can purchase a card that gets them into any three shows, for a discount, or any six shows, for a larger discount. It’s not that different from a season subscription, but it sounds more fun.

“There’s some basic human psychology at play here,” says Barry Martin, co-founder of Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center. “When I’ve gone to places like Ashland or Louisville or New York, I’m there for just a short time and want to see as much as I can, sort of like trying to ride all the rides at Disneyland. I’m usually on a special trip for this purpose, and certainly of the ‘Festival Mind,’ and I am omnivorous and will see things I might usually pass up.

“But when I am in my ‘normal mind’—meaning my normal home-and-work routine—I think about seeing shows very differently,” Martin continues. “I consider the rest of my schedule, how many weeks the show is running, how bad the traffic will be trying to get there, how late it will get out. Is it really a show I want to see?”

Which brings us back to the central question.

How do you create an environment in which more people want to see whatever it is that your theater is staging? At Lucky Penny—which recently transformed a small tile shop into a thriving little theatrical hotspot that is the talk of Napa—Martin and his rule-breaking associates have done many of the same things that Ross Valley Players is trying, from thinking up themed snacks and drinks, working clever contests and raffles into every performance, selling merchandise like T-shirts and posters and finding ways to break the fourth wall by turning the stage into a bar with the actors selling drinks for an hour or so before the show begins.

“I agree,” Martin says, “that theaters need to think about every production and imagine how they can make it an ‘event,’ and not just another in a series of shows. I think we all need to give added value when we can. If a party atmosphere’s not right, maybe then it’s a talkback that adds the needed sense of something special happening, or maybe dinner-and-a-show combinations, or cross-promotional projects with other theaters, maybe setting aside one or two low-cost or free shows in each run. What about free beer?”

In other words, break the rules, and see what works.

What else might the local theater community consider trying?

Why not attempt to turn the whole North Bay theater scene into a year-long “festival vibe” event? How about working with the other theaters in your county, your town or your particular stretch of 101? You just found out that your production of Dracula is running at the same time that another company in the area is staging The Creature, and other companies are doing Rocky Horror Picture Show, The War of the Worlds, Blithe Spirit and Into the Woods. Why not work together?

How about a single postcard going out to the entire combined mailing list of all theaters, with a title along the lines of “Monsters! Aliens! Witches! Ghosts!” and some sort of “frequent fright” discount for seeing at least three of the shows?

This may mean working together with companies that you are “competing” with. Is it way outside of your comfort zone? Is it a whole lot of trouble?

Sure it is.

“And everything we try might not work,” says Rodgers, of Ross Valley Players. “But some of it will work, and the important thing is that we start trying new things, because that’s what we do. We’re creative people. We’re theater people. We create something out of nothing. It’s time to remind ourselves of that.”

And if done right, with an attitude of fun and excitement, it will, in time, create a sense of Festival Mind throughout the North Bay, a sense that something kind of special is going on—and everyone wants to be a part of something special. It’ll take some work. It might take some guts.

It will take some time.

And who has time these days?

Of course, we’ll all have plenty of time when theater Creeping Pyrophobia Mind finally takes its toll and we’ll have to shut some of our theaters down.

But hey, even then, it won’t be all bad, right?

We’ll finally be able to go see shows at those theaters that were actually willing to make a change.

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