When Is Niche Theater Too Niche?

New York theater producer Michael Roderick, wrote a four-part blog series on the concept of iTheatre. He compares an individual indie theater company to an iPhone app:

Consider if you will, that each company is an app. You can find a theatre company that does work inside of swimming pools, a company that only does shows that involve food, or a company that does classical text inside of boxes on the street with homeless people as extras. Yes, this is a bit over the top, but not as much as one would think. As a result of this the iTheatre has the exact same strength and weakness as an iPhone. The strength is in the fact that you as the theatre consumer can find any theatre you want. If you want a show where someone will grind with you in the aisles, “there’s a show for that”, but that’s one company or show out of dozens of choices on any given night. Now look at the weakness, when presented with the thousands of companies that are out there, the consumer becomes overwhelmed and either chooses not to do anything or allows someone else to make the choice for them. Often the loudest choice will win.

The main thrust of his series is the desire for New York producers to unite in creating a system that allows the theater customers the best opportunity to find out about all the niche indie theater “apps” so that audience members can choose the production and theater company that connects to what they want.

2010 can be a season of, “Oh? I never heard of that” or it can be a season of “Oh you like Kung fu and Charles Dickens?” “There’s a show for that”

A very popular niche theater in New York right now is Vampire Cowboys. “Vampire Cowboys is an award-winning ‘geek theatre’ company that creates and produces new works of theatre based in action/adventure and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic.” I have not had a chance to see one of their shows, but I think this is actually pretty cool, but as one that enjoys stage combat, I am in their target market. While being niche, I think they have enough dynamics (stage combat, comics, original work) to appeal to a broad enough audience that the work becomes sustainable. They are not just another company doing Shakespeare, Miller, etc. They are also doing something that is not being done, which creates scarcity.

Many theaters try to do too much to reach as many different audience members as possible and create seasons that include a musical, Shakespeare, American classic and one new work (or variations of the sort). While in one way this might make sense, current information shows that it is not working. What ends up happening is the average audience member goes to the one or two shows they know they would like. Or theater companies commit to producing only one genre (Shakespeare/classical, all musicals, etc.), but then that model becomes unsustainable because there are many theaters doing the same thing.

With niche theater like VC, the audience still knows that they will always get some sort of combination of stage combat, comics, and original work in every show. This consistency creates a specific core audience, and a few people who come to every show to check it out, who either enter into the core group, or move on because it’s not their niche.

When is niche theater too niche? How big of an audience is out there (even in New York) for plays that deal with Kung Fu and Charles Dickens? But when does it become too much about just one thing? Does niche theater work outside of major metropolitan areas? The first thing comes to mind is the Shaw Festival, and there niche of only producing work during the late 1800s-early 1900s. Could there be a niche not based around genre, but other concepts? Can a regional theater’s niche be that they hire one artist a year as their resident, but it changes each year. If any resident artist is hired for the season, it is usually a playwright, but can that artist change every year to include directors, designers and actors? In the obvious issues that are being brought to light in Outrageous Fortune, and as theaters continue to re-think their structure to survive, how will the niche mindset play out?

Image by Allison McCarthy via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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