What would it look like if the very biggest off-Broadway and regional theaters tripled their artistic output, producing 18 plays a year instead of just 6?
At first glance the very notion sounds like complete madness. But the existing model is also madness. A typical off-Broadway theater produces 4-6 plays a year, yet they have a staff of dozens and own multiple theater spaces, some of which go dark for months (or are used sporadically as rentals). That's like owning an AMC multiplex (with lots of small theaters) but programming like the Zigfeld (one big screen, one movie at a time).
To borrow a bit from financial jargon, when you produce just a few plays a year (largely catered to a subscription audience) it's impossible to diversify your holdings, and your potential returns on investment are limited. But by vastly increasing the volume of plays produced, you increase the efficiency with which your spaces are being used and take advantage of the economy of scale that comes with being a big theater (where it's possible to produce more units at lower cost-per-unit than competitors). Most importantly, by diversifying your holdings (i.e. using that increased volume to widen the aesthetics/narratives being presented) you increase the chances of attracting new audiences and of finding a runaway hit, which you can then run and run (or transfer) in order to help finance the rest of the operation.
The Signature is in some ways already doing this. Jim Houghton recently spoke to the Juilliard writers about opening a new theater complex during a recession, and moving out of the old single-space venue to a three-space venue, where he then went on to triple his production volume. At first the idea seemed nuts, but as he told us - quoting very roughly here - "I don't have to fill 1,000 seats a night. Well I do, but not off of one play. I have to fill 1,000 seats across three different plays." So what would seem like a ludicrous dangerous increase in activity actually mitigates risk. The $25 ticketing program also bears mentioning here. By subsidizing the cost of tickets, The Signature is able to sell out their shows every night (with less reliance on a subscription audience), with an attendant increase in revenues coming from audiences. The opposing (nightmare) scenario would be having a six-play season and running a flop, then playing to empty houses in weeks 3-6 of the run once the subscribers have all blown through.
I get that the notion of vastly expanding productions is financially scary, but it is actionable. In order to make this more financially feasible, I'd propose a few things:
1) Lower production values, particularly set budgets, and try to run plays in rep on a rep set when possible. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a minutely-detailed New York Loft set that's just going to be thrown away in a month. As an audience member, I have to say the fantastical realism of those kinds of sets doesn't mean a thing to me if the plays sucks. And if you're going to produce plays set in that setting year in and year out, stop throwing the set away - run them in rep.
2) You may say "producing 18 plays a season will create subscriber fatigue," and you're right. But there has to be an alternative to the subscription package model. I as a consumer will never buy a season subscription to any theater, and I LOVE theater. Admittedly one of the biggest advantages of a subscription model is solving cash flow problems. (The big injection of subscriber money at the top of the season helps finance fixed costs until show money and grants start trickling in.) So if we're going to start migrating away from the subscription model, maybe the next capital campaign can be an actual pool of capital campaign - a "cash flow fund" - an initial cash injection (meant to be replenished by the theater each year) that helps stabilize annual revenue irregularities and get us away from subscriber addiction.
3) Note that the whole point of expanding programming is widening the aesthetic diversity of the offerings being presented, to attract new audience members. This won't work if you just do 3x the same thing you already do.
Two last thoughts about why such a ridiculous notion is important.
First thought: I remember being an intern at Playwrights Horizons 10-12 years ago and they'd gush about discovering or being a longtime home to such pillars of the theater as Wendy Wasserstein, Chris Durang, Richard Nelson, James Lapine, Alfred Uhry, etc etc. Looking over their production history, in the early days they produced like 20-23 plays a year. Granted this was out of tiny spaces and I'm sure the production values were abysmal. But I contend that we wouldn't have those stars of the theater today were it not for the volume of work being done back then. The explosion of the American theater in the 70s and 80s came from explosive volume and content. But you can't seed the next generation of great theater-makers at a rate of 6 plays a year. Especially if only 1-2 of those plays are going to largely unknown writers (while the rest go to doing the necessary and important work of sustaining the writers that have previously been fostered there). If the theater is not a fecund ecosystem for young writers to thrive and grow, those writers will go elsewhere, and their audience will follow them. (I also don't at all subscribe to the notion that young people don't go to the theater. There are plenty of off-off-Broadway theaters that are consistently PACKED with young people, because those theaters are PROGRAMMING things that young people WANT TO WATCH.)
Second thought: I wish I had the exact quote, but in college I remember reading an address by Zelda Fichandler in which she said something to the effect of - again VERY ROUGHLY quoting here - "A budget is a beautiful thing. It shows us where our priorities lie." (If someone finds the quote for me I'll update the post.) The idea of sinking tons of money into tripling production volume in what you might argue is already an over-saturated market (at least for our present audience) seems ludicrous. But where are our priorities NOW? Based on the budgets, right now our priorities are skewed towards new buildings and renovations, admin staffs (without parallel financial certainty for artists), and high production values (but not necessarily jaw-dropping content).
The art has to come first. Our work starts with the play. So consider producing more plays.