Pop Theatre

Revitalizing and Reimagining a Dying Artform

1. Performance
The summer after my freshman year at New York University, I returned to my hometown of Fishers, Indiana. I remember a night that July, driving back to my dad’s house with a car full of Goodwill props and painted lumber after closing Say When Theatre Company's production of Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl—my first theatrical success. Say When Theatre Company is a company I founded with my childhood friend for the sole purpose of producing this play we both loved. We cast our best friends, rehearsed in my dad’s basement, built the set in my mom’s garage, partnered with a local historic home to bring arts programming to a venue that was primarily rented for weddings.

We ran a Kickstarter campaign for $350, sold tickets for ten dollars and sold out two fifty-seat houses, grossing us about $1,000 in total (which, seeing as the show cost us essentially nothing to make, felt more like $100,000). Even more satisfying was that one hundred people were willing to buy tickets to this contemporary farce about sadness in the twenty-first century—a fun albeit unconventional play for the community of Fishers, Indiana, whose “theatre scene” consists mostly of middle-aged adults producing family-friendly plays in permanent theatre spaces.

Having successfully founded a theatre company and sold out our first production, we proudly billed ourselves as groundbreaking—the first artists of our kind that Fishers, Indiana, had seen. As sensational as it may seem, there is a lot of truth to that claim. We were doing something new and different even though we were just following the trends of theatre scenes in other cities.

As far as I know, there haven’t been any site-specific theatre artists bringing contemporary work to the suburbs of Indianapolis since Say When Theatre Company, and I can guarantee you that type of theatre was not being made in Fishers prior to Say When Theatre Company, unless you count the annual Renaissance Faire. There was something genuinely exciting about what we were doing, and even if we weren’t actually breaking new ground, it was our word against theirs.

This was it—the start of my long career as a theatremaker! High off the thrill of this grand success I Googled “starting a theatre company,” and the first hit was an essay entitled “Please, Don't Start a Theatre Company!” exclamation point! Theatre director Rebecca Novick’s essay begins much like this one, chronicling the start of her own theatre career in San Francisco, founding a theatre company in order to provide her art with “the support of an institution.” Although her company gave her a support beyond just her name to promote her work, Novick notes that the number of theatre companies just like hers (and mine!) has increased dramatically while the number of funding opportunities has diminished and only continues to taper.

As a theatre student at NYU, I had of course been warned of a saturated market—not enough roles, too many actors—but never of a saturated market of theatre companies. As the founder of the most successful theatre company in Fishers, I was discouraged as you can imagine, though largely unfazed. If everyone else was doing it, why shouldn't I? After all, creating my own institution was what I was being groomed to do at NYU via Atlantic Theater Company’s acting school. The collaboration of these two institutions produces a conservatory-type training where, in the final year, students form a new theatre company. In my eyes, I was just getting a head start.

I do wonder whether we, the new generation of theatremakers, have been duped into feeding a corporation disguised as a charity disguised as art.

I finished my training at NYU, leaving Atlantic’s program in favor of Experimental Theatre Wing’s program based in physical theatre and self-scripting. After graduating, I worked administratively for a year at a nonprofit theatre company. In a theatre company that small, everyone works overtime to make the project possible. But there came a point where I was sitting in a board meeting and I realized that I was being “priced out.” In order to adequately compete with our peers in the nonprofit arena, we needed to raise our ticket prices. As I looked at what we were making and what peer companies were programming, I felt myself excluded from a community I had volunteered my time and talents to build.

Our current artistic climate—one practically defined by inclusivity and sensitivity—no longer affords young artists the opportunity to engage with new perspectives and ask important questions. In the New York theatre scene specifically, the platforms available to artists for this kind of discourse are small institutions that are themselves flooded with too many artists to program. This is where self producing becomes the only viable option for young artists, but ultimately falls short. I can see how this approach was innovative once upon a time, but now—as I drown in the sea of what feels like a hundred theatre companies run by literally everyone I know—it seems hardly relevant.

I do wonder whether we, the new generation of theatremakers, have been duped into feeding a corporation disguised as a charity disguised as art. It seems that nonprofit theatre has become The Not For Profit Theatre (Company), with season sponsors The IRS helping us produce a one-hundred-show season titled What the Upper Class Wants.

I, like you, watch my artist friends work tirelessly, often without pay, in service of a vision that barely seems like their own. I scroll past Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns as my colleagues essentially beg for money, and then I follow in their footsteps, trying to think of the most innovative and least intrusive way to ask for donations for my own work. Even then, rehearsal space and performance space are expensive and a fixed cost. Add in design materials and running costs and, even in the biggest of small theatre companies, you’re just hoping to break even before you can think about compensating the people making the art happen (aka artists).

I think back to my days in Indiana and wonder how my dream of making theatre in New York City could have materialized so poorly. If 2017 was about exposing institutional flaws in favor of minority representation and social justice, and if art is supposed to “hold a mirror to nature” to empower our understanding of how to improve the world, I wonder if the “theatre company” or the “stage play,” as we know it, is the most effective way to enact change or, even more simply, to be relevant. Maybe new narratives require new vehicles.

2. Production
Nevermind the economic disadvantages of running a theatre company, Novick continues: “[these challenges] illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of profound failure and potential transformation.” She lists half a dozen experimental companies who made waves in their day by changing the game, crafting artist-centric budgets, structuring their company to best serve their community. What Novick calls a “rock band model,” encourages artists to produce each other's work, even between styles and genres, all in the name of adaptability, and more importantly, relevance. In 2015, my friends and I were sitting on a couch in the East Village, improvising songs into iPhone voice memos, when we started calling ourselves Subtle Pride—an improvisational voice band known for creating pop hits on the fly. As Subtle Pride, we would book shows at small venues in the East Village or Bushwick, script out everything but the songs, and perform plays disguised as concerts.

4 performers singing
Subtle Pride (L to R):  Zach Donovan, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Mina Walker, Misha Brooks.

Subtle Pride took the concept of what it means to be a relevant producing organization in the New York theatre scene and asked: What does it mean to be a relevant producing organization at all? What makes “immersive theatre” immersive? Why are some productions considered “site-specific” when every show is built to fit into a certain space? At what point does context become more effective than content? In a last-ditch effort to use the public assembly of the theatre to start an appealing and effective conversation between artist and audience, we in Subtle Pride named ourselves pioneers of a new movement called Pop Theatre—a commoditized form of theatre directly opposing traditional nonprofit and commercial producing models, reclaiming art from the grips of the elite in order to create a true working class of artists.

Pop Theatre deconstructs the hierarchy of artmakers—we are all directors, we are all producers, we are all performers, we are all responsible for the community we inhabit.

Pop Theatre adheres to these ten rules:

  1. Art is a commodity and not a public service; making art under the pretense of charity devalues the art and as a result creates a charity that only benefits the wealthy.​
  2. Theatre must be made for everyone and in collaboration across fields, disciplines, and cultures in a way that is accessible to all.​
  3. Pop Theatre is simultaneously immersive and alienating—not unlike pop culture.​
  4. Pop Theatre is about the embodiment and redefinition or triumph of stereotype, including but not limited to race, class, gender, religion, body type, age, and sexual orientation. It promotes the individual as a hero.​
  5. Pop Theatre allows artists to recognize their own work as part of a canon from which to draw inspiration. A Pop Theatre artist cannot exist independently of their work.​
  6. Pop Theatre advocates for the ephemeral. It comments on the zeitgeist by becoming the zeitgeist. This is survival of the fittest.​
  7. Pop Theatre abolishes the notion of selling out. You either achieve fame or you don’t.​
  8. Pop Theatre is built for the ever-shrinking attention span. Works should be brief, or else only as long as your audience will pay attention.​
  9. Pop Theatre deconstructs the hierarchy of artmakers—we are all directors, we are all producers, we are all performers, we are all responsible for the community we inhabit. There are no comps, there are no discounts, there are no VIPs.​
  10. The Pop Theatre movement itself is built knowing that it cannot last forever, that it will eventually be crushed by previously established art institutions, but only after a serious reconfiguration of The Industry.

3. Distribution
As technology and the internet continue to grow and develop, I worry whether audiences will even want the theatre, leaving the real world in favor of cyberspace, if they haven't left already. I also worry that the theatre industry itself will collapse, if not due to a preference for digital technology, then due to lack of funding. The nonprofit theatre has become a fortress as impenetrable as commercial theatre; the theatre artists of this generation have already been chosen leaving the rest of us to wonder what we are supposed to make and how we will ever afford to make it.

Subtle Pride
Subtle Pride, Blindfolded in a Bathtub with a Blood Orange, director Marcelo Gutierrez. Photo Credit: Marcelo Gutierrez, 2015.

The major success of Subtle Pride is the same success as Say When Theatre Company—a business model centered on creating a play that costs next to nothing to build and employs innovative marketing to attract an audience and turn a profit. The programming of Top Forty radio stations follows what is known as the Zapoleonic cycle—an idea that names the cyclical trends of pop music. The first stage is a period of “pure pop” (Britney Spears, NSYNC, One Direction)—irresistible hits by crowd favorites. Pure Pop is followed by “the doldrums”—when what is popular becomes boring and difficult to market. Naturally, the market response to the doldrums is to reach outside the grasps of pure pop to “the extremes” (Fall Out Boy, Nirvana, NWA) in order to attract a newer, younger audience, but as older listeners are pushed away, programmers retreat to a new era of pure pop.

More than anything, Pop Theatre is a call for extremes in an era of doldrums. What was once considered “the extremes” (e.g., early naturalism, downtown theatre in the ’70s and ’80s) has evolved to become part of the aesthetic of contemporary theatre. Theatre asks that we keep going: what does the millennial generation have to offer this ancient art form? How far away can we get from the conventional standard of theatre before we have to come back to it?

It could be that, as a society of consumers, our attention and priorities will shift entirely. The aim of Pop Theatre is to anticipate that shift in taste by creating a metaphor for the art world, a controlled environment on such a large scale that it requires unwitting and unknowing audience engagement.

My boyfriend and I have spent the last five months binging our way through every episode of every season of every series in the Keeping Up with the Kardashians franchise. After seven seasons of KUWTK, two seasons of Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, two seasons of Kourtney and Kim Take New York, and two seasons of Khloe and Lamar, we’re about halfway through the ten-years-to-date saga and loving it.

My boyfriend, an early career playwright, likes to imagine a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters starring Kourtney, Khloe, and Kim in the titular roles with the oft-forgotten Rob Kardashian as Andrei. “That would really sell,” I say, though I can’t help but imagine that we’re already watching that production, ten years into the most sensational and subtle (and honestly most Chekhovian) contemporary theatre adaptation ever made. Maybe truthful storytelling, in its most compelling and accessible format, is indistinguishable from pure fabrication.

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This is lovely fodder for thought–have you read Baz Kershaw's the Radical in Performance? He essentially argues that since theatre has been subsumed into market capitalism, even the most post-modern or avant-guarde piece will become toothless unless we reinvent how we present performance. He has some solid examples and grounded theory approaches to each of them.

I don't understand the apparently glib dismissal of Fishers, Indiana, an affluent, educated suburban city that is rapidly growing and that Money Magazine, for one, has consistently designated one of the best places to live in America. The obvious lesson of the success of the Say Where Theatre Company is that the community and communities like it are hungry for challenging legitimate theater, and would welcome its ongoing presence there. It's not as obvious a lesson that the theater makers should move to the "oversaturated" East Village, model a company after Top 40 radio and call it a movement, and dream of doing Chekhov with the Kardashians.

Hi JL, thanks for reading. I have no qualm with Fishers, IN, my apologies if I came off as glib, I loved producing there, and it was a chance to produce a play I love in a market that is not as saturated as NYC. I had planned to produce more in Indy, but was in school at the time and as I rounded out my education, my connections to that community dwindled. My main point here is that, as theatre makers who wield the power of public assembly, we have the responsibility to serve and teach our community. My generation of theatre artists - millennials - especially advocates for a change in the arena of live performance, e.g. more diverse representation on stage. While a piece like Hamilton, for example, achieves this, I find it frustrating that tickets are scarce or otherwise astronomically expensive; those underrepresented voices are only reaching a theatre audience (those who can afford to buy a ticket). As I see it, this generation of theatre makers - millennials - has an opportunity to change (and save) the artform by diversifying the stories told and the artists telling those stories IF AND ONLY IF we challenge the platform on which these stories are told. What story are we telling as artists if we can only make our art if we are granted funding by an audience of donors? Is it possible to create something that looks different than a traditional play, costs less to make, and appeals to the masses rather than just the elite members of society? Is the millennial generation of artists only supposed to create within the institutions that came out of the last generation? Will the theatre historians write of the millennial generation of theatre makers that nothing really significant happened? These are the questions I myself am left with at this point. Yes, I could revive Say When Theatre Company in the town I grew up in, I could even grow it into a successful regional theatre! But the opportunities for me and my peers and contemporaries to do something different (and potentially generationally significant) lie in these saturated markets.

I also wonder if what made the production in Fishers a success was that it was itself an "extreme," given the market for traditional theatre in the greater Indianapolis area is much smaller than in NY. Anyway, at this point, I really feel like I'm just tooting my own horn. You raise some great points that are helping me flesh out this new concept I'm developing!

Hi Valetta! Thanks for reading! I would say this is not Pop Theatre, though it is a fun repurposing of these pop hits. I think a lot of Pop Theatre involves broadening our concept of what theatre looks like and where we experience it. There is a great Sam Shepherd quote about how theatre is the only medium that can swallow other mediums and still be theatre. I think the Kardashian franchise is the closest thing to Pop Theatre that we have at the present moment, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. I think a lot about Richard Wagner's work with the idea of Gesamstkunstwerk, or 'total work of art' - an idea that all forms of art can be united by the theatre. Moving forward with my own theatremaking, a lot of my interests lie in embodying different art forms in order to straddle the line between fact and fiction, presentational vs. experiential. For example, my next theatre project is making a style magazine. I'm working with theatre artists, musicians, political essayists, an array of people to convey a central idea and play characters in a production that exists outside of a proscenium. Another artist with great trajectory to look at is Kanye West, specifically his last three albums and tours.

Thanks for deepening my research! The only Wagner I’m familiar with is when Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny. And that was so long ago that it probably won’t surprise you that I don’t watch music videos. If something about the music itself… melodies, arrangements, lyrics, rhythms, voices doesn’t catch my attention. So I’m more an Andra Day, CeeLo Green, Kendrick Lamar, Laura Mvula kind of listener. I’m sure I’ve heard Kanye but his music never made me grab my pen. Please understand that I’m not quibbling with your aesthetic. I’m just totally uninformed.

Is MERCY on one of the albums you suggest? I’m listening, now, and when I’m done writing you, I’ll watch the video with it. (https://genius.com/Kanye-we... I took an online course a few years back called Hip Hop & Religion. It opened my ears to lots more music than Tupac’s. I hope you don’t mind me using this discussion to do the same.

I agree with a lot of this piece. However, the commodification of everything is the problem not the solution.