Monday, April 5, 2010

NY Times on PianoFight: "Good for Theater"

The New York Times' theater/culture/arts reporter in SF, Chloe Veltman, took the time to call up PianoFight the other day and get some info on ShortLived 3.0, the largest audience-judged playwriting competition in the country. Chloe's been keeping an eye on PianoFight ever since we ran Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors Night last year, so after I sent her an obscenely long email pitching the virtues of writing about ShortLived, she called, had some questions, played Devil's advocate and ended up writing a pretty killer piece in the Times about creative ways to involve the audience being employed by arts organizations in general, and about how PianoFight has come up with some outside the box ways to engage the community in particular (Rotten Veggies and ShortLived).

The last few grafs read as follows:
Conversely, PianoFight’s all-out approach, though fun, threatens to sacrifice quality at the expense of interactivity. And the barriers to entry for “ShortLived” are exceedingly low: Anyone can submit a play. Because the audience is responsible for judging, authors frequently bring their fans. The winning play may therefore be as much the result of a popularity contest as it is a reflection of artistic merit.

Arts organizations should be careful not to let these interactive elements debase the quality of their work. Or it won’t be long before audiences start hurling rotten veggies on a regular basis.
And it's a fair warning indeed - be wary of engaging the audience just for the sake of interactivity as it could lead to a dip in quality. It should also be noted that Chloe, who has not seen a performance of ShortLived, is not saying that this is how the competition plays out - she's merely posing a hypothetical which could happen. That said, there are quality controls we've set in to the format and rules of the competition to prevent these things from happening, and which get a bit glossed over in those last two paragraphs.

1) While anyone can submit a play, and there are absolutely no registration fees or submission costs to writers (I'll be posting a note on the generally terrible access points in theater later this week), there is one huge barrier between submitting and actually getting in to the competition - the script has to be picked by the six experienced directors who make up the ShortLived Directing Team. It is only once a script has been vetted by that directing team (and two producers), that it is entered into the competition, produced and subsequently left to the audience to decide if it's any good.

2) Yes, a playwrights' fans, friends and family can influence the outcome to a degree, however, the format and rules of the competition are such that you've got to be pretty freakin popular to really sway voting. The 13-week competition is broken into six, two-week long rounds with a final Championship Weekend at the end. The only way to win the whole competition is to win that Championship Weekend, and the only way to get into that Championship Weekend is to win one of the rounds. Each round consist of four performances, which, if sold out as they usually are, is about 60 people per show and a total of 240 people scoring for one round. So even if a playwright cajoled 25 friends into seeing ShortLived over that two-week period (a pretty massive count as anyone who frequently invites friends to see their work well knows), that's still only one-tenth of the people who will ultimately be scoring pieces in that round. Furthermore, if that playwright happens to make it on to the next round, the scores reset, so she would have to continue pulling in more and more friends to keep stacking the odds in her favor.

In any case, just look at history as an indicator: audiences last year picked William Bivins as the winner. Bivins then went on to become the most produced local playwright of the 2009-10 Bay Area season with five world premieres; the writer/producer of the show at the 2009 SF Fringe which won more awards than any other; and the recipient of a 2009 Critics Circle nomination for Best Original Script.

Audiences at the first ShortLived picked Daniel Heath as the best playwright. Heath's play FORKING!, a fully-scripted, choose-your-own-adventure play in which audiences voted on how the plot would proceed, was so successful in SF it moved to Los Angeles for a month AND spawned a holiday spin-off titled A Merry FORKING! Christmas, which the Bay Guardian called "A runaway Christmas classic."

The writers of PianoFight's S.H.I.T. Show had top three finishes in both previous ShortLived competitions, and have gone on to play the LA Comedy Fest and headline at the SF SketchFest, while picking up critical nods like this one from LAist who called the S.H.I.T. Show, "San Francisco sketch legends."

Essentially, audiences said they wanted to see more of these writers, and local theater critics and producers agreed.

As I said above, Chloe's warning is a fair one. Any companies taking the risk of inventing new ways to engage audiences need to keep a fundamental focus on quality, otherwise that audience engagement is ultimately pointless.

But I'll also submit another fair warning to those involved in the larger theater industry: do not underestimate your audience. Theater makers need to have a fundamental respect for A) what their audiences want to see, and B) what their audiences can and will accept, understand, be moved by and throughly enjoy. As ShortLived has proven in the past, audiences know just as well as producers what makes good theater.

Thanks for Reading,


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