The Art of the Business

A blog dedicated to artists who are serious about their business.

How much is production value worth? April 22, 2009

On Saturday night, I went to see The Zoo Story at Second Beach (full disclosure: Itsazoo Productions are one of my

The Zoo Story at Second Beach

The Zoo Story at Second Beach


We, the audience, got to sit undercover in the picnic area just above the children’s playground (red firetruck, anyone?), looking out over the playing fields and the pool. Just outside the picnic area, there was a park bench, and upon this bench, the play took place. The bench was the only set, unless you include English Bay (you could do worse), no lights, no sound (unless you count the ambient noise associated with a park near a beach), and certainly no special effects.

Stripped of all of its theatrical trappings, the production was forced to get back to basics: the words and the acting. And based on that, I’d say the show was a success–Albee’s work and its execution were both very strong.

This week, I’m gearing up to work on the upcoming Leaky Heaven Circus show, antigone undone. Bone in Her Teeth, last year’s Leaky offering, was one of my favorites of last season. It offered jaw-dropping moments of pure beauty and theatricality. For example, there was a moment at the top of act two where two people were fighting drowning. The entire scene was danced behind a wave of cling-film that stretched across the stage, and was being kept constantly in motion by others offstage. In one moment, Billy Marchenski reached up and put his fist through the cling-film, creating a perfect, captured-in-time moment. It blew my mind.

I’m a theatre junkie. Like all good junkies, I want to get as much of my drug as I can, and I crave better and better quality stuff, all the time. These two productions both satisfied me, but in very different ways. For The Zoo Story, it was about executing the basics really well, and letting that be enough. For Leaky Heaven, it was about the innovation and creativity and theatricality.

What do you think? In what proportion do you like to see pretty production values and outstanding theatricality, versus well-executed basics like script and acting? I’d love to hear.

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4 Responses to “How much is production value worth?”

  1. Personally, I favor lo-tech. I see the cost of production value overhead killing theatres – especially small to mid sized. It depends what you’re selling, and to whom, though. If you’re in a market that can afford playing to folks dying to see it – give them spectacle and charge accordingly.

    When I built more sets for my gravy, I worked with a fair number of actors and directors (building the sets, not acting or directing). I’d be willing to bet they’d trade off the carpentry for more paid acting and directing gigs – with or without sets.

  2. jeffrey Says:

    The phrase “production values” often Broadway-level expense and showmanship, and I don’t think that’s necessary for great theater (as exemplified in your ZOO STORY story). But “production values” as it relates to the value placed on the production is vital to good theater.

    If you can best serve a work by creating elaborate sets, then you should. If you can best serve it with minimalism, puppetry, Brechtian elements, and/or a set made of blocks & curtains then so be it. But production value, to me, equals attention put into the production itself. Write a good script. If you’re using flashlights & wind-up monkeys instead of spotlights and animatronics, then make sure it’s clear what you’re doing, and make it engaging.

    (short version: production values begins at conception)

  3. Tony Says:

    You know, I’ve never see a great show that couldn’t have been done on a bare stage. I’ve designed hundreds of shows over the years, but if a work has to rely on the design it’s got issues.

    Not to say that design can’t be a fundamental part of the production or add to a story, (I am a designer after all) but if the show can’t exist without it . . .

    I often wonder if towering designs are needed to justify top-ticket prices?

  4. We try to keep our productions to a bare minimum, partly to be economical, partly to travel, but primarily to focus on the actors and the words. It doesn’t mean we’re on a bare stage with a single light bulb, but what we do, we do simply and artfully. We’ll never have a life-sized helicopter crash in the middle of our stage. And that’s okay.

    We’ve been compared favorably to some of the local major regional theatres in our area, theatres that spend plenty on realistic sets, effects, costumes, etc. And audiences are getting saavy to that. When there’s nothing to distract them from the words and the acting, they’re usually more impressed with the show on the whole, in our experience.

    Of course, in ten years of going to shows at our most local regional theatre–I won’t name names, but they’ve been recognized by the Tonys, they’ve birthed several Pulitzer winners, they’re the real deal–in ten years of attending shows, the two most magical nights I’ve spent there were at the Neo-Futurists’ “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” on tour from Chicago. (Yes, two nights. It’s the only time I’ve gone to a show there twice, and it was delightfully different and equally entertaining the second time around.)

    That show is performed on a bare stage, the cast is in black shirts and jeans (generally), there’s a clothesline with numbers from 1-30, and there’s a timer. You get a menu with a list of titles, also from 1-30. Call out the number of the title you want to see, they’ll do the first one they hear, and they’ll try to do 30 two-minute-long plays in an hour. Quite simply amazing. It’s also one of the only times I’ve been in a theatre where the show in question actively changed the way I thought about theatre, which is saying something. It opened up new ways of telling stories–I’m a playwright first, everything else second–and it tickled and surprised me, which doesn’t often happen either.

    All the millions of dollars this theatre spends every year, and the best thing they’ve presented in forever could fit into a small suitcase.

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