Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Theatre and scarcity

13 November 2018

These are some thoughts on theatre and scarcity I wrote a while back. I’m posting them again because I think they’re interesting.

The micro: actors are not scarce

Here is a list of things that are scarce in theatre:

Here is a list of things that are not scarce:

So what does this mean, exactly?

A few things:

  1. There are too many actors, and particularly too many merely okay actors.
  2. Theatre training needs to focus on making theatre, not just acting. One person may lean towards performing, but they should be encouraged to write and direct and design and create.
  3. The most important thing that is scarce is good ideas. Producing the same old shit in the same old way will get theatre nowhere. Hamilton was a good idea. There are many young playwrights and directors with good ideas. We need more good ideas.

The macro: productions are scarce

If we take one step back and look at the macro perspective of theatre, the thing that is scarce is the actual production. A production is singular. A movie is plural. A movie is mass produced and can, theoretically, be seen at any given time an unlimited amount of times by an unlimited amount of people in an unlimited amount of places. Theatre exists in one place, at one time, and is seen by a limited number of people. Hamilton exists only one at a time. If it’s 4pm on a Monday, Hamilton is not happening. There is no way you can watch it. Theatre is not on demand.1

The same is true with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I admire the incredible guts it takes to take the most popular franchise in modern Western cultural history and put its latest entry on the stage. How insane! Again, we are faced with theatre’s blessing and curse: its inherent scarcity. The new Harry Potter exists in one place, at one time. That creates a sense of magic and wonder. But, as we have seen, it also creates sky-high ticket prices because of supply (one) and demand (infinite). Thus scarcity is a double-edged sword.

But the incredible thing about Hamilton that helped contribute to its success is it has a form of easily accessible digital media that is plural. The soundtrack gives you a partial experience of the show. Is it as good as the live thing? No. But as far as soundtracks go, it is really, really good. In fact, it’s probably the most complete experience you can have from a musical soundtrack. You get the whole story (the action is mostly described by the words, different from almost every other musical that focuses on a sort of expressionism) and you get pretty much everything, except for the visuals. In Hamilton, with a 2.5 hour soundtrack, this is a heck of a lot. So it is possible to listen to the soundtrack like one would listen to an Audiobook, almost, and get a full experience. It is different than the production. The production is scarce. But it is an experience. And this experience makes you want to actually go experience the full experience.

Case study #2: with the new Harry Potter, we have the singular (the production) and the plural (the script). This is probably the most mass-produced, best-selling play ever, right? Again, you are getting a portion of the full experience by reading the script. People that read the play expecting the full experience are sure to be disappointed, but what you get instead is a different sort of partial experience. (Marketing the play in book form as the 8th installment is a bit misleading. The 8th installment can only really be experienced by seeing the play on stage.) What if we were able to garner excitement about productions by having a mass-distributed, non-scarce form (capitalizing on digital media) like Hamilton and Harry Potter have?

The future, and survival, of theatre rests on our capability to tackle, and leverage, its scarcity.

  1. Taped/streamed shows are an interesting idea, but are beyond the scope of this post and will be touched on in a later post. For now, I will say that they are still just an approximation of the experience. Few would argue that theatre can only be experienced at its fullest in a live setting, for anything else defeats its very definition.