Art Works Blog

Supply and Demand, or Risk vs. Reward?

Washington, DC

by Lee Liebeskind, Producing Director, The Inkwell Theatre

Lee Liebeskind. Photo courtesy of Mr. Liebeskind.

There are many things I want to talk about. I want to talk about reactions to the #SupplyDemand conversation, how we frame our conversation and debate, the sense of balance in the theater, and many others. I thought I would write about what is on my mind right now: failure.

This discussion came up at a recent Inkwell meeting with our new board member. We needed to catch him up on three years of history and meetings and discussions that we all have had and who we have had them with and what they were about. Sounds like a long meeting---well, it was, but it was easy when we had already started a lot of these discussion and note consolidations before the meeting.

He said that he was impressed with the way we look at our past constantly to help shape our future. It’s a statement I have heard before---looking at the past to shape the future---but I don’t think I understood it truly. I asked him what he meant. He said that he was amazed at how, after every program, every event, and even every large meeting, we processed not just the information that we got from it, but the program, event, or meeting and how we got the information. We constantly are having “After Action Reports” and “Post Mortems” to figure out how to improve on our system. Which brought all of us in the room to the thought that permeates a lot of our thinking at The Inkwell: getting over the fear of failing.

As artists (like other creative jobs) we don’t look at failure as a stopping point or a wall, we look at it as a bump or curve in the road. It’s something we look at, learn from, and move forward. We use the “failure” as something to propel us toward our next step, or at least we should. In our rehearsals, in our artistic processes, and even in our journeys in creation, we look at the times we failed and learned what not to do in our process, what to do differently, and even, “Why didn’t that thing I thought would work work?”

Theaters both large and small are turning their failures into success by the discussion of them. Woolly Mammoth recently produced House of Gold. This was not one of the productions that was hugely successful from an audience standpoint nor a critical standpoint, but the smart thing they did was use it to open up discussions not just about the topics brought up in the play, but why people viewed this play and how it served Woolly’s mission. The same thing happened recently with another smaller theater at which I went to see a play: I watched the play, and afterwards talked to the artistic director, wondering why his theater would choose to do this show. His response was enlightening, and he had mentioned how they had been using a number of talk backs with the audience to not just discuss the play, but how it fit into the larger picture of what that theater produces and the kind of theater they want to produce.

It’s hard to talk about failure in a financial climate this bleak. It’s hard to see institutions that do hire and pay hundreds of artists a year---we can argue the living wage/pay scale some other time---think about risking their financial status. It’s hard to not see these institutions as “too big to fail.” The thought process of what would happen in DC if an organization like Arena Stage suddenly found itself facing bankruptcy is truly unthinkable to most artists that depend on that theater for their livelihood.

I am not a crazy dreamer thinking that all theaters should be bold and produce a new play no matter what. No. I am a big believer in theaters sticking to their missions. If your mission is to produce Shakespeare then please produce Shakespeare or something that is like Shakespeare that can spark the discussion of Shakespeare. I won’t judge you for doing work that I particularly don’t want to see---yes, I am not a huge fan of watching Shakespeare plays, sue me---because obviously someone does want to see it, even if it’s just your friends.

The topic at hand though is the term “Supply and Demand.” It’s something we all should be looking at. Does your theater really need to do eight shows this year, or could you produce seven and make them all stellar and profit in the same way? Do you really need to compete with that theater of the same size that does work similar to yours, or can you find ways to team up and create a better piece of art? Are you really creating work just because you want a chance to create something---not that I find that wrong in all cases---or should you be creating work because you feel you have things that need to be said?

I feel like I am tangenting a bit so I want to get back to the heart of my discussion: failure.

I think as we move forward in these next couple of years, at least at The Inkwell, the conversation that I want to be having with my fellow artists is around a different term from business: “Risk vs. Reward.”

What can we risk? And by that I mean, what can we do that has the chance of being a total failure? What are the rewards, what can we take from that failure, or what can we gain if the risk is a success? I feel it’s our job to not follow the pack in how things are done, but as artists it is our job to have the discussion and lead that discussion wherever it goes. We shouldn’t shy away from the topic of supply and demand, but I feel a little worn out from that discussion for the past couple months.

Let’s start “Risk vs. Reward” and “Can we fail successfully?” Let’s question how far can we truly risk? What are we willing to give up to take the risk? Should we be risking anything at all? Can we risk or is that for someone else to (hopefully) do? Is failure even on the table? I am curious about a lot of things, but let’s start with these questions.

An earlier version of this blog originally appeared on 2amtheatre.com.

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