Ever since Thespis stepped out of the chorus of a Greek play a few millennia ago, people have complained about the prohibitive cost of live theater. The 'good old days' of the theater always seems to be about forty to fifty years in the recent past. It is true that during the last 'Golden Age of the Theater' in the 1950's, librarians, teachers, and young couples on a date could actually afford cheap seats and attend the theater on a regular basis. Now, with tickets topping out at $450 a pop (i.e. Book of Mormon), attending a Broadway show is becoming an event to cross off your bucket list - a once in a lifetime moment to treasure.
On the regional theatrical front, the wolf at the stage door is kept at bay by elderly patrons who dominate the demographic. Local theaters naturally cater to this aging population by producing beloved musicals of the past, which generally do not appeal to a younger audience. Which presents an interesting problem...how can we ensure that this culturally important art will live on if it is not accessible (or cared about) by the next generation?
In this age of technology, professional theatre creators continue to pump out innovative and relevant pieces, but face a plethora of roadblocks in seeing their work continuously produced. These include costly rental houses, union regulations, and all in all, outdated business models that do not utilize marketing technology in the most powerful way. There have been a few recent examples of Broadway shows that received rave reviews, but closed early due to lack of ticket sales (putting all actors out of a job unexpectedly).
Other areas of the entertainment industry have changed with the times. For example, movie studios and publishing companies do not secure their talent based solely on artistic ability, but use social media followers and other analytics as metrics to give them the best possible predictions for success. Theatre does this to an extent, but must fully embrace technology in order to thrive.
Enter from stage left: Jeni Incontro - producer, actress, and the Founder and CEO of Stage Stream, a user-driven digital marketplace for videos of live theatre. Jeni, who attended the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is an MBA candidate at Wharton School of Business, has set out to change theatre's outdated business model with this new startup.
With Stage Stream, producers film their productions, upload videos of their shows, and set their own pricing. Viewers pay per view for 24-hour access to the video. Revenue is shared between Stage Stream and the producer, who also shares the revenue with actors, writers and other stakeholders. The prototype for Stage Stream has already been built and is currently running private beta.
"Producers face a tough business model when they are constrained to how many seats they can cram into four walls of their theater," says Incontro. "But, what if the audience that would really love that show is several states away? Or can't make it at 8pm on a Saturday night? Or can't afford a theatre ticket? Younger and less affluent audiences are priced out of theater, and that creates a roadblock to developing a new audience. That's the problem we are trying to solve with Stage Stream: we're giving producers global distribution power, and we're restoring access for new and underserved audiences."
Those who truly can't afford a ticket to a live production can see the next best thing. Also, by filming the shows, producers and actors can feasibly continue to make money on a production, even after it has closed.
But some might argue that by filming live theatre, you change the very nature of the medium. Theatre is meant to be experienced with others. You go for the thrill of feeling the rumbling of the orchestra, being a part of the symbiotic energy exchange between the audience and the actors, and sharing a human connection with hundreds of other people. Incontro's ultimate goal is to hook the new audience through technology and drive them to the theatres.
"Stage Stream will be a new audience member's gateway drug to the live theater experience," explains Incontro. And it makes sense. How many people saw the movies Sweeney Todd, Chicago, or Dreamgirls, fell in love, and became interested in seeing the stage versions?
The theater has often been referred to as a 'beloved invalid' whose grand exit is certain and inevitable. There are those that are already writing its obituary. Jeni Incontro and other young theater professionals of the new millennium are endeavoring to infuse new life into the ancient art. This beloved invalid has survived for thousands of years despite the advent of films, television and the digital age. Perhaps its Golden Years are still ahead?