Thursday, February 28, 2008

A big hole.

One thing that’s always true when the number of troupes in a city increases is that you get more range in the experience of the performers and the quality of the shows.

In bigger cities, growth is often a by-product of combo theater/training centers (Second City, iO, Annoyance, ComedySportz, etc.). People see the professional shows, catch the bug, take the classes, and want to form their own troupes and do their own shows. The theater/training center model supports this in a couple of ways:
  • There’s a place to study—so players have a chance to get feedback from a trained, completely objective source. 
  • There’s a place to play—training centers put up student shows (typically for free) on off nights. 
The KC area has a couple of theaters, but there’s no place where everybody goes to study and everybody goes to see shows. We’re missing that all-important hub.

DISCLAIMER: The following is not a slam on the KC improv scene or any troupe(s) in it. 

My thought (I don’t say opinion, because I just started working this over in my head a day or so ago) is that this lack of one (or better yet, several) improv theater/training centers slows our growth—as performers, as troupes and as a community. Here’s why:

Obvious Reason: A lot of us—most of us, probably—got up on stage for the first time without much training. I know I did.

Maybe Not-So-Obvious Reason: Without a central…wait.

First, an example. At iO in Chicago, in one week, you can choose from 15 shows on their Cabaret Stage alone. There are prime slots (8 and 10:30pm on weekends) and shitty spots (10pm on a Sunday). Admission is anywhere from free (student shows) to $14 (the best Harold teams). For the most part, you get what you pay for.*

Here—unless troupes are associated with a school—they have to pay rent for their space. And the rent at Westport Coffeehouse, for example, is the same for
CounterClockwise Comedy, Improv-Abilities, Hypothetical 7, The Trip Fives, Tantrum, Full Frontal, Scriptease and any other troupe in town.

I’m not saying troupes with years of experience alwaysalways
always put on better shows than the newer groups. Or that newer  troupes’ shows lack value. NOT SAYING THAT.

Still. Experience does count for something.

The collective inability to afford any sort of sliding scale sends a…well, an interesting message to audiences, who are used to paying different prices for high school plays, community theater, professional theater, etc., etc. Let’s say someone unfamiliar to improv sees that ticket prices for Troupe A (doing their third public show) and Troupe B (a group of vets) are $10. They probably assume they’re getting the same basic level of quality. Because training and practice matter, it is highly likely Troupe B is going to put on a stronger show. But if they see Troupe A, and the show doesn’t feel worth $10, they may assume that’s what you get for $10 in Kansas City.

Personally, I’m just not interested in paying the same amount to watch people who’ve been improvising for a couple of years as I pay to see players who have hundreds of shows under their belts.** I've seen a shload of shows, and a more experienced troupe is way more likely to surprise me with something I've never seen before, inspire me with something I want to try or entertain me with rich, character-driven scenework. Groups who are still learning and exploring tend to go through the same cycles I've been through—and seen a gazillion times. Because what I get out of the experience is likely to be different, I want my investment to reflect that. 

It’s nobody’s fault. We have to base our admission prices on our overhead, instead of the demands of the marketplace. Troupes have to charge enough to make rent without having to sell out a house. It’s just a little extra hurdle we have to get past in creating a rich, vibrant, well-attended, sustainable improv scene.

*The exception to the rule is TJ & Dave. Arguably the best improv show in Chicago, it goes up at 11pm Wednesday and costs $5.
**Though I’m not all that interested in paying to see the same thing I’ve seen over and over and could do myself in my sleep, either.


  1. First of all, love your posts. Keep it up.

    Second of all, I have a problem with people here in Kansas City comparing the improv scene to Chicago. We're two totally different cities with two totally different scenes. The theater/training centers in Chicago are the best because people GO to Chicago to learn improv. To say that Kansas City is missing that is, yes, a true statement, but it's not at all a factor in the state of affairs here. We are Kansas City. People don't come here to learn improv. People come here to do something else and then somehow get into improv. Or they were born here. The only place that ever could have pulled off a community sized training session is ComedyCity in its heyday, and there you wouldn't get to learn "5-things" until you reached the highest level.

    However, I do agree with you that the prices that some troupes are charging for admission is a little nuts. The average price should be around $8. Anything above that and you're getting into the Trip Fives' territory.

    I keed. I keed.

  2. I'm not comparing us to Chicago. I could use Milwaukee, Atlanta or Austin as examples of cities with theaters that put up student shows on off nights. It's not just the guru-filled destinations.

    Roving Imp could do it. I don't think ComedyCity is interested—or ever really has been.

    The point is, without a central place that can afford to let troupes play for free—or really cheap—groups can't have much control over what they charge.

  3. Movie prices are always the same whether the movie is by veterans or newcomers. It's just whether it stays in theaters.

    Your model only works if your whole marketing plan is to have people wander in off the street. Hopefully each group is marketing to people who know how good they are.

  4. I think troupes should charge what the feel that their show is worth, and not what will make them more money after the theater is paid.

    I think a lot of things though. Not all are good.

  5. What I'm saying, though, is that we don't really have control over one of the most important of the four Ps in the marketing mix (product, price, place, promotion) (hey, actually, our options for place are pretty limited, too).

    If a folks want to play at a place like the coffeehouse, and they don't want to cover the rent out of their own pockets (which, let's face it, most of us can't afford), they have to charge $8-10 for every show. If you're marketing to people who love you, great—they'll pay it. But for troupes who want to broaden their audience outside family and friends, it's a tough sell (especially without good reviews from somewhere like the Pitch behind you for credibility).

    Places like Brave New Workshop can put up some shows for $1. (I'm guessing because they make their money on classes, the bar, and mainstage shows?) It lowers a barrier—I'm assuming it attracts folks who normally might not see the shows.

    Like I said, this is a rung below "opinion"—maybe lower than "theory." Thanks for stopping by to knock it geeky improv heart loves this.

    Dammit. I'm still awake because I stupidly looked at my stupid blackberry and got a work e-mail that has me riled up. Must. Sleep.

  6. I think of the 4 P's, Price is the least of our scene's worries. Price and Promotion are the two big ones.

  7. Hey, Scott...which "price" did you mean to replace with something else?


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