From Mark Twain to Mark Zuckerberg, some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century were renowned for their lack of organization. Indeed, Einstein famously said that “a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,” permanently cementing, for better or worse, the association of brilliance and disorganization in the popular imagination.
This dynamic seems to have carried over to the theater arts as well. Aspiring writers, performers, and producers won’t find a single, clear avenue for proceeding from proof of concept to execution. Unlike other industries (such as publishing), the theater arts don’t have an effective progression for stories to grow from an idea in a writer’s mind into a fully-fledged musical ready for the public.
The solution? Create startup accelerators to develop, nurture, and expand plays, from conception to execution. Just as startups have programs to grow, expand, and transform, so too do we need accelerators for the arts. In order to unite and accelerate storytellers, we need to take a different path: we must implement an intuitive, logical structure into an industry often seen as lacking strong processes (which leads to a high failure rate).
In this article, we’ll speak specifically about musical theater, but readers should note that we can apply this model to other aspects of the entertainment industry, like film or television.
In a nutshell: accelerators can address problems that arise from human nature, as well as more systemic, ingrained problems.
Artists need structure as well as free thought, and a thorough process will allow us to build a polished final product. More importantly, such a process will help artists defeat procrastination, both an intrinsic part of human nature and the mortal enemy of creatives. Tim Urban, creator of the acclaimed site WaitButWhy, likens procrastination to a collection of endless digital rabbit holes.
But from Tim’s hilarious, engaging TEDTalk, I realized another important point: as a society, we place too much emphasis on deadlines. Today, we consider due dates the end-all for our efforts, the make-or-break point of our projects, a sort of final judgment where society assesses our worth (or lack thereof) as professionals, creatives, artists.
In fact, this undue emphasis on deadlines distracts us from something even more important: the procedures necessary for success. By focusing on when to get things done, we’re ignoring the how, overlooking critical tools and steps in the process, such as storyboards and animatics (for film), or readings and presentations (for theater). Truthfully, process and timeline stand independent of one another (neither can take precedence over the other), but this mindset persists, both in the creative industry and society more generally.
It’s high time we rethink this viewpoint. Due dates help us get things done, given our notoriously short attention spans, but we shouldn’t see deadlines, in and of themselves, as the end goal. Rather, we should rethink deadlines as progress markers on a long, continuing journey.
In particular, creatives should take this advice to heart. Plays undergo multiple, numerous iterations and drafts, and experienced production teams understand that deadlines serve only as milestones.
This brings us to our second pressing problem: systemic issues, namely the emphasis on the creative aspects (to the detriment of the business side of things), as well as the current, flawed life cycle of plays. I believe this practice stems from a common, underlying mindset in the theater industry: we often silo the numbers side and the creative side of a musical–rather than seeing them as inextricable halves of one whole. Unfortunately, this mistaken belief hurts inexperienced production teams, leading them to overlook areas like marketing or analytics.
Additionally, most plays follow an imperfect timeline: conceiving and drafting the idea; the first, no-frills rehearsal (which often takes the form of a simple table read); revision of the play; a longer, presentation, this time with a larger audience; and continued development, which will (hopefully) result in a larger staging to wider audiences.
In my long experience with musical theater, I’ve noticed that plays often fail after the first table read; at this point, the production often runs out of funding. To use an analogy from the tech world, it would be the equivalent of a startup failing after it produced a minimum viable product. Can you imagine if Uber failed after its first prototype came out? Or if Facebook spent all its money on prototyping and testing its first product, and tanked shortly after it was released?
Before we continue, we should note that plenty of excellent theater workshops do exist, from the Musical Theater Factory to the National Playwrights Conference, hosted by the prestigious O’Neill Theater. By launching the careers of skilled (but unknown) playwrights, performers, and producers, these organizations do an invaluable service to the theater community. Yet as comprehensive as these programs can be, they may not cover the business aspects of running a production, specifically funding, budgeting, operations, marketing, and so forth.
Now, I don’t wish to degrade these distinguished institutions, which nurture and develop future talent. Instead, I just want to point out that, in our digital age, it’s more important than ever for everyone to understand (if not master) the business side of things. After all, producers owe it to their staff to drum up marketing buzz worthy of their hard work.
That’s where accelerators come in. They can work in tandem with great creative workshops by empowering producers, writers, and performers with the tools necessary for critical and commercial success.
Let’s consider a hypothetical play, one written about Julius Caesar. Before any production team even considers staging a table read, they need to consider the following factors: product market fit and potential audience demographics. Essentially, the production team needs to answer the following questions: Who would watch a play about Caesar? What themes does the play present (betrayal at the hands of friends, lust for power destroying everything)? How can we sell these themes to audiences?
Any good accelerator will teach production and marketing teams to effectively promote and tailor their play to audience tastes (without compromising its core spirit and themes). Additionally, such an accelerator will provide enough runway, so to speak, for the play to take off. For this to happen, there needs to be sufficient funding to stage at least three iterations during the creation process–not just a table read.
For inspiration (as well as a look at how accelerators could function), let’s turn to the Disney Theatrical Group, which produced a crop of award-winning musicals like The Lion King, Aladdin, and Newsies. Disney succeeded precisely because they had a formal, flexible, and innovative model: they gathered sufficient resources, went through multiple forms of the play, and best of all, created a talented, savvy group of mentors and executives to guide production.
And one cannot understate the value of an experienced, far-sighted team. Ed Catmull, the visionary co-founder of Pixar, once pondered whether executives should prioritize people or ideas, especially given our increasing reliance on automation and big data. Ultimately, Ed concludes that, even in this digital age, people win out over ideas every time; after all, without the right people, the right team–the best ideas simply cannot exist.
In much the same way, accelerators will gather and mold production teams, allowing them to hone their mastery of skills and process–all in order to create the best play possible. While I’ll elaborate on specific aspects in future installments, understand that like startups, a good theater accelerator will bet on the team, not the idea. Even in a time of constant technological change, an agile group will know when to start, which areas to focus on, what to tinker with and change, and finally, when to pivot and adjust.
Because much of theatre is the suspension of reality and tech a sort of hyper-realization of it, the marriage between the two makes for a symbiotic relationship. After all, the show must go on! And through the help of accelerators, it can.
I am Tim Kashani, CEO of Apples and Oranges Arts, a nonprofit which focuses on the future of musical theater. Through the organization, my team and I created THEatre ACCELERATOR, which seeks to apply the methods, processes, and the “fail early and often” mindset of the startup world to the performing arts. I am also a producer who has collaborated on Tony-award winning musicals like Hair and An American in Paris, and a hardcore tech geek whose computer services company, IT Mentors, has contracted with tech giants like UBS and Microsoft.