But to Nelson’s point, we have a significant challenge ahead of us. In discussing his article on Twitter, playwright Stephen Spotswood asked me “how much do DC theater companies feel like they are in competition with each other?” Soon thereafter, Peter Marks, theater critic of the Washington Post, asked me to answer the question on the record. And this is my attempt…
Are DC theater companies in competition with each other?
Yes. In my opinion, to think otherwise would be naive. People have limited disposable income, especially during tough economic times. However, we are very lucky. Washington, DC is weathering the economic downturn better than any other city in the nation. Although we have had our challenges, we have a leg up on everywhere else, and perhaps this is why we have been able to expand during turbulent times. But in terms of how people are going to spend their leisure time, theaters are in competition with each other as much as they’re in competition with movies, sports, other performing arts, museums, television, YouTube, video games, etc. To say that we aren’t is simply untrue.
That being said, if I am in competition for discretionary spending dollars, I want it to be with another theater. Why? I can’t get patrons to come to my theater if they don’t see theater as an option in the first place. My primary responsibility as a theater marketer is to get people interested in the theater. To increase the stability of our community, we have to grow the base of theater patrons in our city. We don’t have any other option, and to do that, we have to view ourselves as partners first and competitors second. If we focus on cannibalizing each other’s audiences, it will be a losing battle. One theater may win one year, but inevitably it will lose the next. The only way everyone wins, including the city, is if we cultivate a growing audience for all of our theaters.
In responding to Stephen’s question, I would also say that I tend to think that competition in the marketplace is good. When competition is stiff, it pushes everyone to do their best. To produce work of the highest quality. To provide the best customer service. To nurture the best local talent, and to present preeminent artists from around the globe. Please forgive the personal anecdote, but I know I have a more rewarding workout when there is a strong runner on the treadmill next to me. If there is no one by my side pushing the pace, I won’t exert as much energy. I want to keep up. I want to compete. And because of our competitive spirit, DC audiences will get to experience the best efforts of all.
As I look into the new year, I resolve to elevate my gaze whenever possible from being exclusively on the theater where I work to the community as a whole. I hope that competition will improve us individually, and that working together will improve us as a whole.