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Measuring Success in Theater

Playwrights’ Corner

As a new year begins, so do new projects and the dreams that go with them. Each of us entering the challenging world of the arts hopes against hope that we'll be the one to make it to the top, but what does measuring success look like for everyday working professionals? 

Here are playwright Callie Kimball and actor/director Alfredo Narciso's takes on the subject.

GILLIAN HEITMAN: What does success in the arts look like to you?

CALLIE KIMBALL: Balance is key to my idea of success, because a balanced approach is a sustainable approach.
The most beautiful and simultaneously challenging things about both life and art center around their ephemerality. We learn to strike a balance between experiencing a moment at the exact same time we’re losing it. Figuring out how to move forward when we feel the pull to linger becomes central to accomplishing anything.
“Never, never, never, never, never. Pray you, undo this button.” When Lear says this, he’s caught in the balance between eternity and helplessness. The tension between those two ideas is profoundly moving, and exploring that type of tension drives a lot of what I try to do in my plays. I write from a wordless well of bewilderment at the scope of life, and I begin to find my way by exploring small, specific actions and behaviors.
Balance is important outside of writing, too. I’ve been writing plays for 10 years, and I’ve been so focused on my career that I’ve let the rest of my life sit unattended. So I’ve begun to take hikes, to learn recipes, to travel, to listen to friends—basically to create small joys. Before, I was starving not just my soul, but my writing as well. Now that I have a little breathing room in my career, I can build a life and a creative practice that nourishes me and is sustainable for the long haul.

ALFREDO NARCISO: Success in the performing arts feels like it is measured by the impression it leaves. How indelible are the images and gestures that were created. How long the conversation continues after the curtain has fallen. If you are able to elicit a strongly positive (or even negative response - apathy is, hopefully, avoided) and feel like your work is resonating, in some way - that feels like success to me. I don’t want to reduce what we do to simple approval seeking. However, the relationship we create with our audience is key. If not, we should just read plays, not perform them, right? The play is the thing, yes. But the audience is the thing that makes the play the thing. Now, if the work we are producing can have the effect of exponentially attracting NEW audiences that would be a major success…

GH: Have you ever experienced a show that was a creative achievement, but perhaps not a financial or critical success? What were the gains from that show? How do you negotiate that feeling of pride with the review-oriented society that may have a different view of success than you do?

CK: Oh boy do I have an answer for this. It was 2007, and I’d been writing plays in DC for two years, long enough to know I knew absolutely nothing. I had set myself the task of writing roughly three plays a year, producing some of them myself. I figured the sooner I busted through my own inexperience, the sooner I might get somewhere.
One of the plays I wrote was called “Nutshell” and I directed it at the Capital Fringe Festival that summer. The play had around 25 characters, most of them animals. It centered around a group of NGO workers on their way to Kenya to rescue elephants. The central theme questioned assumptions borne of white privilege, what happens when we “help” others. With such a large cast, and with one of the main characters (and actors) using a wheelchair, we were given the Woolly Mammoth mainstage, one of the few accessible venues in the festival.
Having a play at Woolly was a huge deal for me, because before I was even a playwright, I had long devoured the plays Howard Shalwitz did there. Some of my best theatrical experiences were in the audience in their converted garage on Church Street. 

“Nutshell” featured a few Woolly company members, including Kimberly Gilbert, who played “Kimberly Gilbert, an actress in DC” (oh so meta). The lighting designer was Andrew F. Griffin, who is now finishing up at Yale and had lit many of my other shows in DC. The actors were 100% committed, and I had the best stage manager in Karen Currie—we had to load in and strike this huge show with all its props and 25 separate costume bags in 15 minutes flat at each performance.
God bless those actors who believed in me. With my dance background, I basically choreographed the play to hit these very specific, visual moments. I was a drill sergeant. I figured out how elephants walk, placing their feet securely before transferring their weight, and made everyone practice over and over in the sweltering heat in the parking lot of the old Clark Street Playhouse. Needless to say, no one was Equity.
I was operating under the idea Go Big Or Go Home. I wanted to see how far I could push myself in terms of scale. If I failed, I wanted it to be spectacular. “Nutshell” was a hot mess of a play, but it was a mess in a way that I loved. The production sparked wonder and laughter in the audience, and hit all the notes I wanted it to. I mean, there was a stampede. A stampede! People came up to me after the show with eyes aglow, wondering how I did that, saying how wonderful the Tall White Bird was (she was silent!), and laughing at how Rusty Clauss (rest her soul) as an old zebra using a cane got caught in the stampede in a tiny little easter egg of understated comedy gold.
So much joy in that play. And it got utterly destroyed in the Washington Post. In an article about the worst Fringe shows to avoid, the reviewer said my play was the worst of all transgressors. But the best part was, I swear, when I read that review, in my pajamas, by myself with no one to front for, I laughed. I laughed with a spoonful of cereal in my mouth. And I was so glad that that was my true response, because after getting positive reviews for earlier work, I now knew that I could take the bad reviews in stride. Knowing that gave me immense confidence to continue taking risks going forward.

You can't take the good reviews too seriously, because then you have to take the bad ones seriously, too.

Unfortunately, with that review, we didn’t get as much audience as I had projected. The year before, my play “MAY 39th” had been a sold-out hit at Fringe, where we turned people away. I had assumed a similar turnout for a much larger venue, and had spent money on props and costumes for all of these characters. I was rather foolish about it. Some of the actors said they would have gladly worn their own clothes, but I had it in my head that we were going to do things right. The only thing I regret is that I assumed we’d get good press and so I planned for financial success. Lesson learned.

AN: Absolutely. I did a show that packed an intense emotional punch: the subject material was dark and the performance of it was demanding and stressful. The script felt important and beautiful. Then a publication of note came and gave a patronizing review of the show (we did receive many nice notices too, however). We were still proud of what we did, but were disheartened, to say the least. After all of that work, time, commitment and sacrifice, to be dismissed felt like such a disappointment. However, the audiences loved it! No one left that theater unmoved and unchanged. And THAT was a creative achievement. And the takeaway was: we do this for audiences not for critics (or reviewers, rather). I recently heard John Lahr (a long-time, now retired, critic for The New Yorker) speak about the distinction between reviewers and critics. Reviewers being someone who reviews shows based on selling tickets/papers/etc. and critics being someone who critiques a show with an understanding of what the playwright was intending and basing their critique on how well the production executed that intention. Reviewers are almost always working an agenda and we shouldn’t allow them to dictate what we do or do not see. Critics are essential to what we do (in sustaining the conversation), reviewers…not so much…

GH: Is there anyway to anticipate how a show will be received? Do your experiences behind the scenes often inform how the show will do and can that indicate whether the show is successful?

CK: I just had a play done in the East Village this past October called Rush. It was the play’s second production. I came down from Maine to sit in on a rehearsal about 10 days before opening. They were in that excruciating place of “Wait…did you want me to say the line before or after I see the hanging man?” It was exactly where they needed to be at that point in time because they were stitching everything together in an organic way, but it meant there was no way to tell how it was going to be come opening night.
The director, Christopher Diercksen, and I have been friends for years. The whole process had been weirdly conflict-free, even while we collaborated across distance, but we knew the true test would be opening night, when we would next see each other. We stepped into the hall on a break. We just looked at each other and were like, “Well, if the worst happens, we’ll call it what it is, beer it up, and move on, friendship intact.” In the end, I was thrilled with the production—direction, design, acting, and script all came together and it had a terrific audience response.
But really, knowing whether a play really works comes much earlier. In the course of developing a play, I can usually tell if it’s operating in the way I want it to by the responses along the way. I know I’ve hit a sweet spot if, after a reading, listeners ask more questions of the play or of themselves (“I wonder why she lied so many times about how the dog died”) than of me (“Why did you put the intermission there?”).
I’ve got a play in development right now that has surprises in each scene. Every time we’ve read it, people hearing it for the first time gasp in disbelief at the outrageous behavior. So I know I’m onto something, even though it’s still very raw and in process. Actually, it’s a play I started this summer at the Lark Vassar retreat!
I think as a playwright you kind of know early on if your play is going to soar. The best ones keep unfolding themselves like a giant puzzle. The worst ones are tidy like a spreadsheet. I like to write plays that ask questions to which I don’t know the answer. The day I write a play where I know the answers already is the day I’ve written a very dull play.

AN: A magic eight ball? A trip to see the Stygian witches? I don’t know. It seems arbitrary sometimes. I’ve had experiences where working on the show was a total love fest and the final product was kind of ‘meh’. And then, I’ve had experiences where I either wanted to quit acting or wished grave bodily harm on my collaborators but the show turned out to be brilliant. Generally, though, I feel like when you have collaborators with strong opinions who are also willing to compromise and recognize the cogency of other’s ideas, you are in a better position to have a successful show. Theater is a process. We should all be learning together. Questioning together - each other and ourselves. I don’t feel like you should obdurately come to the first rehearsal with all of the answers. If you are, perhaps, you aren’t asking the right questions. Or, at the very least, you’re in danger of presenting a less colorful version of what the play could be.

Success remains to be an elusive goal, but if we continue to collaborate openly and have a willingness to learn, we can achieve great theatrical feats.

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This interview also appeared in the January 2016 edition of A Bird's Eye View, The Lark's monthly Newsletter! Sign up here to get more articles like these straight to your inbox.