Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Blue Oceans Off-Broadway: New Opportunities in Immersive Theatre

As Orchestra leaders are fond of observing, it takes just as many musicians to play Beethoven today as it did 200 years ago, fundamentally limiting our ability to reduce costs while producing the same art. Thus, in my mind there were no real Blue Oceans of vast untapped markets to be found. How could there be in an environment of perpetual and inescapable high expenses? Kim and Muborgne’s choice to use Cirque du Soleil as a case example was enlightening in how the model might still apply, making me think about what other sorts of recalibrations of seemingly familiar conventions might exist. I posit that there is another Blue Ocean which a growing number of “Immersive Theatre” experience such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, Third Rail Production’s Then She Fell, and others like The Generation of Z are carving out. In the age of on-demand entertainment, there are many high-quality low cost entertainment substitutes for the arts experience. Furthermore, many people who did not growing up attending shows feel that theatre is inaccessible or just “not for them.” However just as Cirque found a Blue Ocean in the intersection of theatre and circus, Immersive Theatre lives somewhere between theatre and haunted house, doing an excellent job of driving perceived up value for patrons through its highly experiential model of engagement and by taking the best from multiple different extant art forms. In a traditional theatrical experience the audience is expected to sit quietly, but in each of these examples the audience is invited to enter directly into the world of the story. This simple change untethers the art from the traditional (and often expensive) constraints of pre-existing theatrical spaces and allows new “found spaces” to be repurposed. Sleep No More was staged first in an abandoned school outside Boston, and now resides in what was previously a seedy dance club and abandoned warehouse in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. For better or worse, these shows also are able to employ non-union performers and limited lighting rigs, further reducing their costs. If there is one facet of these new quasi-theatrical experiences that makes me question whether they will truly realize the benefits of this sort of Blue Ocean strategy, it’s that even if some costs have been removed, prices still remain relatively comparable to other theatrical productions. Given the experiential aspect, it’s very possible that attendees will perceive them to be a better value than a traditional show, but all of the examples provided included decreases in real cost along with creating new value. While the artistic industries may seem fixed after that past 70 years of institutional theatre, in actuality their past is filled with rapid change and adaptation to the changing demands as patrons. I now suspect that there are indeed Blue Oceans yet to be discovered, however I am unsure if the significant barriers we still face in terms of cost may inhibit their full exploitation.

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