Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 19: Blue Oceans

So far you have:We’re about to embark on your “what”: what are the things you are going to make and what are the services you are going to provide. In the business model canvas, this is called your Value Proposition. But before we get to that, I want to introduce an important concept that you ought to be considering prior to exploring your “what”: the Blue Ocean Strategy, an idea that comes from a well-known book with the same name by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.

To understand a “blue ocean,” you have to first understand it’s opposite, a “red ocean.” Broadly, red oceans “represent all the industries in existence today….[In a red ocean], companies try to outperform their rivals to grab a greater share of existing demand. As the market space gets crowded, prospects for profits and growth are reduced. Products become commodities, and cutthroat competition turns the red ocean bloody.” Think Jaws, but with lots of sharks attacking each other to see who can eat the swimmer. (OK, maybe don’t think that.)

“Blue oceans,” on the other hand, “are defined by untapped market space, demand creation, and the opportunity for highly profitable growth.” Lest you are thinking this means, in the case of theater, starting a company someplace that is completely bereft of theater activity, never fear: “Although some blue oceans are created well beyond existing industry boundaries, most are created from within red oceans by expanding existing industry boundaries…” New York City is a deep red ocean for theater, filled with people competing for jobs and attention, and the same is true in other cities with active theater scenes. So if you are determined to work in such a red ocean, you have to create a space of uniqueness that can make you stand out.

The example the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy use to illustrate their concept is Cirque du Soleil (for some reason, business books love to use the performing arts to illustrate their ideas), which, they say,

“did not compete with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Instead, it created uncontested new market space that made the competition irrelevant.” They removed the traditional animal acts and the three rings [remember, they were influenced by San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus that we’ve already discussed], and added a narrative, a sophisticated score, elaborate lighting, a couple of clowns to serve as focal points and narrators, and they focused on the creation of poetic imagery through acrobatics. To put it more simply, they added a lot of theatrical and dance elements to the basics of circus performance. As a result, they were no longer competing for the same audience as Ringling Bros, but “appealed to a whole new group of customers: adults and corporate clients prepared to pay a price several times as great as traditional circuses for an unprecedented entertainment experience.”

In other words, they created a unique circus/theater hybrid and as a result found an entirely different audience.

Let me illustrate this concept another way. Let’s pretend there is a town of about 100,000 people called Bardville. In addition to being in the midst of a beautiful natural landscape, Bardville is home to three major theaters devoted exclusively to performing the works of Shakespeare. People come from all over the country and all over the world to see the productions at these three theaters, and the economy of the town is centered on serving these theater tourists. (Think Ashland, OR times three.)

Now imagine that you grew up in Bardville and you developed a deep love of Shakespeare. You have a broad support system of friends and family there, and a dream of creating a company there. In many ways, this is a red ocean for theater—these three established theaters have been battling for a portion of the theater-going market for years, and they already have devoted followings that your new theater will not have. There are only so many tourists who can be accommodated in the theaters and only so many B & Bs available to house them, so the audience is limited. So how do you create a blue ocean for your company?

Well, of course, you could offer a selection of contemporary plays, right? There’s nobody in town doing that, and you wouldn’t have to compete with an already-established institution. However, there might be two problems with that vision: 1) you go out and talk to some of the tourists who have come to town and ask them whether they would be interested in seeing a contemporary play, and it turns out that they are almost all Bardolators who are specifically coming to see plays by their favorite playwright, or classic plays like his—they love the classics, and aren’t interested at all in new stuff; and just as importantly, 2) your own love of Shakespeare is not being fulfilled by creating a theater focused on new plays. This idea doesn’t meet your Vision nor does it fit with the Customer Segment. Now what? Are you doomed? Do you need to go somewhere else where there aren’t theaters devoted to Shakespeare? Because if you simply start a fourth theater devoted to Shakespeare, you will be slaughtered by the big companies who have more money, more prestige, more trust, more comfortable spaces, and higher profile performers. There’s some slight chance that you might eventually triumph, but it’s going to be tough going.

Rather than abandoning your dream, you spend some time looking at what the Big Three in Bardville do, how they do it, and when they do it; you watch and listen to their patrons, paying attention to what they do when they’re not attending productions at the Big Three. What “problems” might these people have that your company could “solve.”

The first thing you notice is that all three theaters have Mondays off, so tourists looking to maximize their theater experiences have a wasted day. You could create a blue ocean by performing only on Mondays. Of course, it’s kind of hard to build a sustainable business model by performing one day a week, but it’s a start. Where else are there gaps?

After talking to some of the visitors, you notice a pattern. Often, there are married couples, or a group of numerous such couples, and you notice that there are often a few true Shakespeare enthusiasts and the others are along for the ride. They may have only a passing knowledge about Shakespeare, his historical context, how his language works, and so forth, but they are willing to support their partner’s or friend’s enthusiasm as long as there are other things to do when they’re not at the theater. What opportunities might they provide you?

Perhaps your company could provide introductory classes during the day about the plays on offer each night. This might involve doing short scenes from the plays in addition to lectures and biographical scenes from Shakespeare’s life. This is something you alone, or you and another person, could do to create a Shakespeare-adjacent living. Instead of competing with the Big Three, you are like a Pilot Fish who swims alongside a shark and does things the shark can’t do for themselves. In this case, you’re helping to create a more prepared audience for the Big Three. Heck, maybe one of theaters might throw some money your way if you focus just on their shows. And for your part, you are getting a chance to work with the Bard’s words, so you’re feeling some fulfillment.

You also notice that the most enthusiastic Bardolators at the Big Three often mouth the words of the play while they are watching like fans at a rock concert singing along with the band. You realize that some of them might think it was pretty cool to get a chance to learn how to perform portions of the plays themselves. Spotting another blue ocean, you begin offering daytime classes in acting Shakespeare—perhaps monologues first, then scenes. Pretty soon, you find that there are a handful of people each week willing to pay to rehearse and perform an act of one of the plays, or a compilation of monologues and scenes. Or maybe they are performing small roles with members of your company who are doing the whole play, and they step in like the midwestern stock company members stepped in to perform with the touring actor-manager in the 19th century. Now you and your company are getting a chance to act plays by Shakespeare, and the small roles are being filled by people willing to pay for the opportunity!

Do you see how this works? Before you just launch a theater like every other theater, look around the place where you are living to see what is already present and then figure out a way to avoid those red oceans by figuring out how best to make your theater distinct. Alternatively, figure out a way to become Pilot Fish for the existing sharks!

This page has paths:

This page references: