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Dream Merchant, Part 2

Interior Design: Benoy, Tech Design: Phil Soden
In the previous installment, I detailed some of the technical issues involved in constructing and starting up Indonesia's first, for-profit arts and entertainment center.  I detailed some of the major issues involved with folks who have no cultural or technical background in Western theater arts trying to build and operate an international venue.

As noted, there is a large cultural gap between Indonesia and the Western theatrical tradition.  At the moment, there are only two venues here that operate like a Western-style venue, one built in the Soeharto days with 500 seats and the Ciputra Artpreneur with 1,200 seats.  There are three in the planning phases, as well, that are significantly larger with rumors that one of them will be dubbed the National Theater of Indonesia (near Bandung), though it will primarily be a concert hall by design.

What this means is that there are very few people with the experience to operate this kind of venue, and there are no such things as Stagecraft classes and industry-specific lighting, sound and electrical training.  This presents a major problem by itself when it comes to staffing, operating and maintaining a venue such as the Artpreneur.

Even more profound is the lack of a "theater culture."  In the West, concepts such as "seasons," "corporate grants," "sustaining memberships," and government agencies that support such things have been around for centuries.

In Western culture, the "social season" begins with the onset of Autumn and has been well established since at least Victorian times.  It is ingrained in such things as theater seasons, teevee seasons, summer blockbusters and winter dramas.  Many Westerners may not even be aware of it, though their lives are frequently dictated by it.  That's how ingrained it is.  From Labor Day to May Day, certain colored clothing is faux pas, certain activities get shelved while others begin, even menus start to shift.  This is driven in part by changing seasons.

In Indonesia, there are only Wet and Dry seasons.  There is no winter and the culture here has never incorporated habits such as storing food and fuel, having different wardrobes that are temperature based, and so forth.  Thus, things such as teevee seasons are imported concepts here.

Western style theater is based on more than 2,000 years of development, beginning with religious adaptations of the lives of the gods to West End and Broadway, spanning a dozen countries that all added their own tastes and conventions to what we now know of as theater arts.

In Indonesia, performance began in a similar way, with ritualized presentations of religious themes, but developed in entirely different directions.  Shadow puppets, slapstick, adopted Chinese and Japanese theatrical forms and the like merged into a much less technical and simpler entertainment industry.  In recent years, the massive Broadway musicals have gotten worldwide attention because of their spectacle, and Indonesia is part of that, but it is a foreign style that is being laid over an existing framework and in many ways, they are incompatible.

Another major difference with the West is that there are no government agencies that promote the arts or offer annual grants to venues to offset the cost of production.  In Indonesia, venues and production companies sink or swim based on their ability to sell tickets, generate ancillary income and secure corporate sponsors.  The idea of private philanthropy, at least as far as the performing arts go, is unheard of, so donations are non-existent.

Into this environment I stepped, suggesting things like selling naming rights for various things within the Artpreneur, such as "Buy A Seat," or custom floor tiles with family names on them.  I also tried to suggest getting corporations to sponsor the venue rather than particular events, asking agencies such as the Jakarta Tourist Bureau to promote the center.

I was told that supporters and donors were akin to asking for charity, and rich families (such as the owner) don't do that.  I was told that corporations don't understand sponsoring venues, because no one had ever done it and so they didn't have a model for how that worked.  Also, the owner didn't want anyone else's name on the venue.  I was also told that government agencies expect to be paid for their support and didn't do such things as part of their missions.

So, I proceeded to develop a cafe and theater bar for the venue as a means of income.  I spent eight months concepting, designing layouts and crowd flow, gathering corporate partners,  I had reached the point of baning out contracts with the owner's approval all through the process.  When I projected that the bar alone would pay all the negative costs of the venue operations, even after the partners got their cuts, the owner decided that it should all be run by the family, which had (again) no experience in such things.

In addition, I could not convince anyone to sponsor or pay for a full season of shows.  Why was this important?  Well, on one hand you have one show, and the other hand you have 12.  When you go to promote these shows, one the one hand you are paying about $100,000 to promote one show, and if it fails, you are stuck with a rather large bill (the average Broadway musical costs about $300,000/week plus venue costs).  On the other hand, you pay about $100,000 to promote 12 shows, and if one fails, a hit with one of the others makes up the deficit.  Obviously, amortizing costs over a full season and hedging your bets with a variety of offerings makes much more sense.

Furthermore, as with multiplex cinemas, the venue rarely makes its money from ticket sales.  When you are lucky, the tickets sales pay the negative costs of getting the show.  The profit comes from ancillary income, such as snack bars and other such things.

At this point, it was apparent to me that I was in no way going to be able to use the tool set that I have in the way that I know how to use them.  The technical side of the operation was severely compromised, but I could make it work.  However, without the tools I needed to make the center profitable, I was hamstrung.

It is possible to make theater and art venues profitable without tax money and donations.  It is done by combining business models from several different industries into a coherent revenue stream.  Take away any of those tools and it becomes increasingly difficult to earn the income necessary to maintain and operate such a complicated enterprise.

There are seven major systems in an arts and entertainment venue like the Artpreneur.  If any one of them fails, shows come to a dead halt and/or people die.  Not only do they need to be installed and operated correctly, they need constant scheduled maintenance to spot problems before they threaten the smooth functioning of the venue.

At the owner's insistence, budgets were cut in the wrong places, thus compromising the technical operations.  The owner further prevented or hampered the ability to generate revenue streams that would support the center and make profitability possible.  In this case, I decided that my presence was no longer necessary.  After all, I was hired because I knew how to build, operate and generate profit from such an operation.  Since two of the three functions were handicapped by my employer, there was no need for my expertise.

Sure, I could have stayed and drawn a paycheck with the lofty title of Executive Director, but I have too much integrity for such meaningless existence.  In addition, I could not in good conscience operate a venue that I knew was compromised and could possibly endanger life and limb if it wasn't handled in a very precise way with hours of advanced training and certification for the technicians.  I was not willing to risk my reputation for safety, even for a cushy paycheck.

I do have one legacy that will likely never be matched.  So far, Beauty and the Beast is the only show to have earned a profit at the venue.  That was the only one that I negociated and promoted.  Obviously, it's not as simple as, "Hey, kids!  I have a barn, let's do a show!"  The modern Western theater is highly complex with audiences demanding more and more dazzling special effects.  This requires absolute perfection in operating a venue to ensure the safety of the technicians, actors and audiences.

Oh, and I'm happy to report that no one suffered a lost-time injury during construction and start-up under my leadership.  'Tis better to have integrity than a cushy paycheck, I think.

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