The commercial success of a stage production is entirely relative; the total turnout for a good three-week, 15-performance run at most local professional theater companies wouldn't constitute a decent weekend's work for a big touring Broadway show like Wicked. But on the local level, there are trends that suggest ways newer or smaller companies can get noticed.
This came to mind at the Dec. 13 final performance of Chicks With Dicks, the uproarious, sassily campy 1960s biker-babe movie sendup by Bricolage Productions. The script, by Trista Baldwin, already had a cult following here, after readings at Bricolage. But the full production, which opened in October, extended its original five-weekend run by two weeks, and judging by the closing-night sellout, it might have gone longer still.
The show, directed by Tami Dixon, was big goofy fun: lots of women in tight-fitting and/or minimal clothing, declaiming ludicrous dialogue; a you're-much-smarter-than-this plot; outrageous, cartoonisly mimed violence; and, eventually, mutation. But my guess is that one thing that made the show a big hit on the little company's terms was some canny marketing.
Instead of trying to make it "theater," Bricolage -- basically, Dixon and group co-founder Jeff Carpenter -- made it, literally and figuratively, rock 'n' roll. Shows were booked on Friday and Saturday nights only (i.e., non-school nights) and late, at 10 p.m. And Bricolage actually had a local rock band play a short pre-show set each night in the troupe's Downtown lobby. (I saw the satisfying old-school glam of The Science Fiction Idols.) The carnival atmosphere included cotton candy and a chance to get your picture taken on a vintage police motorcycle, complete with sidecar.
Bricolage's smart tactics reminded me of one of the local trends I've noticed: The past few years have seen many more live-performance groups, and indeed arts venues of all kinds, turning shows into events, even parties. Several years ago, for instance, barebones productions helped launch its move to the top ranks of local indies by having rock bands and beer after performances of the play This is Our Youth. That sort of thing is pretty common these days; even big, established groups like Pittsburgh Public Theater and the Pittsburgh Symphony are hosting mixers and other social events to make themselves more attractive to younger audiences.
The second trend, by the way, is holding one's event at an odd, nontheatrical location. The oldest running practitioner of that tactic is Quantum Theatre, which by design seldom uses traditional theater spaces, building anew for each show (whether in a cemetery, a park or a defunct municipal swimming pool). The old Flux art happenings partook of the idea too, commandeering warehouses and other underused spaces for its shindigs. It raises the curiosity factor, for one thing, and also makes it feel more like an event than just another show.
Bricolage, of course, staged Chicks in its usual retrofitted storefront. But by the looks of the turnout, that was enough.