Mainstream theatre has the same basic problem as mainline Protestant churches: The constituencies of both are composed primarily of the aging white middle-class. Action Adventure Theatre in Portland has been making waves because it has developed an incredibly loyal fan-base composed primarily of hip young 20-somethings. Yesterday I met with co-founder Devon Granmo and asked him about what contributed to the company's success.
Action Adventure creates a unique form of theatre. They take for their subject matter the lives of hip 20-somethings living Portland. Instead of writing out whole scripts, the writers create detailed outlines of what happens to the characters, and then let the actors improvise the dialogue. They rehearse each show for a month, so the actors aren't making up their dialogue cold, but Devo said that it still retains a lot of the energy and spontaneity of improv without digressing into meaningless humor just for the sake of laughs (though there is still a lot of randomness and humor.
The other unique feature is that Action Adventure does their productions in a serial format. Each production features the same cast of characters and picks up where the last episode left off. Like a good television series, there's a dramatic arc within each episode, but the season also has an arc which makes you want to come back and see what happens to your favorite characters. Each episode runs one weekend and a season lasts a month.
The company saves money by performing their shows on the set of another theatre company. This means the plays go up at 10:30pm, which is fine for the demographics (although they also have a loyal following among some folks in their 60ies). They have a Sunday Matinee at 8:30pm.
Finally, Devo suggested modestly that the company is so successful because it's made up of young 20-somethings who are all very cool. He has a point. People love to feel that they are part of a hip, attractive, and interesting circle; live theatre in a serial format by and about this type of people offers audiences the sense of being part of the in-crowd.
Another interesting thing that Action Adventure does outside of its serial production is the "Inspired By" events. Prior to these events, fans of Action Adventure are encouraged to write short (less than a 100 words) stories. The stories are then handed over to artists of a variety of genres (theatre, painting, music) who are asked to interpret and present the stories in whatever manner they might wish. The work is then presented at a fundraiser.
The church year is also structured in a serial format: the liturgical calendar. However, each week is rarely designed to build to the next in a dramatic manner that leads to climaxes (Christmas, Easter). This is an instance where historically dominate forms of worship actually match up with what I'm encountering in the arts world--most churches just aren't using the serial nature of the church year to its full potential.