Meet the Couple That Treats Theatre Like a Startup—and Succeeds

Outside the Theatre   Meet the Couple That Treats Theatre Like a Startup—and Succeeds SoftFocus applies tech industry principles to making theatre in New York, while giving playwrights the skills to market their own shows.
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Matt Kagen and Fern Diaz Marc J. Franklin

Who: Fern Diaz & Matt Kagen
Outside: HB Playwrights Foundation

Most theatre artists can attest to the difficulty of producing new work—as in, on an actual stage, in front of an actual audience. To minimize financial risks, scripts can spend years in development without ever advancing beyond a staged reading, which can be demoralizing and stagnant for the artists who created the work. Husband and wife duo Fern Diaz and Matt Kagen decided enough was enough; a play produced on a micro-budget need not be seen as an amateur effort. The couple launched SoftFocus, a production company that applies lean startup principles to making theatre in New York, and empowers new voices with the entrepreneurial skills to go forth and produce their own plays.

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Fern Diaz and Matt Kagen Marc J. Franklin

SoftFocus is a combination of both your skills and backgrounds—talk me through that.
Matt Kagen: I started my career in New York by making theatre with my friends; we would write, produce, and direct our own shows. I learned how to collaborate and how to build a community. From there, I went into Columbia’s MFA Theatre Management and Producing program and was then able to work with New York Stage and Film. After almost ten years of working in New York theatre, I found that I was still meeting a lot of artists and groups of artists who were making work independently and were stuck in a kind of limbo.
Fern Diaz: I’ve spent most of my career working for early-stage startups or digital-first companies, so that startup ethos is in my DNA—things like how to manage a bootstrap project with a small team and little-to-no funding, or how to market a concept that doesn’t have any market share yet. I’ve also consulted on projects with independent artists and activists, and learned how to introduce an unknown artist to an audience and critics. Having known Matt for most of his theatre career, we’ve talked a lot about [this “limbo” and the traditional new work development model]—it turned from being a talking point to us starting our company.

Tell me about SoftFocus in your own words.
FD: SoftFocus is primarily an incubator that is generating an entrepreneurial development climate. We prioritize a production, which we see more as a working prototype of a play. We operate with an “agile” methodology that prioritizes flexibility and constant response to change. We aim to move at the speed of contemporary culture in order to use that momentum to launch an unproduced voice and be a part of the cultural conversation—rather than artists being told their plays of today have to wait for the future.

How is a “working prototype” and “agile methodology” different from the traditional development process for theatre? Doesn’t the old model with readings also respond to change?
FD: I think the reason that we stay in this reading cycle is because there’s a financial fear, as well as a fear of “the play isn’t ready yet.” But if you give a playwright who has been pouring their heart into a script the chance the between “be judged–take it” versus “keep waiting,” I feel that a lot of them would take the first option [and create this production prototype].
MK: There are plenty of opportunities to have a reading. We want artists to have audiences and communicate with them. I think that’s a necessary thing.

And what do you mean by the “speed of contemporary culture”?
FD: It’s a trend: What used to be a mutually exclusive relationship between speed and quality has totally changed. I see every day how the rules have changed—for example pop-up stores that see higher impact and higher return on smaller investments, 24-hour hackathons, or 3D printing. You can shoot an entire movie on an iPhone and it can be the hit of Sundance. The trend is effecting every industry—so how can it effect theatre? We want to able to harness that and empower playwrights.

What are some of the tools that you empower them with?
FD: We want them to be in control of their ideas, as well as in control of finding their audience and marketing their work. We also make our network open and accessible. I think that having an email database of people that have seen your show can potentially be more valuable than a grant. In the tech industry we talk a lot about how the internet has created a one-to-one relationship between a brand and their customer—so we want to apply that to theatre.

Do you think the theatre industry is resistant to change?
FD: I don’t think it’s necessary resistant, but [it still maintains a lot of the older rules] whereas the rules are being rewritten everywhere else. There remains this idea of “institutional permission” and less of a “do-it-yourself” ethos.
MK: There are a lot of amazing artists making independent theatre, but I think the appeal of being independent or non-institution affiliated is trendier in other industries. Artists who are working at the highest level in in TV, film, and music, are choosing to remain independent. That’s a beautiful thing.

SoftFocus will produce its second production this summer, with details soon to be announced. For more information on the company visit Softfoc.us/.

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