Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Butts in Seats

Mary’s kicked off a great discussion that gets at the heart of growing and maintaining a vital theater scene here. I have just a few thoughts to contribute:

--> Growing a Constituency. There are programs like CYT and smaller theater companies like Chamberlayne Actors Theater that have been able to thrive (from what I can tell) by growing a regular and devoted constituency. This has always been the idea behind having subscribers but it really has to go beyond just getting someone to buy a season of tickets (which people are less and less willing to do given the demands on people's time and the myriad entertainment options out there). I think Barksdale is doing a great job at trying to build a constituency via their blog and their Coffee and Conversations series. You develop an awareness in people so they’re on the lookout for whatever production is coming up and they may be more willing to take a chance at checking out a play they hadn’t heard of before. Unfortunately, the myth seems to have been propagated that this strategy only works for older folks or groups with an already established commonality (Christians, the GLBT community, etc.) I think theaters are still struggling to get at that elusive younger crowd which is more fickle so you can’t always count on traditional methods. And the untraditional ones are risky – are you going to throw resources behind a “singles night” at the theater or a hip-hop night at the theater when there’s no telling whether that’ll amount to anything?

--> Challenging plays. One of the coolest things about seeing “Spring Awakening” in NYC was that the majority of the audience was younger, the first time I’d seen such a thing since “Rent.” But hey, it was a rock-n-roll show all about sex! There are other shows like this but nobody is willing to put them up. I still mourn the fact that Rick St. Peter left town because for a while there (before he got old and respectable and had kids of his own) he was putting together shows like “suburbia” and “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” that had a chance of intriguing a younger crowd (and even adventurous older folks). I also think producers have to shift their thinking a bit: The generation that matured in the 60s – remember free love and rampant drug use and everything? – is now entering their 60s. I think a grown-up these days is willing to see a show where they say “fuck” unlike the bro-ha-ha that such a show would engender years ago. Are we just going to do “Anything Goes” and “Guys and Dolls” forever? I guess you have to do them occasionally because those are the shows that sell out – there wasn’t a ticket to be found for “Anything Goes” a couple of summers ago – but how about something that shocks the system a little?

--> Venue. Richmond continues to have a venue problem. I know that the reason some people are wary of places like the Firehouse is because it’s not a big fancy theater like the National. The fanciest place we have in town is the Empire but that’s still in scary downtown, hard-to-park ville in the mind of most Richmonders -- Theater IV’s valet parking and positive marketing notwithstanding. From what I hear, some of the schools with nice theaters – Collegiate and Steward for instance – have rental rates that are prohibitive which is too bad because Theatre IV used to do shows at the Oates Theater at Collegiate and they were great. The downtown arts center debacle was supposed to solve that venue problem to some extent. It remains to be seen whether whatever comes out of it will.

No disrespect to anonymous but I don’t really get the appeal of going to DC at all. I used to live there and even when I could bike to a theater, transportation was a hassle. I’ve probably seen 8 professional theater productions in DC and half of them were great and the other half were…eh.

In general, I agree with everything robinitaface said and there’s no way Richmond could become DC for any number of reasons. But I spend more time than I have in years on Richmond’s two big campuses (UofR and VCU) and there are kids looking for things to do and a fair amount of disposable income at both places. That’s where the potential for the future is, I think.

I’ve got more thoughts but work is calling me. More soon…


hoosier steve said...

Rick did make some wonderful things happen that is without question. Suburbia, Jails, bash, etc, but he was not alone. The Theatre Gym was thriving at the time. In my the mid-90's the Little Theatre at the Empire showed: Raised in Captivity, Dead Monkey, Fit to Be Tied, A Devil Inside (by at that time an unheard of David Lindsay-Abair), and many many other great "cutting edge shows". Not to take anything away from Rick (who is far from respectable), after all I got to go along on those great shows as Ricks lighting designer, but the whole community seemed willing to take risks.
The Theatre community (whatever that means) needs to be willing to take those risks first. The audience may or may not follow, just like every show.

A sell out is a very different thing that a full house. Often some house seats are included in the sell-out, or tickets for sponsors. A sell out is not a common thing, except for those wonderful summer musicals it seems, but a true full house is even more difficult.

If anyone discovers the secret to attracting the young audience, sell the idea and retire, every single theatre in the country is trying to find that secret.

Anonymous said...

What, no love for Marisol? Dave we are dealing with the same issues here in Lex Vegas and to a certain degree, our job isn't as difficult because we have less competition in terms of theatres. However, one of the things I am constantly dealing with is people complaining about ticket prices. My top ticket price is $25 and, with the exception of the carpetbagging road shows, I am the most expensive game in town. We are also nestled between two universities, with UK and Transy, in addition to a number of smaller colleges in our region. We are constantly trying different tactics to reach new audiences and we basically have a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" mentality to what we do. What works for one show doesn't work for the next but it has been my experience here that each show needs to find its own niche audience. Unfortunately there is no one "audience" any more (and I question if there ever was). People who came to see Ma Rainey didn't come to Hamlet, people didn't come to Hamlet but will come to She Loves Me (which we open on Friday, how is that for daring and edgy...I got kids to feed!)...the GLBT audience is already getting behind Boston Marriage, which will open in February (directed by Jack Parrish) and we just did a deal yesterday with the Kentucky Theatre (which is Lexington's Byrd theatre and is right across the street from my theatre) that they will be screening Gone With the Wind during our production of Moonlight and Magnolias that will close our season in April. Everyone who goes to GWTW will be able to redeem their ticket stub for a $10 ticket to see M&M at AGL.

Each show requires its own unique marketing push and angle and the other thing about Lexington is that everyone calls it "Late Lexington", this is a last minute ticket buying city and it gives me ulcers!

Ticket prices (there seems to be a psychological barrier about buying 2 tix and having to pay $50 for it), increased entertainment options, weather, terrorists, war, the stock market...anyone can have a reason for not attending the show. I remember hearing Bernard Gersten when I was at Lincoln Center say the whole reason for the not-for-profit theatre movement was "give us the right to fail". Free us from the shackles of the box office. Of course no one wants to play to an empty house but more people are naturally going to attend She Loves Me than will probably attend Rabbit Hole (by the afore mentioned now known Mr. Abaire)but does that mean Rabbit Hole is not a valid play. If our institutions are truly mission driven, do we not owe it to ourselves to produce as broad a range of work as possible if that is what our mission is? Museums are expected to be mission driven, no one ever shows up to a museum and asked how the box office did. If that is the case, we need to figure out a way to sell each show individually...I think I got off the point but this is always a fascinating subject to discuss.

Does anyone know if Barksdale's ticket prices have become an issue? I think I saw where their top price was now around $38 and that is getting into TVA territory and I know ticket prices was one of the many issues facing TVA...Any thoughts?


hoosier steve said...

Well said Rick, maybe you are getting a little respectable after all.
I agree that we should have a right to fail. Indeed, in my mind the conversation should be more centered on butts in seats, not sales. It is important to me that we reach as many people as possible, that does not mean lowest common denominator or doing the crowd pleasing shows. Indeed I think it means that the more fringe elements of a community must be addressed.
I also agree with the concept of show by show marketing. I present a season as a package, but each show must have its own specialized push.
I have lots of love for Marisol, my $15 paid for a night at the Lighthouse, and the videotape made it possible to recall exactly what can be done with a top-notch tech crew.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Barksdale is now doing a general rush ticket that is not exclusive to students. Patrons can purchase for $15 90 minutes prior to curtain for any performance with available seats. So that seems to be the solution to the ticket price issue for Barksdale. It seems to be pretty popular so far.

Ticket prices are always a big push for me to make quality theatre accessible to people that can't afford the $38 ticket.

I'm very impressed that Barksdale is doing that.

Great marketing with the Moonlight & GWTW package. That's fantastic!

Loving the buzz that Rabbit Hole and David Lindsay-Abaire are getting recently.

blogva said...

Some of you may know that one of the other hats I wear is Marketing professor. (I will be moving from VCU to UR in the spring.) I have promoted many things, theatrical productions being one of them.

You are totally right in that each show must be marketed not only in the package of "The Season" but also individually. Different shows appeal to different audiences and must have some targeted marketing to that crowd that may not be theater regulars but will come to a particular show. Anyone working in promotion for a theater company should know this and know how to do it properly for best effect. Tie ins are always good to build up excitement and to get into another entities data base of potentially interested parties.

Theater in general can also be promoted on the whole like those wonderful pages in newspapers that have all the plays in town listed in that cool grid layout- does the RTD even do that anymore? Wasn't there something like a special advertising section in STYLE a while back in which all the theaters could purchase space at a special rate and get on a big color spread?

Nurturing a theater crowd from kids is also a great way to perpetuate a theater audience. SPARC, HATT, CYT, do a great job with this and the other young theater camps around at Barksdale and Swift Creek and Richmond Shakespeare are doing good work in that area as well. But those audiences do take time to "grow" and if their parents won't bring them to the theater they probably will loose interest in their later teens before they get their licenses.

Venue, Culture, Safety all play out. But what if we could - as a theater community- make theater cool? I mean make the idea of going to the theater cool. One thing that happens in DC (and I know that Richmond will never be DC and that is why I not only support local theater but must drive the 110 up 95 and get my fix occaisionally of a type of theater that I most often only find at Firehouse)is that law firms buy up big blocks of tickets to give out to clients, interns and support staff. That is one way younger people is suites get their butts in those seats. Partners in a firm will model a patronage for something like the opera, the ballet or the theater and all of the partner hopefuls jump on that bandwagon. It works splendidly well although it is just one of the little tricks that those thriving avant gard places do.

Non-profit status allows for funding with out relying on ticket sales and ironically brings in the butts as well. Better facilities, better salaries, the ability to be consistant with script choices becuase a company can test something out while building a reputation- it's all good. And we all know that it is impossible to just keep raising ticket prices to cover costs anyway because eventually prices will surpass the customers ability or percieved value.

At any rate... great discussion everyone. Thanks for the stimulus.


Angelika HausFrauSki said...
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