There’s so many problems with Theatre in America that I feel it will become a multi-part series. Here’s the first installment!
I had a disturbing experience a few weeks ago while hanging out with some friends. One of the guys there complained that, while he enjoys theatre, the tickets were just too expensive. This kid is a bit younger than me — you know, maybe 23 at most. I stared at him like he was an idiot, and proceeded to explain to him all of the options in this town for reduced price tickets. Here’s a few: the Intiman Theatre offers 25 and Under discounted tickets at a flat rate of $10; the Seattle Opera has an under 40 club called the Bravo club that offers several donor benefits plus half priced opera tickets and several other special events for a flat yearly donation of $65; 5th Avenue has 30 and Under special prices on subscriptions ($198 vs. $412.50 for a full season); Free Night of Theatre week, sponsored by Theatre Puget Sound; pay what you can previews at nearly every theatre in town; various theatres’ Twitter feeds, Facebook and Myspace pages, and websites which will have coupons, ticket discounts, and free ticket offers several times a week; free Shakespeare in the park in the summer, and sometimes Greenstage Theatre produces free shows during the regular fall/winter/spring season (as they are now with Titus Andronicus); and, my favorite one, the Facebook group Seattle Comp Tickets, which offers ticket discounts to a variety of shows every couple of days.
There’s no such thing as “too expensive” in this town, if you are a theatre lover.
After I laid into him (in the most respectful, if a bit shocked, way), it got me thinking: what is the underlying problem here?
There’s a couple of different sides to this issue. The first is that arts groups just don’t market these offers aggressively enough. I personally didn’t know know about the 5th Ave’s and the Opera’s discount offers until I worked there. I only know to keep an eye on Pay What You Can offers because I am a theatre artist and I work consistently in a theatre that has these offers. The Facebook group did the admirable marketing thing and solicited me first. If they didn’t, I would not have known to search them out myself.
Which leads me to my second, and longer, argument. It came up because I mentioned this thought to my boyfriend, who rolled his eyes and complained about the laziness of the 20-something and young 30-somethings, who don’t seek these things out for themselves. How can you reasonably call yourself a theatre lover if you don’t LOOK for theatres in your area, use this web 2.0 technology to keep up with them (or go old-school and at least get on their mailing list so you get their fliers or emails, depending on the type of mailing list the theatre offers and how you want to be solicited). People my age are truly terrible in that we expect to be constantly bombarded by information without lifting a finger, and then we’ll sift through the important bits on our own time.
Theatre companies, even the large houses that have pretty sizeable budgets, simply don’t have the billions of dollars to spend on marketing, like movies. We can’t play commercials constantly on TV, nor can we run large, full-color print ads for months in advance of a theatre opening (although massive Broadway tours will manage to get tons of ads out a few weeks in advance of their arrival in a particular city), and on top of that, theatres have to maintain contact via mail, email, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, blogs, websites, Google ads, reviews in print and online, notices in local newspapers … You’d think it would be enough, but it’s not, since it still requires knowledge of the theatre, and a certain curiosity on the part of the potential audience member.
It’s also no wonder that comparatively small theatres get lost in the shuffle of full page color ads, elaborate brochures, ads on the sides of buses, and billboards, that places like the Intiman, the Seattle Rep, and the Seattle Opera can afford. I’ve marketed Eclectic Theater Company as aggressively as I can, using my limited free resources, and we’ve managed to build a larger audience base in the past two years, but there are still people out there like this gentleman who clearly don’t even bother to Google search theatres in the Seattle Area, which would have led him to a long list of websites, plus Theatre Puget Sound and Seattle Performs, at least.
Now, it’s true, if I wasn’t an active, practicing member of the community, I would probably be about on his level theatre-wise. I know for a fact that, despite my lack of cable TV, I still mentally sift through Google and Facebook ads, plus Hulu ads, every day, several times a day. Plus, there’s ads on the bus, billboards in the city, ads on the radio, on Pandora, and on podcasts online. I have to constantly sift through this information, and I generally turn my brain off when an ad is on, unless something just leaps out and grabs my attention (this usually only happens when I’m listening to Dan Savage’s podcast).
Brand loyalty is another issue with kids my age. I have no brand loyalty with products, preferring instead to buy things like food, toiletries, and cleaning products on sale, and as locally as I can afford. Since we’ve become so used to tuning out advertising, perhaps even reacting negatively to it and eschewing any sort of interest in products that are heavily advertised, how can we expect a potential young audience to be grabbed by our advertising? How can we expect them to return as subscribers, when what they really want is the best deal possible on entertainment that is probably planned at the last minute? We can’t.
Some theatres, including ACT Theatre, have come up with interesting solutions to this problem, which seem to typically involve punch cards. I was informed by a new theatre artist friend who works at Balagan that a group of theatres in Chicago had organized a neighborhood program, where they gave patrons punch cards with the promise along the lines of “go see 5 shows at these theaters, get one show of your choice free.” This is definitely appealing to me. ACT Theatre has also come up with a flexible membership where patrons pay $25 or so a month and can go see an unlimited number of shows at their theatre. As with any kind of membership, members will jump at the chance thinking they will take the theatre up on this offer so much that the company will actually be losing money, but then patrons might forget about it for a month or two, and the theatre still has them set up for that automatic payment. Frankly, I think that’s a win-win situation — patrons perceive a great, flexible deal and jump on it, and the theatre gets guaranteed monthly revenue.
So what is to be done? How to we re-sensitize these de-sensitized potential audiences? Bombarding them from multiple fronts seems to be the strategy of choice for most marketers, with the theory that it’ll eventually seep through, but that seems to be selling out rather than offering a real solution. Everyone bombards their potential patrons with marketing, and I think we all agree at this point that we all HATE advertising. We hate its omnipresence and its arrogance. Rarely do we see truly creative ads, partly because advertisers stick to formulas that work, and partly because we don’t pay that much attention if we can help it.
The movement of grassroots campaigning seems to offer a glimmer of an answer, and it has certainly been my experience as a small theatre manager that you have to reach out to your friends first. They will help you spread the word, especially if you make good art. After that, a little advertising helps get other butts in seats, and being clear and up-front about the deals you offer (particularly pay what you can previews) generates a lot of interest. Keep talking to everyone you run into, because having a human face and voice on your event will help greatly.
On the other hand, is marketing worth it when it generates even 1% of your box office? If you get a reaction at all out of it, it might be worth all of the investment. I don’t think there are conclusive studies either way, but that seems to be the popular logic.
Hopefully, someday, I can write a blog with a solution, not a list of questions, on this subject.