Secret to a Successful Play

In theatre, success is measured by the size of the audiences.  Well, kinda.  On an organizational level, it’s all about making enough money to at least cover expenses.  On a personal level for a participant, the bigger the crowds, the better it feels.  In either case, we’re talking about audience attendance.  LOTS of audience attendance.

So, how do we get large audiences?  How do we put on a show that people will flock to see?  Well, hopefully this is not a surprise, but:


That’s it.  Sure, there’s a lot that goes into that, but, seriously, don’t overthink things too much.  If it is a good show, the word-of-mouth will get out there, and the audiences will show up.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s comedy, drama, musical, period, fantasy, or absurdist.  Those just effect what kind of people will show up, but there are audiences for every script out there.  It doesn’t matter if the show if well-known or not.  It doesn’t matter if there is a large or small cast.   Sure, those things will effect how many people show up for the early performances, but even a well-known musical with a large cast, can still fail to draw in large crowds, if the show sucks.

We always want to put on a show that draws in those large audiences, to pay the bills and stroke our egos.  And the trick is positive word-of-mouth.  Provide a great evening of entertainment, whether it’s laughs, pathos, love, or horror, ENTERTAIN!  Thus…

Put. On. A. Good. Show. Period.

I know, I know.  You’re thinking, “Duh!  Nobody tries to put on a BAD show.”  You are correct, but there are…less than good…shows being performed all the time.  Or at least shows that COULD have been so much better.  So, what’s going on…what are people missing?  What is the secret within the secret?


This isn’t really THE secret, but it needs to be mentioned.  I’m going to hit this quickly, because most every theatre group does fine with this–picking out a quality script.  For those who have never been involved in script selection, understand that it is a time-consuming process.  There are a lot of good scripts out there, but there are also a LOT of bad ones as well.  It just takes reading time to weed things out, but time-consuming is not the same thing as “hard”.

It really doesn’t matter what STYLE of show is picked, as long as it’s a good script.  There is an audience out there for anything.  AS LONG AS IT’S DONE WELL.

Obviously, the better the script, the higher the launching point for the rest of the process.  You can have a good show with a mediocre script, but it’s hard to have a great show with one.  It’s also possible to have a great script be poorly done, but still end up with a quality evening of theatre, just because of the strength of the source material.


This.  THIS is the big secret within the secret.  A good director can take even a poor script and make it good theatre.  A poor director can ruin classics.  Most folks are somewhere inbetween, of course, but the simple fact is that the better the director, the MUCH more likely that it will be a good show.

What’s the magic behind good directors?  Well, some are brilliant at casting.  By putting the perfect actor in every role, the entire rehearsal process can become very easy.  Other directors just have the knack for pulling the marrow out of a script, and guiding everyone toward that unified vision that captures the audience’s soul.

The consistently successful theatre groups have found a small pool of talented directors, and lean on them heavily.  Other groups feel the need to share the director job around to anyone who has been in the group long enough, and they end up with very uneven seasons.  Oftentimes, when a show under-performs, these groups look to the script, and decide not to do that genre or playwright anymore, when the truth is that they handed the script to the wrong director.

There are a LOT of different jobs in theatre, and all of them call for something special.  Just because someone has pushed scenery around for years, does not mean they will necessarily make a good stage manager.  Likewise, just because someone has acted in dozens of plays, doesn’t mean they will ever be able to direct.

That’s it. 

Seriously.  That’s “the secret”.

[Good script] + [good director] = [good show]

[Good show] = [Positive word-of-mouth] = [Large audiences]

[Large audiences] = [Big ego boosts] + [Swollen box office receipts]

Yes, acting is important, but a good director will ensure that happens.  Sure, extras like lighting and costumes and sound effects…those are all nice, and can make a good show even better.  But they can also detract from a show.  And whether good or bad, technical elements won’t have as big an impact as the script and the director.  The technical elements are extra seasoning on the meal–when well done, they can make nasty stuff go down a touch easier, but it’s still not going to be a good meal; and they are almost unecessary if the starting ingredients are top-notch.  (Almost.)  Besides, a good director can also make sure that the technical elements fit well, and make positive contributions.

If there’s a choice between the two–script or direction–choosing the right director is the most important thing.  And also the most difficult.

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  1. Gaylen Pugh says:

    Thanks so much for your interesting, informative reviews and articles on theatre. We appreciate your providing this service to the community.

    Gaylen Pugh


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