Theatre groups put a lot of effort into picking their shows. There are several things they have to consider when picking a season, and one of them is the audience. A show is defined as “successful” if it can bring in the audiences to at least the level of covering expenses. So what kind of show will put butts in seats? The most important factor is finding a GOOD script, but that’s not the hard part; there are hundreds and hundreds of quality scripts out there.
There are a number of different considerations a theatre group has to balance when selecting a season–a variety of playwrights, a mix of styles, affordability (both of the script itself, and the cost of the necessary technical elements), and, frankly, the flat-out ability of the group to successfully pull off the show (e.g. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is rare to see in community theatre, because of the difficulty in finding 13 trained male dancers). Those are a few of the typical things that have to be juggled when picking which of the good scripts to actually put on the calendar.
That said, there is one consideration that gets a bit misunderstood at times, and it’s a grasp of “the audience”. We are trying to pick shows for “the audience”, after all.
When selecting shows we think the audience will like, we sometimes forget to consider WHICH AUDIENCE we should care about.
In other words, WHO is the audience we should be targeting? It may not be whom you think.
There are three kinds of people who attend community theatre events–family and friends, those looking for their culture fix, and those who want to be entertained. Obviously, there is some overlap between the groups, and no person is fixed into one category forever, but those are the three general reasons why people show up for a community theatre production. So which group should we target with the shows?
Family and Friends
This group is a given. They will ALWAYS show up. That is one technique for generating “butts in seats”, after all–selecting a show with a large cast, and/or putting as many people onstage in chorus roles as possible. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the size of the cast doesn’t actually start to detract from the quality of the production. For example, if a group can’t afford to correctly costume 50 people, then it’s better to have 30 people in the right looks, than 50 people wearing crap; or if the choreographer is limited in what they can do, because the stage is too crowded, that large cast actually is bringing the show down.
The effect of putting on a good or bad show will have almost no difference on the number of tickets sold to this group. They will still show up, and most will not show up more than once. Yes, more “family and friends” does create the potential for more word-of-mouth sales, but don’t forget: word-of-mouth can also be negative. If you think about it, because they are family and friends, they will most assuredly have nothing but positive things to say to the cast and crew. But when friends of THEIRS ask them about the show, if they didn’t like it, they are not going to lie, because then THEY look bad.
So when picking a show, we don’t even need to worry about what kind of show THIS group will like, because they are going to show up anyway, but they will never buy enough tickets to make a show successful (especially considering that this is the group that uses all the comp tickets).
This group will also show up fairly consistently, especially to “mainstream” theatre groups. The productions are entered on their calendars way in advance, and they will show up for their monthly culture event, rain or shine. This is the group that tends to buy the season tickets, and thus the group most often in mind when scripts are selected. This is a mistake.
Like the “friends and family” group, the culture-seekers will show up, whether the show is good or bad. They likely bought their tickets months ago. But they aren’t a large group, or at least not large enough to guarantee a “successful show”.
Frankly, for some in this group, they may not really WANT to be there, but feel that attending theatre is something they are expected to do. The big thing for our purposes, is that, for them, theatre is a scheduled event. While culture-seekers would prefer to be entertained (as opposed to being completely NOT entertained), it isn’t ABOUT entertainment for them. It’s about going to a cultural event. As long as the show is moderately good, and they have a few chuckles or hear some nice singing, it’s a successful night for them. That doesn’t mean it’s a success for the theatre group.
This. THIS is the group that will make the difference. The people who have heard about the show, and WANT to see it. Not because they have to see it–because cousin Mary is in it, or because they already bought the tickets six months ago–but because it excites them.
It is true that attendance at live theatre is down over the past decade, and it’s THIS group that we’ve lost. THIS is the group we need to get back. The good news is that the lower attendance isn’t about theatre, per se, it’s about any kind of entertainment that doesn’t stream into people’s hands while sitting on their couches. Attendance at movies is down as well. We are all competing against entertainment-on-demand.
One thing to remember is that we have a HUGE advantage over streaming shows, or even the movie theatre–our shows are LIVE! Audiences get that. They understand there’s an extra electricity in the air at a live, never-to-be-repeated-exactly-the-same-way events like our shows. But we still need to make it entertaining enough to warrant people coming for that experience. Mildly entertaining doesn’t stack up well against something that’s already paid for and can be enjoyed in pajamas.
Obviously, the #1 consideration is to make it a good play. A show that is kicking butt and rocking the house, will bring in the audiences. But, assuming a wise choice in director, and a unified vision, there is still a wide range of scripts out there that can be done well. Is there a type of show that is more likely to bring in the extra audience members?
There are a few rules for the “entertainment” crowd.
- They don’t want to be preached at. Shows written to pound the audience with a message have a tendency to do only that. The only people who attend are the ones who already agree, and they are closer to the “culture” crowd in this case, in that they attend because it’s socially expected of them.
- They don’t want to be pandered to. Pick the shows that are entertaining without being insulting to the audience. Don’t insult their intelligence or artistic sense. Theatre for young audiences especially has this challenge–picking shows that both the kids AND the parents will enjoy. We create new generations of theatre-goers by having them attend as kids, but those kids can also tell if mom and dad were bored out of their minds, which defeats the purpose.
- Make it exciting, gripping, thrilling. Whether it’s a rip-roaring, over-the-top farce like Noises Off, or the gripping suspense of an Agatha Christie, or the tear-your-heart-out pathos of Death of a Salesman, IF THE SHOWS ARE DONE WELL, the audience will be locked in their seats and swept away by the show. MOVE THEM. Touch their emotions. There are some old chestnuts of scripts that regularly make the rounds, which are pleasant little pieces, but don’t really reach into an audience’s core and shake them up. These shows have a hard time competing with whatever is next on their streaming device at home.
- Plot and characters are important. Some of the old revue-style shows were perfect for their times, but are really nothing more than musical concerts with an excuse for a plot to string things together. While each individual number can be well done, there’s no real through-line to make the sum greater than the parts. Folks may as well attend a concert. People do go to concerts, but that’s not THEATRE, as it should be done.
- No spectacle for the sake of spectacle. The audience doesn’t come to theatre to see magic tricks or special effects. Fancy moving set pieces with cool fire effects, which exist merely to be cool or impressive, do NOT bring audiences in. Beautiful costumes for their own sake, do not contribute to a play. Everything for a purpose. Lucky theatre groups have a lot of people with brilliant, cool ideas, but somebody in the group has to rein things in so that all the pieces blend well for the good of the show.
Am I advocating shows that shock for the purpose of shock? No. But everything has a purpose, or at least should. Any GOOD show is going to have moments that rattle the audience in some way, whether it’s their funny bone, their sense of propriety, or their heart. We can’t shy away from those moments. Doing a vampire show but avoiding blood, or showing blue-collar situations but removing all the curse words…that’s playing things safe, and removing the edge that shows need.
We should not be trying to produce “pleasant evenings of theatre”. We need to pick those shows that take a chance–shows with something to grab an audience–and then make them good shows. Sometimes we’ll fail, but at least we’ll be failing gloriously. By selecting shows that thrill US when we read them, and make US excited to just be part of it, and frankly that SCARE us just a bit about the challenge of making it work, we open ourselves up to the possibility of changing people’s lives, and providing them a memorable event that SIMPLY CANNOT BE MISSED. That is how we provide ENTERTAINMENT that audiences will view as a more valuable use of their time and money than just sitting at home.
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