Okay: I’m a self-proclaimed arthead with only the feeblest grasp of economics. But after several seasons planning artistic programming and then seeing how many patrons actually show up for it, I’m starting to suspect there's something screwy about the way we consider supply and demand. As most resident theatres grow, they often find themselves torn between two options: to build a "firewall" down the center of the organization to prevent commercial concerns from corrupting the art-making; or to "sell out" and make art that's been compromised in some way in order to appeal to the marketplace. The former is the short road to financial trouble, the latter is an only slightly longer one. Neither dares imagine the real solution, which is to grow the demand for art that makes us all proud. If this seems like a pie-in-the-sky delusion, consider some industries that have grown a demand where little or none existed before: $4 lattes; yoga studios; Internet domain names.
All of these industries are certainly enmeshed in commercial interests, yet all three are grounded in a value system: public space for coffee breaks; or mind-body connection; or democratic access to information. Of course, savvy marketing techniques are responsible for selling these values via ad campaigns, focus groups, data-mining, surveys, etc. These techniques often make artists and artistic staff recoil. But why? Good marketing works because it's based on science: human behavior and statistical analysis. It can allow a public health campaign to save lives, or a president to get elected. Its applications may be honorable or not, but there is nothing inherently dishonorable about science. At its best, it uncovers fresh truths. And art, at its best, does the same thing. The firewall between them is a lie. In fact, it’s a lie that sets our marketing departments up for failure—in the name of preventing an artistic compromise that’s probably already happened. We all want to grow the demand for the art we want to supply, so it’s time we started behaving like we’re on the same team.
As artistic leaders, how can we match the plays we’re proud of with the factors that can set our marketers up for success?
Cooperation Between Theatres
Studies such as Counting New Beans have recently reminded us that an alliance of theatres working together can collect useful data about audiences and share it for the benefit of the field at large. These studies have already allowed us to identify some patterns about next generation audience behavior: younger patrons make plans spontaneously instead of purchasing rigid subscription packages; they embrace opportunities to contribute content and engage directly with the art; and while they’re less inclined to attend traditional theatres than their older counterparts, younger patrons are highly engaged in more broadly defined cultural participation. The implicit challenge to us is to channel that cultural participation into theatre attendance. But how do we know which channels can succeed?
Conventional wisdom says that the only reliable predictor of theatre attendance is previous exposure to theatre (such as a school field trip). How can we identify others? Signature Theatre and Mixed Blood Theatre have come up with one hypothesis: that radically lowering or eliminating ticket prices will motivate new audiences to attend. After testing this hypothesis and finding it does indeed draw new audiences, Signature and Mixed Blood are now analyzing whether those first time attendees reliably return for subsequent shows; how cutting prices affects the perceived value of theatre; etc. More hypotheses like this one may open new pathways to recruiting new audiences on a show-by-show basis; Woolly Mammoth Theatre board member Pete Miller recently published a list of these on the 2AM Theater blog. In addition to these ideas about short-term audience development, we need longitudinal studies to identify new pathways to audiences five and ten years down the road. Testing those ideas will require more field-wide collaborations to collect, analyze, and share the data so it can be applied. And it will require funders and consultants to bring the proper skills to bear. It’s an ambitious picture, to be sure. But then again, can we afford not to do this work? Is there a single more important question for the health of our field than the question of audience development?
TCG is inching toward this examination of macro-trends with their Audience (R)Evolution project, and the new Artist Residencies funded by the Doris Duke Foundation will doubtless shed new light as well. But current studies only represent the first layer of some very deep digging we must do to understand the existing demand for good art and the many factors that affect its expansion or contraction. Gathering and analyzing those deeper layers of information will require unprecedented collaboration among theatres. And that's only half the battle; ultimately applying that information and benefitting from it will require unprecedented collaboration within theatres.
Rebuilding our base of support will demand the same tactics Obama for America used to win the election: studying the new demography, understanding the factors that influence the behavior of the people we want to reach, and staying flexible enough to adjust as circumstances change. And it’s not just the marketers who will need to adjust.
Cooperation Within Theatres
As artistic leaders, how can we match the plays we’re proud of with the factors that can set our marketers up for success? The market doesn’t need to dictate play selection, but it can inform countless other variables about how a play is produced. Those variables include house size, length of run, price point, ticket packaging, seasonal scheduling, audience engagement, community partnerships, and more. How can we mine the data to better match the supply of tickets with the demand we can actually create? Some versions of this strategy have already become standard at resident theatres: producing A Christmas Carol in December, for instance, or producing more experimental new plays in stripped-down productions on smaller second stages. But I’d argue these are examples of artistic compromise. We know a larger audience exists for traditional Christmas fare, and a much smaller one exists for more experimental work, so which variables can be adjusted to grow it? Does lowering the price point actually mobilize the audience we want for experimental work? Or will a larger audience be intrigued by experimental work if it tackles subject matter that’s relevant to their own community? Or is there a constituency in this community that values experimentation and innovation itself, if we can only make a strong case for these common values? Asking these questions means learning a lot about who’s in our communities and what mobilizes them—and then microtargeting a certain group within that community one play at a time. This requires painstaking work to create a fresh strategy for each production, while accepting the fact that the new audience for play A might not return for play B. But the old picture of one monolithic audience who will subscribe out of habit is rapidly disappearing.
Rebuilding our base of support will demand the same tactics Obama for America used to win the election: studying the new demography, understanding the factors that influence the behavior of the people we want to reach, and staying flexible enough to adjust as circumstances change. And it’s not just the marketers who will need to adjust. We artistic leaders must also be prepared to test our own assumptions—and our convictions. If we ask our marketers to hold themselves accountable to the data, we must be prepared to do the same. Every artist wants her work to provoke a palpable response of some kind: to trigger thought or laughter or tears instead of apathy. Yet how much time do artists and artistic leaders spend tracking audience response and adjusting our work if it isn’t exactly electrifying? Let me be clear: this doesn’t mean pandering. The not-for-profit theatre gives us the liberty—in fact, the responsibility—to lead the audience instead of follow it, to supply an experience they didn’t know they wanted, to change the paradigm. Yet how often does our art actually accomplish this? Or does the firewall enable us to believe our art is much more effective than our audiences believe it is? Nobody wants to reduce the success of art to simple box office numbers. Yet that’s the only metric that counts, unless we as artistic leaders develop more nuanced measures of success and learn how those more qualitative factors relate to the quantity of butts in seats. And we are the only ones who can develop more constructive measures of success. If we don’t, those we’re officially accountable to—the trustees and boards of resident theatres—can only evaluate our performance according to the metrics they already have. This only perpetuates a system in which we tweak marketing strategies in the hopes of achieving different results, without questioning the web of interconnected decisions related to season planning—simply because we don’t have a language for examining it critically.
Regardless of where we may want to lay the blame for empty seats, the solution will doubtless be found at the intersection of the artistic and marketing departments. If we measure our artistic success by the personal fulfillment of our artists and artistic leaders—and not by our impact on audiences—then we deserve every empty seat in our theatres. And if we repeat the same rigid formulas in an effort to cling to the aging audience of the past, we’ll only find ourselves further away from the audience of the future. None of these changes is easy, and they’ll require patience, resources, and ingenuity. But let’s face it: growing fresh demand for our work is the only protection from an inevitable time bomb set to explode once the last of the baby boomers give up their subscriptions and move to Arizona. Once that happens, we’ll have no strategy in place to rebuild our base of support—unless we act now to unite behind common goals, gather the right information, and find the courage to adjust our own behavior in response.