The Firewall

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.

 

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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.

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I am suspicious of the long-term effectiveness of lowering prices and offering free seats. We must also hold our ground and trumpet the value of the work.

Marketing to younger audiences involves ensuring that younger writers who "speak" to their lives are featured. How about some slam poetry readings in the theatre? How about a smart phone app that shows brief clips of plays? How about a theatre flash mob in a local mall? How about doing a play in their music venues?

Tough love, thought provoking article. Would be interested in specifics, examples, of measuring artistic success. Also vote yes for finding ways to adjust ticket prices. I've seen some small theatre companies in NYC have one night devoted to pay what you can. I'll go back to see shows at Signature Theatre in NYC not just because what I have seen was well mounted, but $25 I can afford, $75 and up is kind of tough. I see live B'Way once or twice a year now because of cost. I have to be very selective.

Thinking about what you said about what younger audiences like and DW's remarks about no-shows, it seems insane to me at the moment that we don't have flexible, real-time online ticketing systems, that show how many tickets are available (to allow those younger spontaneity-loving patrons to jump in a mere hour before showtime without doubt about availability), that allow people who make other plans to give their tickets back or pay them forward (can that even work?), and that could even differentiate between more expensive pre-sales that encourage higher valuation and cheaper day-of sales that encourage spontaneity. Moreover... why can't we have community-wide ticketing tracking systems, so someone can go online at 6pm on a Saturday and see what is available, right at that moment, at *any* theatre nearby them? A la Fandango/Moviefone? Coordination!

Miriam, I think this is a great issue to articulate. The artificial but strong division that often takes place within arts organizations between artistic and promotional departments perpetuates the idea that you start with here--that one group (the artistic side) are out for transformative artistic experiences while the other group (the promotional side) is out to make money. I think that's a false dichotomy that does a disservice to both sides. One of the things that we found in the Counting New Beans work, which has since been carried forward by both Alan Brown and myself in various forms, is this idea that the point of an artistic organization (as separate from the generative artist, whose point is to make the art) is really to create what Alan calls the "arc of engagement," something that begins waaay before the art is seen and continues on for a long time (ideally forever) after. This is part of why your connectivity work at Woolly is so exciting--it's a set of peripheral activities that don't fundamentally change the art, but augment it with other "hooks" designed to increase the impact of the work over time. Both artistic AND marketing staff should be working towards a goal that may use different metrics (artistic impact versus marketing impact), but is ultimately the same thing--a transformative and perpetually sticky experience that will, in turn, inspire both the higher-motivation personal transformation attempted by artistic staff AND the more nitty-gritty increased return and loyalty sought by the marketing staff. It is, as you say, a question of engagement whether you're talking about societal well-being or dollars.

Where this gets tricky, and where Counting New Beans has had trouble gaining traction, is in the fact that to get better at engagement we have to be willing to set up benchmarks for ourselves and then measure against them--benchmarks that need to include defining what the artistic goals of a piece of art in the context of the mission of the organization are, and then testing out whether those artistic goals were met. This rankles certain artistic staff because it makes them concerned that such measurement undermines their ultimate purview over the art itself and wanders towards what you describe as pandering. In the words of one artistic director I've spoken with about this, "I don't want my decisions second-guessed." This is a huge, huge problem. Evaluation, goal-setting, a critical eye towards the particular impact of the art--these are not things that artistic leaders should be afraid of, especially because that work doesn't have to be (shouldn't be, really) in the hands of the marketing staff, who have their own parts of engagement that need to be measured.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with David Dower and he mentioned three conversations in rapid succession where artistic leaders of note (including, in an irony I didn't see coming, the leader of one of the organizations in the original Counting New Beans work) had basically dismissed intrinsic impact assessment as a way of cowing artistic freedom. This may be an issue of who has been pushing it (I am, more than anything, a marketing person), or it may be because measured assessment of artistic product isn't something that has been done before. But either way, it disturbs me, and I'd love to understand why it's happening. I think part of my issue, honestly, is that I believe in measurement and data as the way to address almost any ambiguous issue--if we have set up as the "problem to be solved" any of a variety of things from diversity to churn to loyalty to pricing to relevance, then before we get too far we have to check our guts against something based in measurement. That includes the art--but as you so eloquently say, including the art in the measurement process doesn't mean giving up control of the art, or the delivery mechanism, or anything. It means having an open mind, a willingness to concede that the art is the largest and most important part of a full-on continuum of impact, absolutely necessary but by no means alone or above all the rest.

Measuring artistic success also must engage the impact your art and organization's mission wants to have on its stakeholders (including the artists, the organization's staff and board, etc). The most successful works are frequently those that intersect the impact your mission promises with amazing artistic content. I truly believe audiences want to be challenged but more than that the do NOT want to be disappointed with a inner voice saying they have been robbed of their time and their money. A free ticket to an amazing experience will serve the industry. An expensive ticket to a pleasant but impact-free experience is a disservice to the field (and an impediment to future ticket buying). Organizations and artists can take challenges AND sustain themselves. It just feels risky.

I have to wonder if a significant part of the flexibility you call artistic leaders to embrace is less about the choice between art and marketing, but rather a refocusing on how we define engagement and connection. At Company One in Boston, I am aware that in order to have the social impact our mission demands, we must reach more of people with our kind of stories, our types of questions and our brand of performance. Of course we need to balance our budgets on the income end, but I believe the real hurdle for us in knowing that we will last is in the growth and investment of our constituents. All of them. If we are always fighting to matter, how can we use this art of theatre as the powerful tool for social change that it can be?

Lovely article. Reminds me that the problem of our field is echoing the problems of the GOP- our inability to grow an audience past those who hold our traditional values and who are aging. Particularly interesting when I think about the widely held criticisms that many (not all) theaters do not make room for Latinos, Asian-Americans, African- Americans, women and young artists.Again, the parallel complaint to the Republican party. An uncomfortable comparison for me and I am sure many others and it feels counterintuitive. But I wonder what we can learn from it in the coming months. Thanks for the thoughts!

Can it really be any shock to discover that lower ticket prices might encourage greater attendance at plays? This at a time when millions of Americans are still reeling from the effects of economic recession, when millions of young people can't get their careers off the ground for lack of opportunity and millions of older adults are forced into early retirement (and poverty) because corporate America deems a 50-year-old too great an economic risk? Theatre is a luxury item for many of us--but if you can come up with a business model that allows us to enjoy the luxury item at minimal cost, then great. It is certainly true in commercial theatre---where tickets are now north of $100 for nonmusicals on Broadway. And in the nonprofit theatre, here in DC, where you'll pay $80 for a show at the Shakespeare--you are not going to see a lot of young people in the seats at those prices. So yes, bringing the ticket price down will help, but finding the magic number is going to be a challenge too. One strange result of charging $15 for my show in the Philly Fringe a few years ago--people routinely paid for tickets in advance, then blew off the show. I was told that this was a routine occurrence in the Fringe; because the tickets were so cheap, a lot of people did not think twice about not using them if something better came along. That might just be a peculiarity of a Fringe festival, but I think there is something to the idea of valuing an experience enough to pay full price. I discovered that in coordinating the Playwrights Gym here in DC. Initially we charged workshop participants $75 a year--just enough to cover the cost of the room---and attendance was often spotty. We doubled the price and absenteeism dropped noticeably.

As the Founding Artistic Director / CEO of The Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, CT (dedicated to a 12-month season of the full production of new musicals: 6 productions annually) I have to confess your writing has given me much MUCH to think about.

Additionally, as the Founder of The Connecticut High School Musical Theater Awards, your points resonate strongly.

I have wrestled with the concept of how do we measure the success of our work beyond the Box Office and the bottom line? How DO you measure the impact of your work on an audience "how those more qualitative factors relate to the quantity of butts in seats". I appreciate you bringing these questions back to the forefront of my thinking, but I am still searching for the "process" to find the answers.

I will add this: as a professional theater who only produces new works (www.spiritofbroadway.org) I have learned a difficult lesson. Having been in business for 16 years, my audiences are exactly backwards of almost all others: if the work isn't new, they do not attend. If the work isn't "relevant" and "innovative", they stay away. I cannot sell "what was" only "this is what the future may look like".

I have held fast to my Artistic Vision and it has brought us 16 years of business. It has been the most stressful and frustrating career I have ever embraced and I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life. Yet, ask me if my work is "successful" and I wouldn't know how to answer you. (Some shows make profits, others do not. Some shows have many standing ovations, others do not. Some have incredible critical reviews and others are wholly ignored. Yet, I am proud of them all!)

Yes, we could all appeal to the "marketplace" - whatever that is - and maybe find success (financially speaking). For me, as a working artist who makes a living bringing new theater to life, I would rather be buried in the creative process that feeds my soul and CREATE an audience, than to be working for the "marketplace".

You have brought up many intriguing questions...I am very grateful!! Thank you for this post!

Great thoughts! I was just asked the other day if idealism and revenue-making can ever meet in theatre. I think they can and have to- for the sake of artists and our communities. The rest of my answer is on my blog, www.nicolelabonde.com.

I'd also suggest taking a look at some of the Never Be Dark posts at the 2amt.com site, as well as one I wrote a little over a year ago about the idea of a staff playwright, part of whose job description would involve working with the marketing department specifically to tell stories and craft experiences.