You Know That Audience We Rarely Reach? It Really Wants to Talk

Audiences want to talk to us about new plays. They don’t need to be cultivated into being interested. They’re ready right now.

And by “audiences,” I don’t mean those loyal subscribers who come to everything, or the board members and supporters who chat with us at donor events and opening night parties. I mean the single ticket buyers who only come to our theatres a few times a year. They’re just as eager to learn about the brand new work on our stages. 

That’s not exactly a revelation, I guess. I’ve known (or at least hoped) that was true for my entire career as a theatre journalist. But recently, I’ve started to suspect that occasional theatregoers want to engage with a new play sooner than I previously thought and stay engaged for a longer time. They’d like more information before they see a show. They want more things to read and watch afterward. They want to hear from the director and the playwright and the designers, possibly over drinks.

And here’s the thing: If we enhance our communication with them, then we may embolden these audience members to see even more new work. If we sit down with them to share ideas, ask questions, and truly listen to the answers, then we may all feel closer to each other. And that closeness may give new plays an even broader, more dedicated following.

These are the inklings I'm getting from Triple Play, a project from Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area, with support from HowlRound and ArtsEmerson. We’ve spent the last year exploring the triangular relationship between playwrights, theatre companies, and audience members. 

Specifically, we Triple Players have been trying to determine what artists and administrators can do to entice casual ticket buyers to see more new plays. How can we encourage a once-in-a-whiler to opt for the untested comedy in the 99-seat house or the morally complex drama without any famous cast members?

To find out, we’ve been asking the audience members themselves. In five cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC, New York, and Chicago—TDF and TBA partnered with theatre companies and playwrights to conduct a series of one-on-one interviews and panel discussions with nonsubscribers who had seen at least one new play in the past few years. (This work was largely made possible by a grant from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Fund for National Projects.)

The playwrights and theatre staffers asked direct, basic questions: Why did you buy a ticket to the new play you saw? In general, what makes you want to see a new play? Do you need to like the play in order to be glad you saw it?

The answers were anything but basic. In fact, they felt like the beginning of a fresh conversation.

If we enhance our communication with audience members…if we sit down with them to share ideas, ask questions, and truly listen to the answers, then we may all feel closer to each other. And that closeness may give new plays an even broader, more dedicated following.

Triple play convening image
Triple Play Convening. Photo by HowlRound. 

Below, I’ve collected some of the most surprising and/or universally repeated responses that audience members gave us about their relationship to new plays. These ideas will be the springboard for a Triple Play livestreaming convening in Boston on January 15–16, 2015. Hosted by ArtsEmerson and Howlround, this gathering will invite over sixty playwrights, artists, marketing directors, and artistic and administrative staff to ask even deeper questions about audience engagement. We’ll consider bright lights and success stories, contemplate new ideas for making audiences feel connected to new work, and see what questions we can raise that haven’t even been considered yet.

Just as importantly, we’ll focus on how we can partner together—perhaps in ways that push us outside our comfort zones—to generate more appetite for new work.

We want you to be part of that conversation. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the observations listed below and on the results from our Boston convening, which will be reported by HowlRound. Because even though the January event will conclude Triple Play’s first major phase, the work itself is far from over. All of us can continue listening to the patrons just outside our inner circles. We hope you’ll join us in sharing what you think and hear.

Things Weve Heard So Far (With Added Observations)

People want to engage with playwrights and theatres (even if it’s not about the play)
A large number of interviewees said they’d love to hear more about what inspires playwrights and directors to create their work, even if it’s just a personal anecdote on how they got into this field. There was also a strong interest in knowing why playwrights chose to write about certain topics, suggesting that this deeper context would make the play itself more appealing.

Strikingly, there was some resistance to the post-show talkback model, with the playwright and a theatre staffer sitting on stage and the audience members staying in their seats. Compared to, say, sitting down for drinks with a writer, the talkback model was dismissed as impersonal.

So, what does that mean for playwrights and their connection to their audiences? Are there more spaces where a playwright or other artist can reach people informally and personally? And how can a theatre company facilitate these connections, particularly since playwrights and directors often leave a theatre a few days after opening?

Occasional audiences rarely know about the background information the theatre provides
Of course, many theatre companies already try to stimulate engagement by providing videos, essays, and other materials that do explain why a playwright created a play and/or how she got started as a playwright. These supplemental materials are distributed via email, posted on a theatre’s website, and often displayed in the lobby.

Across the board, however, almost none of the occasional audience members were aware this information existed.

If they want what’s already available, then how can we make them realize it’s there? And why aren’t our current distribution methods reaching them?

On that note, occasional audiences may know less than we think about playwrights
Though once-in-a-whilers are certainly interested to learn more about playwrights, they may not know a playwright’s name…even for the show they’re seeing. At one theatre, interviewers were surprised how few of their patrons knew the name of a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work had been produced at that theatre several times in the last few years. Elsewhere, playwrights that industry members may consider canonical were largely unfamiliar to the interviewees.

So once again, the interest is there, but the awareness is low. How can we take advantage of this curiosity and fill in those knowledge gaps?

Story is king
If not the playwright’s reputation, then what is drawing people to new plays? For the Triple Play interviewees, the answer was often the story. There were lots of reasons a story might be appealing—it seems funny, it seems challenging, etc.—but that factor seemed more important than almost all others. In some cases, the reputation of the theatre itself served as a guarantee of a play’s quality, but that was certainly the exception that proved the “story rule.”

Speaking of story, there may be no such thing as a spoiler, especially when cost is considered a high risk factor
Put simply, the audience members wished they knew more about a new play’s story before they saw it, especially when there weren’t any reviews or major awards to assure them that the risk would be worth it. This was especially true for expensive tickets. Some audience members suggested they’d be much more likely to spend a higher price if they just knew more about the show than what typical materials tell them.

Are we too concerned about spoiling the plot? If we released more images, videos, and descriptions of key scenes, would it actually encourage more people to buy tickets? (There is a reason, after all, that movie trailers often show us the best parts.)

As for people purchasing tickets: Theatre ambassadors are eager to be engaged
Many of the interviewees seemed to be the “theatre ambassadors” of their social groups, happily tasked with researching available shows and choosing which ones to see. That underscores not only how much personal satisfaction an ambassador can take from making the “right choice,” but also how a night out at the theatre is often as much a social event as a cultural one.

Could we be doing more to reach and celebrate these ambassadors? If we accept that an ambassador’s interest in a play will ripple out to a larger community, then how can we cultivate him? How can we leverage her social influence? What more can we do to get an ambassador excited about new work?

The program for a new play could use more info, fewer ads
There was a notable amount of vehemence about theatre programs, which were criticized for being more focused on advertisements and fundraising than providing concrete information about the play being seen. It was also suggested that a program article about the theatre’s next new play would encourage people to buy tickets.

This personally struck me as a very sensible idea. If patrons are already in the room for Play A, then why not use the program to give them an extended preview of Play B? This could be a great way to make audiences engage with some of that contextual information they don’t see elsewhere.

After a show, people love to discuss what they’ve seen
This is another factor of a show’s social function. Whether it’s with the artists involved in a production or the friends who were sitting beside them, most of our audience members stressed that they want to talk through the new play they’ve just experienced.

Could theatres and artists be doing more to engage patrons immediately after the show is over? Or two days later? Or two weeks? What kind of new resources (or reallocation of existing resources) would that require?

Everyone seems excited to be asked
The interviewees generally seemed quite flattered to have been asked about their theatre habits. Could we be creating more opportunities to sit down with the people who see our work on a semi-regular basis? What impact would that have on our relationships with them?

So What Do We Do with This Information?
We all have a responsibility to engage with audiences, particularly single ticket buyers, and expand their appetite for new work. This is not a “marketing issue” or a “social media concern.” This is an opportunity for each of us to reframe our thinking about engagement.

As we prepare for our livestreaming Boston convening, we want to challenge ourselves to consider new partnerships that can enhance the appetite for new work.

For instance, how can theatres work together to promote awareness of a playwright in their community? Does a theatre need to be producing a playwright in a particular season before it supports her, or can it offer resources to a writer (and her potential audience) when she's getting produced down the road?

Meanwhile, can playwrights find new ways to collaborate with theatres on engaging with potential audiences for their productions? What if a playwright led discussions of a theatre’s overall season? Or on the idea of theatregoing itself? 

For that matter, how can playwrights reach potential audiences even when they don’t have a production coming up? That type of work takes time, which is an especially precious commodity for a writer with a day job, so can theatres provide resources to make it easier for playwrights to engage?

Obviously, these are just a few potential questions, and we welcome anything else that leaps to mind. We're eager to see where this conversation takes us and how it affects our connection to the people in the house.

For more information about Triple Plays research methods, please contact Mark Blankenship at markb@tdf.org.

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image by M J M, under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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A discussion on Triple Play, an initiative exploring what artists and administrators can do to entice casual ticket buyers to see more new plays.

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I think this also speaks to a gap between what theatre folk assume about audiences and what they know, and who audiences really are. If that barrier is education--which it kind of sounds here like it is--then how do we educate our audiences? Is it really important for them to know the playwright (which sounds more like, it's important for them to know that this playwright is real, bonafide, an artist not a hack, someone in whose hands a difficult topic will be dealt with responsibly) or is it more important for them to know that a play is about something that means something to them? That answer--that people want story and want to know a little about the story they are going to see, makes a lot of sense to me in this day and age, when we don't always know when we are walking into a play about 2 young people who haven't lived trying to have a relationship in a Brooklyn apartment written by a playwright who hasn't lived except in a Brooklyn apartment, or if there will be a dead kid in the play. If an audience member is suffering from a dead kid, will the play address his or her suffering or make it worse? If we are paying to watch a play, we do want to know if we can handle it emotionally.

I think, taking the movie model is a good start. Films get well-known actors and directors to highlight that the film is worthwhile. However, too often, movie actors are crowbarred into a theatrical show, where they obviously don't belong. Movie actors are trained to read queue cards, hit their mark, and deliver their lines to an intimate camera. This translates horribly on stage, and more often than not, "famous" movie stars ruin an otherwise good play. So I am always wary when Keanu Reeves or Ralph Fiennes is walking the boards. In fact, a good understudy is what the play often needs to wash the taste of Hollywood out of the show.

A show's title is sometimes paramount to even considering a show. Idina Menzel is in a new show! Oh, yeah? What's it called? "if/Then". Pass. Really?! Sorry. Movie studios spend millions just coming up with the right name to market a show. Broadway, I feel, does not. I don't care how many awards it's won, because I don't want to see a show called "Dancing At Lughnasa". It doesn't tell me what the show is remotely about, or do I want to find out more about it. This is why revivals and movie adaptations too often win. They have name recognition and we are immediately engaged. "A Gentlemen's Guide To Love and Murder" is an excellent title. Whoever came up with that deserves a Tony. It seems trivial, but it certainly matters. Really.

Movies can get away with poster art that have a picture of Tom Hanks looking forlorn or a picture of a house (eg "Life Is A House", which would be an excellent play, by the way) as its advertising, because they have million dollar constantly aired commercials to back it up. If a Broadway poster has a picture of a house (for the stage adaptation of "Life Is A House") it's a bad idea. Show a scene from the play that describes the plot. A picture is worth a thousand words. Don't waste those words on abstract imagery or the Hollywood star of the month. Do whatever you can to let us know what kind of show it is.

Make the play available for purchase! As previously mentioned, there are no spoiler alerts for new plays. A great many people run out and buy the book of a new upcoming movie. It sounds like a good movie, and I can download it to my Kindle? The book is great, let's go see the movie. There's a new play? Where can I read it? Oh it's not a book? Is the stage version available? No? What's it about? I know it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, but what's it about? The show poster has a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal looking forlorn? Forget it, let's go see "A Gentlemen's Guide To Love And Murder"... that's at least got a good title.

Lastly, get a website that cares about Broadway as much as imdb.com cares about movies. Playbill.com is trying, but where are the cast lists, the award nominations, the plot summaries, the cast biographies, the user ratings? If you click around you may be able to find some of that. But not really. Take ibdb .com and revamp it. Make it a one stop shop for your Broadway needs. What else has this actor done? Oh, look, he won a Tony for this show two years ago! And he's a Gemini... I'm a Gemini, too... let's go see him in this brilliantly titled show with the really interesting and descriptive show poster, that got great user reviews on ibdb.com!

Thanks for reading.

Wanna pick up on something. Seems to me, the over-riding concern for the occasional goer is to reduce risk. More information about a show reduces the risk that I might not like it. A larger social gathering of people to see a show reduces the risk that I won't have a good time; if I don't like the show, I'll still have a good time dissing the show with my friends. And so forth.

Maybe a strategy of helping reduce risk for playgoers might be helpful in some regards, and help market certain aspects....

Hello everyone! Thanks so much for these responses and for the links. The idea of creating a theatre club/theatregoing club is really exciting to me... especially if there's dessert involved. I especially like how grassroots its feels. You don't need a massive budget to get people together to do things, and the results can feel homemade and incredibly meaningful. The idea of having a consistent social group connect to theatergoing just makes the whole thing seem more fun... and it takes some pressure off of any one play to justify the evening. If your group sees a play and you don't like it, it's not such a big deal. You still had a fun night out.

Great essay! I wanted to emphasize the less "marketing" approach and instead incorporate an informational style for presenting a new play. Big agreement! People want to know why this new play would be good for them to see. Telling them it is going to be "great" or "one-of-a-kind" or insert other marketing buzz term here is not enough for someone to figure out if this new play is worth the risk of time and money to see. The storyline, background of the playwright, etc., is necessary. You want people to connect with the new play from the start. The best way to do this is to grab the opportunities you have to give them the information that they desire to make the best choices. I also wanted to say that the building of the relationship with our audience members is a great way to ensure audience support in the future, and I really like the suggestions and ideas in this essay that we can all explore and implement in the near future.

Biased by my intense fascination with the audience-art-artist triangulation, and so this study... and therefore this piece. Thank you for sharing your early reflections/findings. In particular, Mark, love three questions you posed in succession toward the end:- Could we be creating more opportunities to sit down with the people who see our work on a semi-regular basis? - What impact would that have on our relationships with them?- What do we do with this information?It makes "audience engagement" work of all shapes/sizes/types about increasing everyone's agency and building community throughout our arts organizations. It means developing horizontal and vertical linkages in the organization, and in the greater community.My responses:- Yes.- Tremendously positive effects that we won't know until we start building one.- EvolveAnd following Pete Miller's lead, I too share another piece of on-topic writing: http://blog.artsusa.org/201...

Looking forward to watching on livestream.

One idea is to change how talkbacks are done...from large group to small groups.

Many theatre goers I've talked to like the IDEA of a talkback. They DO want to discuss the play, but don't like being put on the spot in front of a group of people and/or don't feel comfortable sharing in a public setting.....particularly if the play has political or controversial content.

Perhaps a "small group" talkback could happen? Perhaps the actors/production staff disperse themselves and have people discuss the play in small groups, with someone from the production joining each group. Over a beer or a glass of wine, of course.

This way, it's more intimate, more social....more inviting for introverts and less likely to be dominated by a few loudmouths.

Woolly Mammoth, where I serve on the board, presented Mike Daisey's American Utopias a while ago. We usually do a lot of post show activity, but this particular piece ended out on the street corner, so the odds of getting people back to the seats for a conventional talk back seemed poor. I suggested we prepare "Roll-Your-Own Talkback" kits - a one pager suggesting people grab a couple nearby strangers and go to one of a list of bars to talk about some discussion stimulus also on the one page. In the end, Mike rejected the idea - he's a bit controlling about discourse around his pieces. I still think it's got potential as a tool. I suspect theatre companies would benefit even more from audience members building stronger relationships with each other than building a stronger relationship with us, especially if they give us credit for introducing them to new friends.

Really good idea. The key for a theatre company would be to figure out how to track whether/how many people actually do it, but the idea is great. Perhaps work out some arrangement with local bars/restaurants in which people present some kind of "coupon" for a discounted or free beverage that they get from the theatre...and then track how many get used.

Thanks for this. More fuel for my theory that the most promising way to encourage more people to see more plays is to strengthen and stress the social benefits of playgoing. I'm working with a couple of DC area companies to help them organize their audiences like clubs - helping them see their relationships with the company and with each other as valuable in general. Better yet would be organizing bands of roving playgoers who attend many companies - what I usually talk about as defining and supporting playgoing as a hobby. Looking forward to more Triple Play news and results. (My minifesto, if you're curious: http://www.2amtheatre.com/2...