FROM TC: Over the last 10 days on the 2AM Theater blog, Pete Miller -- a board member of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC -- has written a series of posts intended to provoke discussion and action with a wildly ambitious goal. The first post below sets up the series, and the items below it expand on his initial proposal.
Commentary: What if we could triple play-going in America?
Theatre is too valuable to be wasted on the few. I want more Americans to see more theatre. Lots more. Enough more, that it calls for a ridiculous goal: triple playgoing in America by 2020. I'm convinced we could do it by following three radical strategic prongs:
1. Diversify theatre production: Theatre needs productions in new and more diverse styles, contexts, and producing models to reach out to people who have opted out of attending what most of us are doing now. The success of productions like Sleep No More, Beertown, Richie and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart serve as evidence there is an enthusiastic audience for theatre that exceeds ordinary expectations.
2. Reinvent theatre marketing: Let's all agree we've pretty well tapped out the rate of new playgoer creation we can achieve by running a few local media ads, mailing some postcards, and sending out email blasts. We need to deliver riveting invitations to productions through all effective media and especially face to face.
3. Create playgoing as a hobby:
When people view their participation in an activity as a hobby, they engage in it more frequently. Other interests in my life have infrastructures made up of jargon, publications, web sites, and conventions that make them sticky to participants and more visible to potential future participants. Our community has infrastructure elements like those for playmaking, but very little for playgoing.
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Idea: Tap into people's desire to participate in the arts
Thesis: People are more likely to spend time and attention on performance activities they have participated in. I'm not a sports watcher, but I fenced saber for a year in college. I'll take a few steps out of my way during the Olympics to catch a little fencing - even though they mostly show epee. This NEA study found US residents reporting participation in artistic creation were nearly twice as likely to attend artistic presentations as were those who did not themselves create.
Idea: A company can work with a local playwright to commission a 5-10 page, 3-5 character micro-play which in some way relates to an upcoming production. Perhaps it has thematic overlap, borrows characters, is set in the same world, at any rate, it has the potential to create an association with and generate curiosity about the work it is written to support. (For a real world but too long for this particular idea example of something like this, see Tim Crouch's "I, Shakespeare" short plays.)
Idea: Presenting theater in bars
Thesis: If you produce a show inside a bar, you might find people interested in seeing it in other bars. Example: The Pink Line Project is an endeavor to raise the visibility of the arts in Greater Washington, DC and to use the arts and that greater visibility to encourage people to cross social borders that tend to balkanize our region.
EXAMPLE: The specific example here is something Pink Line Project did in support of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart during its visit to DC. Shakespeare Theatre Company brought the show to DC. To the best of my knowledge, Pink Line Project carried out these promotional events on their own initiative. Here's a [Facebook] photo album with a short description of the events. I don't know how many attendances it inspired. The performance was full the night I attended and less than a third of the crowd were what I call usual suspects.
Idea: Hold play readings in party function rooms
Thesis: A group of actors, with very little infrastructure, can create audience engaging, artistically satisfying events. The Actors Salon is a group of actors who gather a few times a year to produce well-rehearsed, lightly blocked staged readings in function rooms at restaurants and similar spaces. Audience members are encouraged to show up as for a cocktail party. The actors meet and mingle with the audience before and after the performance. The event includes a cash bar. For most of their events, they do not choose admission; although the ones where they have charged a modest price were as well attended as the free ones.
EXAMPLE: Most of the plays they've done have been rarely produced American classics. They have a loyal audience drawn mostly from the ranks of regular DC playgoers, but I believe their model could be easily used to create events to draw new playgoers. They also currently operate under a non-profit structure, but there is room within this producing model to create a small commercial venture. I'm convinced someone could put together events of this sort - probably with shorter works - and market them as dinner party entertainment or corporate staff appreciation event amenities.
Idea: Hang out with your audience in the lobby after the show
Thesis: Opportunities to create strong, face-to-face relationships between audience members and playmakers will encourage future attendance and raise awareness of the value of playgoing. Also, if you're making a go of producing theatre, you probably need all the friends you can make.
Idea: Audience members who have already shown up are golden. You waste an opportunity when you let them walk out into the night after a show without doing some kind of outreach. I'm convinced companies could boost audience member likelihood to return and recommend by hustling some cast members, staff, or volunteers into the lobby immediately after curtain to be available for audience members who want to talk. For artists, this can be an irksome additional duty or it can be an opportunity to bask in a bit of praise and potentially begin some real friendships with people who already share an important interest with you.
Idea: Launch 'Playgeek.com' (or something like that)
Thesis: Specialty web sites promote hobby awareness and participation. There could be one for playgoers. My two big interests besides playgoing are board gaming and craft beer. Each is supported by a number of web sites that collect information and provide a venue for social interaction about their subject matters. The key features of these sites are
1. They compile a lot of information about opportunities to engage in the hobby.
2. Most of the content is provided by members.
3. Members who contribute content receive some kind of recognition.
4. They provide platforms for members to communicate and plan events.
5. Large numbers of people use them and therefore see themselves more strongly as participants in the hobby.
Board gaming and beer have one advantage over playgoing in that the activities of those hobbies are available across a broad geography. Board game and beer geeks from anywhere in the world have the potential to sample a particular game or brew and engage with others about it.
IDEA: Play productions are usually more geographically based, so the total prospective audience interested in one production is usually smaller. However, national or international community could be developed around plays in addition to around productions. Playgoers from across the country could discuss broadly performed plays on the basis of "Here's what the one I saw made me feel."
Idea: Promote locally-grown plays at local farmer's market
Thesis: Members of the public who care about local produce might be good prospects to attend local theatre.
IDEA: A company or a group of companies could set up a table at a farmers market promoting local theatre. The specific spin would be that like fresh, locally grown arugula there is a special value in seeing art in your own community made by members of that community. Of course, you've got the strongest pitch if you produce works of local playwrights using local actors, but anybody can give this a whirl. One of the fun things about farmers markets is getting to try the samples. To really execute this idea, it would be best to pull some excerpts from currently available work and perform snippets live for passers-by.