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Local Audience Support for Local Professional Theatre

By ROBERT BETHUNE
ART TIMES March 2008

I recently had a very interesting conversation with my dental hygienist. There I was, all set for my teeth to be cleaned, and she happens to mention, out of the blue, going to see a touring production of The Lion King.

I perk up my ears. Hereís a bona-fide, natural-born, home-grown theater-goer. What can I learn?

First she talks about Lion King, then about other touring company shows sheís seen at the houses in the area that cater to that sort of production. Then I try to gradually lead the conversation around to the theater companies actually based in this area.

Every year, there are well over a hundred Equity productions done within reasonable driving distance of the towns where my hygienist and I live. How many of them has she and her family been to see?

Precisely none.

These folks are avid theater-goers. They have the money to buy the touring-show tickets, which are substantially more expensive than the local professional houses. They are able, via family and friends, to deal with the usual obstacles, such as baby-sitters.

They donít attend local professional theater.

Even more than that, she could not name a single local professional theater company.

She is not alone.

In my experience of getting out to all sorts of shows around this area, I go into one of the bus-and-truck houses and I see headcounts in the 250 to 750 range routinely, often more. Not what I see at a minor-league baseball game, but still a substantial body of people. I know the headcounts showing up at these bus-and-truck houses are adequate to sustain the business, because these presenters arenít non-profit, and they havenít closed up shop. In fact, some of them have been operating continuously for decades.

In my experience of attending local professional theater, I go into any of the local Equity houses and Iím shocked and astonished and pleased if I see one hundred people in the house. Iím even rather encouraged when I see more than fifty, because I pretty frequently see less than half of that. Iíve sat in some of these houses with five or ten of my fellow theater-going folk and I can see we all think weíve made a major mistake in our choice of activity for the evening.

The situation is obvious. There is a small audience for local professional theater. Outside of that small group of people, there is no awareness of theater; it is not on the mental list people use to decide what to do of an evening. It is invisible, inaudible, unknown and unconsidered, out of sight and never in mind to begin with. Local professional theater is like the mime in the glass box—no one can hear him, no one can see him, no one knows he is there.

It is absolutely necessary, if local professional theater is to survive, to find a way to break out of that glass box.

One company did do something that they report had some effect: they used a coupon merchandising company to put discount coupons for their production into zip codes where their known audience does not live. Thatís a baby step in the right direction, but there is so much more than can and must be done, and the effort must be continuous, not experimental.

Itís one thing to try to slip a hand out of the box. Itís another to smash it entirely. Many years ago, I read of an opera company in the Southwest that did something I would call smashing the box. They offered the Sears guarantee, ďSatisfaction guaranteed or your money back.Ē They kept the box office open after the show, and if anybody asked for a refund, they gave it, no questions asked. In so doing, they took the risk out of attending opera — an unfamiliar art form for many people — and got substantial numbers of new people. And to boot, they found that very few people ever asked for a refund.

Thatís the kind of imagination and courage it will take. Furthermore, thatís the kind of attitude it will take, an attitude toward the audience that says, ďWe trust you. We think you trust us. Letís operate on that basis.Ē Is that what we see posted on the box office wall of any theater in this country? I think all we ever see is, ďNo refunds. No exchanges. All sales are final.Ē

Well, if we think thatís working, we can go right ahead and keep doing it, and enjoy playing our shows to audiences of a dozen. Itís all up to us. The general public will not weep if we vanish, for the general public never knew we were here in the first place.

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