An audience at all costs

I was lucky enough to see Pomona back in 2014 when it debuted at the Orange Tree.  I can’t remember my expectations as I went into the theatre that night, but I do remember coming out feeling as if several cobwebs had blown away from the corners of my mind. I also remember the reaction of the rest of the audience. If I’m honest, it still makes me chuckle.

As a communications strategist, writer and theatre addict, audience is a big part of everything I do. Pomona found its audience eventually, but there were casualties along the way. The Orange Tree used to be one of those theatres I liked to go to because I felt young. I was usually one of only a handful of people under the age of 55.  With a new artistic director and a clear mandate to attract younger audiences, Pomona was definitely a change.  Based on the shocked faces I saw when the lights came up at the end of the show (there was no interval), I wasn’t the only one to be surprised. The problem was, for many the surprise wasn’t a pleasant one (for a few seconds I had genuine concerns that an elderly woman sat opposite me had had some kind of turn during the performance, she looked very shaken).  While I found Pomona to be a much needed breath of fresh air for the theatre, other existing supporters didn’t enjoy the same experience.


The good news is word spread, the right people starting buying tickets, and Pomona went on to transfer to the National Theatre, where it found an even bigger audience that could appreciate it. The Orange Tree continues to thrive, producing a mix of shows that appeal to different ages.  Their old school supporters are still there, I suspect reading up on a play a bit more carefully before they book now, but there are also an increasing number of young faces in the audience. I now have to travel to Chichester to get my “feel like a youngster” fix.

Back when I worked in the film industry, the mantra was to get as many people in to see a movie on the opening weekend. This need became more urgent if the film was a total turkey and we knew it: get bums on seats before the negative word of mouth kills the week-two ticket sales.  At other times trailers would deliberately position a film as something more compelling to a younger, heavier cinema-going audience, even if it misled people about the kind of film experience they were letting themselves in for. Have you ever gone to see a film that promised to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, and discovered it is actually a ponderous drama with four funny bits you already saw in the trailer?

But the cinema experience is very different to that of live theatre. The actors in a film don’t have to deal with the audience response.  A theatre actor, however, has to share a space with their audience, and there is no hiding from their mood. Now if a show is bad, it’s bad. It doesn’t matter who you get in, the reaction will be poor (exception being if you fill the audience with very generous relatives and friends, but that isn’t a sustainable marketing approach). However, I’ve seen many instances of good to great shows with bemused audiences, because they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. Now, sometimes that might be what you’re going for, or (as was the case with Pomona) is necessary if you’re taking a theatre with an established fan-base in a new direction.  But often it is due to poor marketing.

My question to theatre marketers is what are you doing to make sure you are getting the right audience for your show? Slapping escalator panel posters up in the underground isn’t going to cut it. I mean those are great for reminding people to nab tickets for shows they already have a basic understanding about (Wicked, Les Mis etc..) but it’s going to do nothing to explain why they want to see your new play. For most shows people need to know more than where it is on, when and who is in it, but that seems to be the focus of theatre advertising.

I recognise theatre-makers work on shoe-string budgets, which adds to my frustration when I see money being wasted on blunt, high cost, methods that won’t work hard enough to share the show experience. Given  the level of creativity required to put a decent show together (flagging decent as I’ve seen some dull as dishwater join-the-dots productions in my time), it would be nice to see more of that creative thinking filtered into marketing the show itself.  With the growth of social media and online video opportunities, there are increasing low cost ways to get a message out to large numbers of targeted people, is there any excuse for advertising in blunt, bland ways?  The simple answer is no.

So where to start? I’d argue our theatre-makers need to think about what their dream audience would look like. Who do you think would really get your show? The people who’d want to talk about it? That’d get a gang together to go see it a second time?

  • What sort of things are they already into?
  • How would that inform their media consumption?
  • Who do they admire?
  • What do they normally do for a night out? (we can’t just talk to existing theatre addicts like me, we’re bloody weird compared to the majority of the population. Being surrounded by theatre lovers it can be easy to forget that you might need to persuade someone who hasn’t set foot in a theatre since they went on a school trip in 2012 to give your show a try).
  • What do they like to share online?
  • etc….

Now if you think your show has the potential for mainstream appeal, what is it that makes it so universally appealing? How can you best bring that to life? A recent great example of using a blunt broad-reach advertising tool (yes posters in the underground rear their head again) is the Play That Goes Wrong. They knew it had universal appeal. They knew the appeal came from the comedy. They made funny posters. I must confess I went to see it because the posters made me laugh, I researched the show online and saw lots of great reviews and I booked. Job done.  They kept it simple and the show delivered on the marketing promise by being very funny.  However it is important to flag, the show ran long enough for this strategy to work on me. No point doing this for a fringe play with a two week run, by the time I’d have googled it to find out more, it would have closed already.

Theatre can transport audiences in the first place. Let’s put a bit more of that magic into the methods used to attract those audiences. Magic doesn’t cost more money, it just requires more brain power, creativity and thinking time. Investments worth making if it leads to the right bums on seats.





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