Where They Are When They’re Not Here

03.11.10 | 3 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, marketing, producers, theatrical ecosystem

Concerts.  Big concerts—arena size.  I often hear and read how potential audiences, if they’re not going to theater, are going to arena-size, celebrity-driven concerts.  And if they’re not at a big concert, they’re at home watching American Idol or Lost.  None of this is true.

Sure, every week tens of millions are streaming Netflix, watching TV, and attending concerts in thousand-plus-seat venues.  But the potential audience for your theater barely overlaps with these millions.

The ones watching TV and Netflix like to be at home.  They get their energy from being at home.  They may love drama, actors, rapid-fire dialogue, costumes, and spectacle, but they’ve created a home for themselves, a nest, and they want to stay in it.  They are mostly content get their culture there. They would have to become a different person to change their habits.  Friends, lovers, and family may get them out the door, but for them, the best option for an evening does not involve people outside their home, and does not involve leaving their home.  So they’re not there, whatever you do.

The ones at arena concerts take their cues from mass culture.  A play that overlaps with that, an actor or an adaptation of something familiar, can draw them in.  But they are not going to change.  They aren’t going to smell the sizzle of something that isn’t already legitimized nationally, on a daily basis.  They aren’t at a Coldplay show because Coldplay is the best rock band in the world.  They’re at a Coldplay show because, of the bands that are legitimized through mass promotion, they like them.  Unless a theater company is going to join that mass media, their work, whatever the subject matter and themes, whatever spectacle they offer, is not going to be legitimate.  For these folks, the best option for an evening does not involve unknowns.  So they’re not there, whatever you do.

So, your audience: they’re not at home, and they’re not at the large concert venues in your city.

Where might they be?

If they’re in Chicago, they might be at the Windy City Rollers.

If they’re in Portland, they might be at Le Pigeon.

If they’re in Washington, D.C., they might be at Againn.

If they’re in New York City, they might be at Happy Ending.

The audiences at these shows are the ones who leave their house, and who choose a live, local experience.  Celebrities, on a screen or before thousands of fans, aren’t taking away audiences from theater.  Instead, theater is only one slim option in the wider realm of local, live, dramatic performance. 

It used to be that a date might involve a restaurant and a play.  Now, often, the restaurant is the play: a space that rewards both conversation and sensory focus; a space in which another’s talent is experienced directly and first-hand, in a command performance; and a space in which the performance does not exist before or after the moment the audience experiences it.  It’s no coincidence that seeing the kitchen—the backstage—at Le Pigeon is a central part of the experience. 

A good play and a good performance venue can hold its own with any of these.  But whether it is a season ticket for the Windy City Rollers, a $70 prix-fixe dinner, or a free variety show, or a Taizé service, these live performances are setting the standards—for value as well as theatrical experience—for our missing audience (young and old; curious, smart, open-minded, and getting their fulfillment outside the nest), whether we know it or not.

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • A very useful post because it thoughtfully applies the adage, “know your audience” and provides instructive examples to support the analysis. Thank you.

  • This observation is not especially new but is well worth remembering, especially with restaurants all around any theatre in the country. When Wolfgang Puck opened his first restaurant in San Francisco, one block away from A.C.T., in 1988, it was an instant hit. The majority of his tables were for four and aimed at the three hour meal with conversation. But he missed one important strategy: getting people to reserve before 7:30pm in significant numbers. I was Marketing Director at A.C.T. at the time and I approached the restaurant manager to offer a theatre goers special. I would help advertise dinner at 6, if he would promote a theatre-goers menu at a special price. It worked because restaurants need early reservations. An who makes the best early bird: theatre-goers, end of day shoppers, etc. Lesson: work with your nearby restaurants. Some may even pay for parking and a shuttle. They do in downtown Los Angeles, nearby the Music Center, home of the Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre.

  • ericziegenhagen

    What I'm suggesting here is that dinner, especially at prix-fixe venues like Le Pigeon, has become the performative, theatrical event itself. Instead of coming before or after the show, it is the show. It's the night's entertainment. It's how people want to spend $50 a head (or more) on a Friday night. It competes with theaters for folks who are That's the major change that has happened in the past decade. The word “Foodie” didn't exist in 1995; now it has nearly 4 million matches on Google. I would suggest that today's equivalent of the “smart set” that followed playwrights in the 1950s and 1960s now follows chefs.

    This video, posted yesterday at Chicagoist, shows one venue competing with theaters–no one would eat here and then go to a show. This is the show: