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Attendance Matters

02.07.11 | 3 Comments


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The following is a piece I wrote about a year ago. I was tired of people assuming that when I talked about attendance being important, I was concerned about ticket revenue. What I was really concerned about was sitting in performances of terrific productions with nine other people and ninety empty seats representing people who were not seeing that performance. A few people who have read it in DC tell me they’ve found it useful, so I’m sharing it here. It is intentionally strident and low on nuance in the interest of clarity. I promise my next offering will be about something other than recruiting audience.

I. Empty Theater Seats are Evil

Why?

1. Someone who would have enjoyed, been moved by, been educated by, or been angered by seeing the performance was denied the opportunity to see it.
2. People who did see the performance were denied the energy and shared ritual experience of seeing a show in a packed house. If there were a lot of empty seats, they may have felt like mugs that they opted to spend time on something many other people obviously felt had no value. This feeling could well reduce their probability of attending future performances.
3. The performers on stage were denied an additional person paying attention to them. Each person in the audience is a potential source of energy and insight to the performers. Further, each person in the audience has a memory that carries away the brilliance of the performers. Each missing audience member means the production is less remembered.
4. The presenting company lost an advocate for this and future productions. Further, if the company mission includes not just the production of great art but its presentation to the public, each empty seat represents a lost opportunity to achieve that mission.
5. If the seat would have been given away to someone, the failure to do that represents a failure to build good will with another individual.
6. If the seat would have been sold, the failure to sell it represents a failure on the part of the company to earn an increment of revenue – revenue that could otherwise have been spent on continued artistic endeavor.

This list is in priority order. Even on a financial basis, the benefit to energy, reputation, and perceived value performing to full houses provides goes far beyond the ticket price. Commercial theater in America depends on investment. Non-profit theater depends on donations. Both investors and donors are more likely to contribute more in future if they see that the presenting company is serving a large and broad audience.

II. Empty Theater Seats are the Fault of the Presenting Company

Somewhere in the company’s potential audience pool, there was someone who would have valued sitting in that seat. The company failed to communicate the existence or the appeal of attending that performance to that key person. It is solely the company’s responsibility to inform the right prospective audience segments with the right messages to compel attendance.

Poor attendance is not the fault of the press. If an unfavorable or anything less than a stellar review can sabotage attendance, the press reviews have too much power. The company must issue the most available and most carefully prepared communications to prospective patrons which allow them to decide to attend. Presenting companies need to seize ownership of the context of their work.

III. Seats Can be Filled in a Systematic Way

The right people, told the right things, about the right shows will fill the house.

If the company operates with fixed length runs for each production, the number of performances scheduled multiplied by the number of seats in the house will result in a total target attendance. That total number of seats must then be budgeted to a number of audience segments. For each audience segment the required content and volume of messages must be created and distributed through the proper channels to reach a sufficient number of people in that audience segment to fill the segment’s allocation of seats.

If the company can tune the run length or number of performances per week during the run to suit the individual production, then the exercise is partly reversed. The company examines the characteristics of the production to estimate which audience segments it is able to attract and in what numbers. Adding these estimates up provides a total estimated audience. The run is then adjusted to deliver the number of performances required to accommodate that audience. Messages must still be tailored and properly channeled to each audience segment to compel each segment to deliver its allocation of total audience.

Implicit in both of these approaches are a few facts.

First, the playgoing audience is not uniform but is instead divided into segments that choose to attend particular performances for different reasons and that consume different media. Companies must tailor specific messaging to each segment and place it in the channels that will reach that particular segment.

Second, companies need to get to know their audiences if they are to understand what the segments are and how members of each segment make attendance decisions. Large, established companies can data mine ticket selling systems to determine patterns of attendance and identify clusters of like patrons. Smaller and younger companies may not have access to as much historical data, but have a small enough audience that speaking with individual audience members in an organized way and taking notes is enough to learn what they need to know.

Finally, a company’s messages need to explain why a patron should choose to attend. Messages about why the play was worth producing are often not the same as messages about why an audience member would value attending. Some segments might value a particular production because it rests on issues or situations that are familiar or significant to members of those segments. Other segments might value a production because of particular cast members of whom segment members are fans. Others might respond to the overall tone of a production whether tragic, comic, or inexplicable. The only way to compel patrons to attend is to reach them with the specific message that will cause them to opt in.

Pete Miller

IT and Arts leader, playgoer, board game player, home brewer.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.

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  • One thing I’ve tried to stress locally is the importance of scale. Some folks here have wanted to build a large venue–one number that gets batted around is 2,000 seats–even though the local area couldn’t support that. (Bear in mind, we’re an hour from Actors Theatre of Louisville–in an actual city–whose largest space is a bit shy of 700 seats. Add all three venues together, the total rises to around 1,200.)

    Now, we like to work with Actors Equity. To make that possible, the spaces we use need to be 99 seats or less. That’s a much more reasonable size for my town; we usually stick to 50 or so, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on where we perform.

    What the big venue folks haven’t considered is the psychological effect of empty seats.

    Even at half-full, a large venue will seem empty. A small venue will seem less so. Of course, assuming the same hypothetical show/audience, the small venue would likely be full.

    If the space always seems packed, then I’m more likely to buy my tickets in advance, tell my friends, etc. It’s a busy spot. But even with the same quality show, in a large space with swaths of empty seats, I know I can come at the last second, maybe even get cheaper tickets. I might even wonder if the show is any good–it could be the exact same show, exact same quality, but the listless audience response might make me question that.

  • This makes me wonder — though I’m loathe to suggest this — whether Rocco’s “over-supply” problem (which I MUST add is not the correct way to frame the problem, in my opinion) might not be best solved by ripping 20% of the seats out of every theater.

    I’m asking with my tongue halfway in cheek… but only halfway.

  • I’m curious about how Word of Mouth fits into some of these arguments. Not in the ’empty seats undermine potential word of mouth’ way, but how the ’empty seats are the fault of the presenting company’ logic plays onward past the initial few performances. At some point, the marketing money’s been spent and the value of the show has to perpetuate itself. New blog post perhaps??


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