In today’s digital age, it’s difficult to disconnect from reality. Thankfully, there remains a sacred place to transport you from the real world, and that’s the theatre.
On any given day, you may sit down to stream a TV show or read a book, but find yourself easily distracted by the neighbor’s lawn mower or your adorable pet. Let’s face it, even on vacation you rely heavily on your phone. The intent may be to open a reservation number or hire a ride share, but the call of unanswered text messages or unread notifications proves too strong. Before you know it, your dedicated relaxation time is interrupted by a peer with a question, a friend with gossip, or a local news update.
Things are different with live theatre. Whether it’s professional or amateur, in a blackbox or a High School auditorium; once you take your place in an audience, your phone is switched to Do Not Disturb and you’re ready to enjoy a show. The overture sets the tone, the curtain rises, and before long you’re swept away to a time and place other than your own.
As a performer and community theatre director, I’m privy to the sequence of events leading to opening night and the necessary steps it takes to effectively transport an audience. Each step serves a purpose, from securing performance rights, to production meetings, budget negotiations, auditions, rehearsals, marketing, and of course...Tech Week! The majority of your audience will never know about the in-depth process behind the scenes, and frankly, they shouldn’t. All that matters is each patron is engaged in the story you’re telling, temporarily transported, and finds value in the ticket they purchased.
So how does a theatre effectively engage their audience and ensure their return for future productions? First, it’s important to understand the talent in your area and demographic of your community. A region heavily populated by young families may not be the best area to launch an edgy blackbox program, and likewise, a college town is probably not ideal for kid-heavy productions. As President of my local community theatre, I send an annual survey to our patrons, performers, and volunteers in an effort to understand our talent pool, and what our community is expecting from their local theatre.
Once the survey is complete, the results are shared with our play selection committee to effectively select shows that meet the needs of our community. They review a number of parameters for the season, including, but not limited to:
Once the rights for a production are obtained and subsequently announced to the public, it’s imperative to understand the vision and outline the story you plan to tell from the beginning. Your production team, including a representative from marketing, should come together early in the process to calibrate and understand how the show will be portrayed. If another theatre recently produced the same show, determine how your production will be different. Perhaps use an orchestra instead of tracks? Are there resources like digital scenery to make your stage come alive?
Broadway Media’s Scenic Projections include every scene and setting mentioned in the script; whether it’s a day to night transition, a magical embellishment, or a change in the weather. Previously, creative sound effects were needed to illustrate these moments onstage, but with the addition of Scenic Projections and creative lighting, the audience can now see and experience the author’s intent. Whatever you choose to do, use your marketing platforms to build the excitement and start laying the groundwork for immersing the audience.
If you’re adding an audition notice on your theatre’s social media accounts and/or website, your performers are not the only ones who will see the post. Audition postings will likely be how your patrons first learn about your upcoming shows, thus beginning the immersive journey. Though you don’t want to give too much away before opening night, offering a glimpse into the rehearsal process via marketing channels can build excitement. Tactics like Instagram takeovers or TikTok videos, help audiences identify with a performer or a particular craft, and become invested in seeing the finished product. I’ve also seen theatres partner with local restaurants to offer a dining experience themed to the production (for example: A Greek restaurant paired with a production of MAMMA MIA!).
Once a patron arrives for your production, ensure they feel welcomed and comfortable. Warm greetings from those working the house, comfortable seats, adequate legroom, and temperature control should be considered. Consider eliminating potential outside distractions by covering windows with blackout curtains to ensure outside light doesn’t interfere with show lighting choices. These details can help patrons focus more on the production itself.
With the audience comfortable, it’s time to focus on setting the tone. From your programs to music playing in the house, find ways to match the style and tone of the era to be reflected onstage. During a recent Shakespearean production I attended, instrumental music from the Elizabethan era played throughout the house and programs were printed in an Olde English font. Furthermore, carefully placed props onstage and a customized curtain warmer help create a sense of anticipation for what’s to come. The overture plays and the curtain begins to rise, and the audience is in the right mindset; ready to experience the world your team has created.
The challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic may continue to ebb and flow, but theatre remains a much needed escape for both patrons and theatre-makers. For an hour or two, you can press the pause button on your own realities and focus on a world other than your own. So as a theatre-maker, take the time to prepare for your audiences; make them feel safe, appreciated, and transported. Remind them why the arts are needed and the positive impact they can have on a community.