Reinvigorating Live Theatre Attendance: A Home-Grown Idea

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Cruikshank Pierce' Egan's Real Life_-_Drury Lane Theatre 1821In a recent article, “How Theaters Can Combat the Stay-at-Home Mindset” The Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, Terry Teachout, reviews the status of live theatre attendance in the U.S., citing statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He offers some theories about contributing factors for the decline and proposes a new marketing approach.

Numbers Don’t Lie – Some Statistics. Here is some data from the NEA’s most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, published in September 2013 and cited in his article:

Since 2008, attendance rates have declined for both of the following theatrical events:

  • Musical plays (15.2 percent of adults nationwide, or 35.7 million, attended at least one event in the 2012 survey year). The rate of decline is 9%.
  • Non-musical plays (8.3 percent, or 19.5 million adults nationwide, attended at least one event in the 2012 survey year). The rate of decline is 12%
  • The decline in musical play attendance marks the first statistically significant change in this activity since 1985. Non-musical play attendance has dropped at a 33 percent rate over the last decade.

High Prices, On-Demand Mindset. Teachout cites “horrifically high” ticket prices on Broadway as one factor, but considers many off-Broadway and regional productions to offer affordable tickets. With the rise of smart phones and on-demand, streaming media, Teachout claims people today “take for granted that we can see whatever we want whenever and wherever we want to see it.” When consumers are looking for entertainment, on-demand music or books are more popular – and available – than on-demand theatre.

In-Your-Face Presence. For intimate live theatre, we recall attending the Ibsen play “Ghosts” in London, England, in 1986. The flexible black box was part of the Young Vic, with fewer than 100 seats and general seating. We sat in the front row, with actors and actresses on the same level, only six feet away in some scenes! When Helene Alving (played by Vanessa Redgrave) wrestled briefly with her son Osvald, we noticed one of her hairpins come loose and fall to the stage floor. After the show ended, we casually sauntered onstage, bent over as if to tie a shoe, and picked it up! It’s still taped in our London journal.

One Solution – Market the Difference. It’s this intimacy in theatre, the flesh-and-blood immediacy, that Teachout claims should form the centerpiece of marketing efforts, particularly for smaller, regional theatres. He compares it to the successful approach taken by “farm-to-table” restaurants serving “slow food” to diners seeking locally grown fare. Theatres should embrace their smallness. Not every audience member will come away with a hairpin souvenir, of course, but they will experience firsthand a live mystery and magic that cannot be digitally streamed or archived.

Your Thoughts? If you were running a regional theatre company, what approach would you take in marketing? As an audience member, when have you experienced memorable, in-your-face theatre?

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