Our Last, Best Hope

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES November/ December 2010

A group of American theater companies are doing something interesting: offering a free night of theater through a website called, oddly enough, “Free Night of Theater.” (It can be found at

The premise is simple: the participating theaters offer you, the theatergoer, the opportunity to get seats for free.
The purpose is to try to get people who don’t usually come to the theater to do so. Once in the door, maybe they’ll get hooked and turn into ticket buyers. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I’m really glad to see theater companies trying to put butts in seats that wouldn’t normally be there. Theater tends to draw older people—a well-documented phenomenon. If carried to an extreme, it leads to theater trying to draw dead people, who are a tough sell, generally speaking. To live and thrive, theater has to draw new people into the audience and keep them there.
Nobody knows how to do that.

The fundamental problem is this: people who already go to theater know about it and can be relied upon to keep coming, unless we disappoint them too badly and too often. However, they do have the habit mentioned above: they die off eventually. Their replacements, by definition, have to come from the vastly larger body of people who don’t go to theater.
Those folks are a challenge. They don’t go to theater. When they think about what to do on Friday or Saturday night, theater is not on the list. When media content about theater happens to cross their attention, their attention does not go to it, because they have no interest in it. For them, the local theater company might just as well not exist. In their minds, it doesn’t exist.

Somehow or other, we have to engage their attention, and that’s hard and getting harder. We keep preaching to the choir, and the choir, oddly enough, stays the same size. Preaching to the choir isn’t working. We have to try something else.
Reviewing the list of partners and sponsors for the “Free Night of Theater” effort, I am strongly struck by the fact that these fine organizations, who are to be lauded for their support, are precisely the sort of organizations that are very effective at speaking to people who already attend theater. They are not organizations that are notably effective at getting the attention of non-theater-goers. That’s really not good, because non-theater-goers are the point; if the result of this campaign is primarily giving tickets to people who would have bought them anyway, we’ve got a show that’s going to close on Saturday night.

That’s been my observation, of half-price nights at the theaters I’m familiar with. I look at the people who are there on half-price nights, and I notice that they’re the same people I often see on full-price nights, and I also notice that they definitely aren’t the people who can’t afford a full-price ticket. The outreach effort is laudable; the effort to keep tickets affordable is laudable; it’s all very laudable, but not very effective at doing what the theater must do to survive: bring in new people. The net effect of the laudable effort is to reduce ticket sales income to the theater company.
The rapid evolution of the media world is also making doing this harder. Formerly, one could attempt to spend some money on media that can push a message into the attention of people who wouldn’t otherwise see it. The good old paid newspaper ad did that. The good old feature story in the local paper also did that, though less effectively, since relatively few people read such things that weren’t already interested in theater. In the ongoing transition to web-based media, push media are harder to come by and less effective.

I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that there is a great unexploited resource out there: the existing audience. To use that resource, however, theater people are going to have to change their ways.

We take the audience, at present, pretty much for granted. We do not listen to them very much. We select our repertory, our venues, our policies, even our prices pretty much to suit ourselves. We ask them to buy tickets; we ask them for donations—usually not very effectively—and that’s about it. We do the work we want to do the way we want to do it, and we expect them to support us, even though we don’t really give them much reason to do so.

That needs to change. Every single person who places their butt in one of our seats personally knows dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who don’t place their butts in our seats—but might do so if that person talked them into it.
What do we do to encourage them to do that? What incentives do we offer to our audience members that might turn each and every one of them into a full-fledged ambassador for us?

Our much-maligned, much-denigrated, much-ignored audience may be our last, best hope.

Bethune website: