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Building your audience

ART TIMES September 2006


Most articles or books that show up with this phrase in the title have an implicit emphasis on the word “audience.” They’ll tell you all about how to get more butts in your seats. That’s a good and useful thing to do.

This essay puts an explicit emphasis on the word “your.” It’s about putting the right butts in your seats—the people who will come back to you over and over again. They’ll come back to you because they aren’t just any old audience; they are your audience—the people who want to see the work you want to do.

It may be that there aren’t very many of them. You may want to do something that is so unusual, or so hard to appreciate, or so off-putting to most people that there isn’t much audience for what you do. From a financial point of view, that’s a problem you have to live with as best you can. From an artistic point of view, it’s irrelevant—unless you make the mistake of making it relevant.

Here’s one way to make that mistake. Start a theater company with the long-term goal of doing Greek tragedy. In order to make money and build an audience, begin by doing light modern comedies and old-favorite musicals. Be successful at it; do a really good job with your light comedies and old-favorite musicals, and find yourself with a goodly number of people coming in the door. Now try to switch to your Greek tragedies. Instant disaster! The people who came for your “audience-building” work stay away in droves, and nobody comes to see the Greek tragedies because you haven’t built up that audience—which is a completely different group of people.

Put that way, it seems really obvious. Nobody would make that mistake, right? Wrong. People do make precisely that mistake; it just isn’t as blatant. Audiences for the performing arts are deeply and finely segmented; two different works as similar as a play by Neil Simon and a play by Herb Gardner may not reach out to the same group of people at all.

Edward Deming was an American business theorist who based his work on the simple premise: constancy of purpose. Know what you’re trying to do and keep on trying to do it; don’t let yourself go off trying to do other things instead, especially while closing your eyes to the fact. American business wouldn’t listen to him, but Japanese business did, and because of that, the Japanese auto industry is eating Detroit’s lunch. In the theater, as in the auto industry, constancy of purpose is key. That’s what you’re doing when you set out to build your audience.

To build your audience, begin by defining your mission, and then carry out that mission. Plan what you do and do what you plan. Lots of artists and groups plan what they do, and then turn around and fail to do what they plan. A group might define itself as the theater in the area that does original plays—and then decide that they really, really, really want to do The Glass Menagerie and Charlie’s Aunt. They may not realize that in so doing, they have to reach out to an audience that is probably not at all the audience that supports what they have defined as their true mission. One of two things happen: either Glass Menagerie and Charlie’s Aunt take a quick bow and exit stage left, or the mission takes a deep and regretful bow and exists stage right.

Very few theaters in this country, and possibly in most other countries as well, display a true sense of mission in their choice of repertory and approach to that repertory. We find Shakespeare festivals doing Hello, Dolly. We find new-plays theaters doing William Inge. We find regional reps trying to do Broadway transfers. In short, the typical mission for most theater is simple: “We will survive by any means necessary and by taking the path of least resistance.” It is no wonder that few theaters are successful over the long term. How can they be when they don’t know what they want to do?

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