Get to know your audience

This post was inspired by a question raised on an online theatre forum, and, although the topic isn’t about design or tech, I feel it’s important enough to include here.

A theatre — any kind of theatre — needs an audience. Whether it’s a for-profit professional theatre or a non-profit community, college, or high-school theatre, somebody has to sit in the house and watch the show. And, if the audience pays for their tickets, then the sales are helping support the production company, in which case the audience is necessary for the company to survive.

A few years ago, a community theatre in my area decided to change their programming: they wanted to “ramp it up” and head toward becoming a regional theatre. That’s fine, but, unfortunately, they did not pay attention to their audience, or to the previous type of programming (other than to change it), or to the types of shows that sold tickets or did not sell them. As a result, two years later, not only had attendance dropped significantly, but lots of season subscribers had dropped out, long-time customers were no longer coming, and the number of donors had dropped. It was really sad. In the meantime, other local theatres were doing fine.

Getting to know your audience (“getting to know your market,” in business parlance) is easy. Here are a few thoughts:

Know your own company

Who are you, and what does your company want to do? If you’re a professional theatre with investors, then you need to give them a return on their investment, just as much as you need to put on enjoyable shows. If you’re a community theatre and it’s totally volunteer-driven, then it’s a hobby as much as anything else, and you may not be concerned about attendance. If you’re a high school or college, and the performances are a vehicle for the students to practice what they’re learning, then attendance may not be all that important either. And if you’re a high school and your audiences are mostly friends or relatives of the cast and crew, then there’s a chance that attendance is pretty much guaranteed.

There are, of course, tons of variations on the above. But knowing who you are, and who your audience is (or who you want them to be), can go a long way to creating a win-win situation.

If you’re not sure where to start with this, here are two ideas. One, look at other theatre companies’ websites to see what they say about themselves. For instance, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Berkeley Rep, and the Guthrie Theater have wonderful “About Us” pages telling you all about… well… who and what they are.

Another idea is to read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, which is about knowing why we do what we do, and how we can use that knowledge for our own inspiration and to inspire those around us. He goes on to address how knowing why they do what they do has been so successful for companies like Apple and Nike and for many leaders worldwide. Here’s my affiliate link to the book on Start with Why.

Look at previous sales

You can set up a simple spreadsheet to keep track of the name of the show, the genre (comedy, drama, mystery, musical, and so forth), the attendance per performance (paid as well as comps or discounted tickets), the percentage of capacity (which tells you whether the house, overall, was 50% sold, 75% sold, or some other number), and similar information. After a year or two, this can tell you a lot about what your audience likes to watch and where the money (if you sell tickets) comes from.

You can also expand this to keep track of which advertising methods worked well or did not work at all. For instance, if you sell through Groupon or a similar online system, that can become another entry in the spreadsheet.

Listen to the audience

Whether it’s before the show starts, or at intermission, or after the show, listen to them. Do they like the show? What are they saying about it? If the show is reviewed by the media, read those reviews carefully. Although media critics are human beings and sometimes miss the boat, their comments can give you a lot of very valuable input.

Find out what other local theatres are doing

Look around your own area. What types of shows are doing well locally? We have one local community theatre that does musicals almost exclusively, and they generally pack the houses. Sometimes an individual musical is not a good choice for them because it’s more than they can handle, but they still do well.

Interact with the audience

Ask questions and listen to the answers. A simple way to do this is a survey.

I know, I know… I don’t like surveys either, mostly because they tend to be long and boring (and often appear irrelevant), but they don’t have to be. For instance, I can see handing out a one-page survey to the audience after a show, along the lines of:

Thank you for joining us for our production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We hope you enjoyed the show and will tell your friends and family about it.

We are currently working on next year’s lineup and would like your feedback, but we also want to keep this as painless as possible for you. Would you kindly look at the list below and tell us what types of shows you’d like to see us include next year. Feel free to circle as many as you’d like.

Dramas          Comedies          Farces           Musicals          Mysteries       Revues

Contemporary issues          Historical stories          LGBT stories          Romances

Teen issues          Original works by local authors          Children’s theatre

Classical pieces (Shakespeare, Greek, etc.)


Any specific plays or musicals you’d like to see?

Would you be interested in joining us as a volunteer? If so, please give us your name and best way to reach you:

Thank you, and we hope to see you again soon.

John Doe, Executive Producer

You can vary something like this in lots of ways, but it’s clean and simple and to the point, and can give you lots of information on your audience.

Another way to interact with the audience is to have a live community forum, either after a show or on a different day, and invite the public to come in and give you ideas for next year’s season. This can even take the form of an open house (a “thank-you” event) for your patrons, during which you provide refreshments, introduce the management, and talk about the current or following season.

The process of getting to know your audience can be very simple and straight-forward, but the long-time results can be amazing.


Black duvetyne… or not

Black duvetyne has a long and illustrious history in theatre. In has been used in many applications, including curtains and masking, and has even stood in for velvet in some situations. It’s a very versatile fabric.

But there is one application — often seen — which it really doesn’t lend itself to, and that is as a backing for an open door or window. Consider this photo, from my set for The Odd Couple some years back. We are looking at the open front door to the apartment, on the other side of which is the building’s hallway. At first glance, it looks like what you would expect to see in an apartment building:

Duvetyne 2

Now consider the same scene, Photoshopped to simulate a black duvetyne backing instead of the wall and door:

Duvetyne 1

That’s exactly what the audience would see: a black surface behind the door. Granted the door may only be open for a moment to let the characters in or out, but that one moment, and the field of black back there, would be enough to remind the audience that they are in a theatre and distract them from the story.

It would be even worse if the duvetyne were catching the lights, or had rips or tears in it, or was visibly draped on the floor or wrinkled.

One of the interesting things about being a set designer is that, because you’re so focused on the story, sometimes you want to create things that are so correct for the story that the audience won’t even notice them. They just look natural, like they’ve always been there, or like that’s the only way they can be. TV sitcoms are great at this: for the most part, every house or apartment is so well-defined for the character who lives there, that there’s nothing to distract us from the story. It’s where you would expect them to live.

In the set above, I decided to fully render that hallway because I wanted the director to be able to leave the door open for as long as it was natural for the action. In other words, I didn’t want to force him to close it quickly to hide the black field. It gave him a lot more flexibility with the actors. However, I could have omitted the door across the hallway (which didn’t open) and just showed the two-tone wall by itself; it would have been almost the same effect.

In a future post, I will address the technique of using a dark brown or charcoal duvetyne or paint to help create shadows and depth. It’s much more effective than using black for some situations, and fairly easy to do.


What is tech theatre?

Like many of us, I was a die-hard techie back in college.

My two years in junior college provided me with a lot of construction and lighting experience, but nothing in the way of design experience besides one class. Later, at Cal State Northridge, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors who really pushed those of us who wanted to learn set design to really learn set design. One of them (Dr. Bellman) spent his summers in Europe hanging out with his set and lighting designer friends out there and would then come back and tell us all about what they were doing. The other one (Prof. Kelleher) quit teaching and went on to become an art director in the movie and TV industry.

As a techie, it took me a while to get used to the idea that design classes taught by these two professors were about design and design alone: no shop work, no painting, and no construction drawings. That was all required too, but it was totally separate from the design classes. For each design project, we had to prepare a scale model, along with a floor plan and a written description of our design concept. The same thing happened with our lighting design class and our scenic projection class.

One thing I will never forget was Dr. Bellman teaching us to think like a director whenever we created a set (i.e., a space to support a story). What did we want to say by telling the story? How do the characters need to move, and why? How much stuff do they really need? Did we want to tell the story in a presentational manner or a representational manner, and why? How did the story feel visually? A couple of semesters of this, and six or eight big projects per semester, finally drove it in: our job as set designers was to support the story, not to create a stand-alone collection of scenery.

And then there was that fateful day Prof. Kelleher asked me how you could tell when a techie designed a set. I knew she was half-joking, but I went through the roof anyway when she said, “All the lines are straight and all the corners are right angles.” By the time I came down to earth again, a few days later, I had realized how right she was, and I’ve never forgotten it.

After two years of this, I had pretty much switched from being a techie to being a designer, and that message was now permanently carved in my brain: we are there to support the story, not to create a self-contained end product.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this message doesn’t seem to be driven home very often. I’ve seen so many cases where the designers and the technical departments just don’t seem to be in the loop with the story, and the results show. Little things, like an actor needs to move this or that piece quickly, or that door needs to stick just so much, or big things, like the actor needs to come down the stairs in five bars of music, while singing. What kind of favorite chair would Willy Loman have at home to read his newspaper, or what kind of a house would George and Martha have in Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf? What type of dress would Marian Paroo wear at the library? Doing the historical research is fine, but the details still have to fit the characters and the story and the director’s vision.

Over the past ten years or so I’ve learned to really enjoy the “making of” documentaries that come on some movie DVDs: interviews with the director, actors, designers, composers, special effects people, builders, model makers, and so on and on. What they did, and what lengths they went to, to make sure the telling of the story would be as effective as possible. The shark in Jaws didn’t work at first, but they kept going and going, trying to make it work, until it did. The smell of clams and other slowly disintegrating sea critters under the hot studio lights, as they were dissecting the face hugger in Alien,  was revolting to everyone present, but they worked with it anyway, because the story needed it. The sets, props, and models in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Terminator, and many other movies were all built by very dedicated techies, most of whom were specialists, and who took serious pride in their work..

Contrary to often-popular belief, lack of money isn’t always the reason why things sometimes don’t work, or don’t look right. In my experience, the real reason is very often taking shortcuts: “the audience will never notice it,” or “it’s good enough for theatre.” One of my favorites is the so-called “Five-foot Rule,” which states that if it looks okay from five feet away, it’ll be fine on stage. I never heard of this “rule” back in high school, or college, or grad school, or at a major scenic studio I worked at for six years. We took pride in our work. It had our individual signatures on it.

Tech theatre can be a lot of fun: sets, lights, costumes, makeup, props, sound, and so forth, but it really needs to focus on supporting what’s going on on the stage. It’s not an end in itself. Come to think of it, if I were to teach a tech theatre class, I’d spend the first session or two just talking about (and discussing) how important our work is to the production and how much in synch we have to be with it. Then, after that’s clear, we’d start in on the tools and the flats and the other fun stuff.