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.