For the first time in 5 years, I’m not working at a theatre box office. Before I started university, I decided I’d rather my day job be in the theatre – in any capacity – rather than not related to the arts at all. Eventually, I ended up working for 3 different box offices. I feel like I’ve sold thousands of tickets – and I probably have. For the first time since getting that job five years ago, my artistic pursuits now take up my entire schedule. I’ve said goodbye to the box office. It’s extremely exciting, a little bit scary, and most surprisingly, it’s a little sad.
Because for as much as I have been driven insane with typical customer service absurdity (there’s a tumblr for it) I have also had the pleasure of meeting countless wonderful people and been privy to some pretty special stories about how the theatre has touched people’s lives. There are too many to tell of. The awkward first dates. The middle-aged man who decided to perform the balcony scene to me from my box office window at Bard in front of his mortified family (obviously I joined in). The group of old friends – now elderly – who come to the theatre together each month, even as their numbers dwindle as the years go by. These are the people that fill the seats of our theatres, and they are in so many ways the heartbeat of a professional theatre.
I’ve learned a lot about theatre audiences over the last five years, and I want to write down a few things so that I never forget them.
AUDIENCES KNOW WHAT THEY LIKE
Honestly, there’s nothing I hate more than hearing artists or administrators express contempt for their audiences and their taste. Yes – I absolutely agree that as artists, we have a responsibility to uphold the standards of the work in our community, and to always be improving and exploring our practice. And we can do just that by executing populist programming with the same care and rigor with which we approach all other work. But how dare we say that audiences enjoy shows we deem ‘unworthy’ because they don’t know any better? Ridiculous. Theatre audiences have TV, they have Netflix, they have a billion movies to see. They have plenty of choices. But they put the money down and come to certain shows because they like them. And they come back because they want to share the experience again. And if it’s crap? They will not return. I would love to stop dismissing these audiences and shows, and rather see them as the beginning of a love affair between patron and theatre. Maybe it took a blockbuster show to get them in the door, but if we treat them well, invite them back with care and consideration – they just might come to your Butoh-inspired post-modern Hamlet with lots of projections you want them to see.
COMING TO THE THEATRE IS A BIG DEAL
There’s a special place in my heart for the patrons who overcome significant physical, circumstantial or financial difficulty to come to the theatre. There are a lot of them, and our work means more to them than I think we understand. And sometimes I wonder about how these are the folks who tend to end up with the worst seats, with the bumpiest audience experience. Accessibility is an essential word – what is the experience like for someone with mobility issues? Someone with vision or hearing impairment? Every person’s budget for entertainment is different, but why should someone for whom a theatre ticket is 50% of their monthly budget have a different experience than someone for whom it’s 10%? These are tricky questions, and I think our audience services practices in Vancouver have moved closer to tackling this in some ways, and much farther away in others.
Regardless, spending endless hours on the phone with patrons has revealed to me the stakes involved in coming to see a show. Buying a ticket has more than monetary value – it’s what someone has chosen to do with their one evening off, what they choose to show their aunt from out-of-town, the special treat they’ve given a spouse or child. There is value there far beyond what they paid for their ticket. And sure, for us sometimes it’s just another night of work, another show in and out, another house count. But for most patrons it’s the highlight of their week or month and a highly anticipated event. How can we support that value in the way we treat our patrons before and after the show?
AUDIENCES ARE AS COMPLICATED AS THE WORK ON STAGE
My wish is that everyone reading this says the word “target audience” three times out loud and then never again. STOP saying that you are targeting an audience. It sounds like you are going to shoot them, and I honestly believe the thinking behind it is as mean as its imagery. Non-profit theatre is desperate to “engage” audiences, and to find those eagerly sought-after demographics. To rip them from their homes and strap them to a theatre seat, shouting “THIS IS FOR YOU! DO YOU LIKE IT?!” Kay, that might be a bit dramatic, but that’s what it feels like sometimes. But I will say this – to me, art is all about embracing both the oneness and diversity of the human experience. Every story is a unique snapshot of a critical moment in time – and guess what? So are our real lives. When you create and market a show assuming or hoping that all “middle class women between 45-65” (or my favorite cryptic demographic, “young people”) will enjoy it, the work is likely to be as generic and non-specific as the people you’re targeting.
The people sitting in the house each night have lived. They’ve met people, loved them, married them, lost them, buried them or are sitting next to them. They’ve traveled, made mistakes, made families, had killer careers or did drugs in a basement suite for 3 years before moving to Montreal. Stop assuming that their age, gender or income is going to tell you what kind of show they’re going to like. An example – when selling tickets to a highly lauded new American play, we warned audiences (as of course, I believe we should) about the content and language. The assumption was that the older people would be turned off by that. The number one response I got from elderly ticket buyers? “Sweetheart, I’ve heard it all.”
The plays people love the most are fiercely original, bravely vulnerable and honest to the last word. It doesn’t matter what the show is – I’ve seen hot sell-out shows that were musicals, puppet shows, character dramas or solo shows. Those shows have nothing in common except the ferocity of the work on stage, something no ‘targeted’ marketing can create. And nothing touches me more than to have patrons see a show, and call back the next day to buy more tickets because they must share the experience with the people they love. That is how the job is supposed to be done. We tell stories of critical importance that make those watching feel known, that bring us together. That’s the gig, guys.
It’s not as if we are not all always trying to be better at bringing in audiences. But if anything, writing this out is a way to purge my many long-held beliefs about audience services before I bid it adieu. But I can’t do something for 5 years without learning from it and wanting to share those things. So in brief, some thoughts:
ARTISTS – I honestly believe that every theatre practitioner should work with audiences (Front of House or Box Office) as much as they can, especially early in their careers. You will learn things about our work that you’d never think of on your own. It will change your perception of the value of theatre, and it will change the rigour with which you tend to your craft. And when you go back to work, don’t forget the people putting on the show on the other side of the curtain – y’all have a lot in common.
LEADERS – EDs, ADs, GMs, APs or whatever you are calling yourself – if you run a theatre, take one day during every run to get out of the office and come to your theatre instead. Come early. Watch who shows up first. Where do they sit while they wait? Who is taking care of them? Talk to them. Find out why they come to your theatre. Watch the front door. Can people with mobility issues easily access your facility? Do your staff have the resources they need to help them? How does the lobby feel? Can you hear people complaining about your ticket prices? Can they take drinks into the theatre? Do your staff have the resources they need to make things go well? Talk to the people who are there alone. Talk to the people who never miss a show. They will tell you a lot. Treat your front-line staff well, make sure they don’t burn out, and LISTEN to them. The people who talk to your patrons every single day can tell you a lot about programming and marketing.
BO/FOH/BAR – Stay patient, stay nice, and stay fun. Sometimes putting shows in feels like hosting a party every night. Sometimes it feels like a war zone. Fight for the resources you need to do your job properly, and speak up if you feel your company is treating its patrons badly with policy or practice. And never, never stop sneaking snacks into the box office.
AUDIENCES – Keep coming to the theatre. Bring a friend. Buy a ticket, come with an open mind. Talk about it after, and tell the theatre what you like or don’t care for. Write down your order number and for God’s sake, show up on time, okay?
And thank you, thank you for coming.