Anticipating Hard Times, The Field Is Buttressed By Strong Numbers
By Celia Wren
Given the nonstop barrage of gloomy economic news in recent months—home foreclosures, corporate meltdowns, skyrocketing gas and food prices—the publication of Theatre Facts 2007 may seem an invitation to nostalgia. The report, the latest version of TCG’s annual study of the not-for-profit theatre’s financial welfare, compiles data from fiscal years that wrapped up anytime between Oct. 31, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007—a period that was winding down as the credit crunch began to bite.
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Theatre Facts 2007
a PDF of the full report (Tools and Research)
Theatre Facts Archive
PDFs of the full reports since 2000, as well as the narrative versions published in American Theatre (Tools and Research)
the raw data used in Theatre Facts is available to participating member theatres (Tools and Research)
Unsurprisingly, then, the analysis is well stocked with upbeat tidings, indicating that the industry’s fiscal health continued to bounce back from that memorably tough stretch in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. At the conclusion of fiscal year ’07, a full 70 percent of theatres were in the black—up from 43 percent in 2003. Earned income escalated 13 percent in 2007 and beat inflation by almost 22 percent over a five-year period. Moreover, thanks in part to a robust stock market, endowment earnings rose a whopping 360 percent over the half decade.
But a few dissonant notes also sounded in fiscal year ’07. Attendance continues to decline, sinking more than 6 percent in five years, despite an increase in the number of performances. While subscription income is up, the subscriber pool is shrinking steadily. Occupancy, equipment and maintenance costs surged nearly 20 percent above inflation between 2003 and 2007, following a wave of renovation and new construction. And while working capital has rallied in each of the last three years—it’s still negative, but it’s getting less negative—the Theatre Facts authors don’t think we’re out of the woods yet: The working capital situation, they warn, “represents a serious problem for the field.”
Written by Zannie Giraud Voss and Glenn B. Voss, with Christopher Shuff and Ilana B. Rose, Theatre Facts 2007 ponders financial and attendance-related data provided to TCG by theatres nationwide. Decked out with informative charts and tables, the document was issued in July, and it’s available—for free—at www.tcg.org/tools/facts.
It may seem that the recession-like developments of the last year have outpaced this study’s meticulous number-crunching. “That was a different world,” observes Terry Martin, producing artistic director of WaterTower Theatre, in Addison, Tex., when asked for insight on the Theatre Facts 2007 findings. He’s not the only one apprehensive about current and future conditions. “I’m really worried about next year,” says Noel Raymond, co-artistic director of Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House Theatre, reflecting a mood that’s pervasive among theatre leaders, recently contacted by phone, at venues around the country.
That this-is-now sentiment notwithstanding, Theatre Facts 2007 provides information that may be of value as theatres contemplate their response to the current and future monetary environment. Knowledge, after all, is power. The sunnier statistics in this write-up may even provide some grounds for long-term confidence, suggests Kevin Maifeld, former interim managing director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. “You survive the downturn by how strong you were going into it,” he says. “If enough theatres around the country have some surpluses,” he adds, that’s “a good way to enter the downturn. They’re more likely to survive.”
Theatre Facts 2007 peers at its topic through several different lenses. The “Universe” portion takes a sweeping approach, processing information furnished by 1,910 not-for-profit theatres: 1,714 theatres that filed IRS Form 990, plus an additional 196 theatres that filled out TCG’s Fiscal Survey. From that basis, the Theatre Facts authors generate extrapolations to measure the field’s finances, workforce and productivity.
Moving in for a closer look, the “Trend Theatres” pages compare information from 117 companies that have forked over fiscal survey data for each of the last five years. There’s also an added bonus: a mapping of activity at 55 theatres that have supplied figures annually since 1998—because these tend to be big organizations, however, this segment may speak less to the state of the profession as a whole.
Last but by no means least, the “Profiled Theatres” section eyeballs statistics at 196 companies that forged bravely through TCG’s Fiscal Survey for 2007. For perspective, the report sorts its summaries here by budget size: Group 6 theatres have budgets of $10 million or more; Group 5 theatres command budgets of $5 million to $9,999,999; and so forth, down to Group 1 theatres, with budgets of $499,999 or less.
It makes sense to look at the Universe first. That panorama reveals that theatres presented an estimated 197,000 performances of 17,000 productions during the time period, pulling in a total estimated audience of 31 million. The monetary ramifications were nothing to sneeze at: Theatres poured more than $1.7 billion into America’s economic coffers, in salaries and other spending. If you reflect that a night at the theatre often involves payments to eateries, babysitters, parking garages and the like, and that theatre employees live in their communities paying rent or mortgages, making regular purchases and contributing to the overall tax base, the industry’s clout seems even greater. To keep this windmill of money and creativity in motion, companies employed a workforce of 109,000 full- and part-time employees, of whom 56 percent were artistic personnel.
With those satisfying factoids under our belt, we can move on to the Trend Theatre material, starting with the nitty-gritty matter of CUNA (Change in Unrestricted Net Assets). CUNA is the primary gauge of an organization’s economic health. To calculate it, you subtract the outfit’s total unrestricted expenses from its total unrestricted income. A positive figure corresponds, more or less, to an end-of-the-year surplus, while a negative figure signals a deficit. Restricted assets, such as money earmarked and held for a capital campaign, do not enter into the CUNA equation.
Between 2003 and 2007, the Theatre Facts authors report, CUNA at Trend Theatres shot up 417 percent in inflation-adjusted figures—an eye-popping number, but remember that 2003 fell into that rocky patch at the start of the decade. In 2003, only 43 percent of companies managed to rack up break-even or positive CUNA; by 2007, that number reached 70. In another symptom of the continued recovery, deficits incurred in the last three years were milder, while significant surpluses cropped up more often. Glancing ahead at the Profiled Theatres section, we see that—as was the case last year—theatres of every budget group enjoyed positive CUNA.
A less cheery picture comes into sight when the Theatre Facts authors contemplate another financial yardstick: working capital. Working capital is an organization’s total unrestricted net assets minus its fixed assets (i.e.: building and equipment, which appear as unrestricted on the balance sheet) and unrestricted long-term investments—think of it as the cash that’s available to meet an organization’s day-to-day financial obligations, such as payroll or the lumber bill. If a company has negative working capital, it’s maybe borrowing money from cash reserves, lines of credit or deferred revenue such as subscription income to meet day-to-day demands. In a worrying pattern, theatres of all budget sizes except Group 1 (the smallest companies) suffer from negative working capital, the Profiled Theatres statistics reveal. Group 3 theatres (those in the middle range) are particularly hard hit with the problem. Trend Theatres have reported negative working capital in each of the last five years—but, as noted above, the situation has been improving since 2004.
Chalk that amelioration up, in part, to the steady growth of earned income, which rose 13 percent between 2006 and 2007, and leaped 22 percent over five years, in inflation-adjusted figures. Subscription income may have grown almost 4 percent over the last five years, after inflation is taken into account, but single-ticket earnings slumped nearly 7 percent. Income from booked-in events rose 29 percent, but overall, ticket revenue failed to beat inflation, and it supported almost a 4-percent smaller share of expenses in 2007, compared to a half-decade back. And, as we’ll see below, 2007 saw both fewer subscription ticketsand fewer single tickets sold than in the auld lang syne of 2003.
So what’s driving that earned-income momentum? In part, a healthy stock market (as we’ve noted, the time period under study largely predated the current market slouch): Theatres welcomed a 19-percent rise in interest and dividends between 2003 and 2007, while endowment income increased by 360 percent, and capital gains hurtled upward by 3,728 percent (yes, you read that right).
Another significant factor seems to have been an effort, among theatres, to boost take-ins from concessions and other non-ticket sources. Earned income from outside the box office supported nearly 11 percent more of total expenses in 2007 than in 2003. [See sidebar: Resourcefulness Pays] Cultivating such revenue streams may require judicious planning. Rental dollars are up 32 percent from five years ago, but as Intiman’s Maifeld points out, such profits may come with drawbacks. “When we do have some down time in our theatres, we do a lot of community rentals, and we charge for those,” he says. “One of the things we’re finding with that is wear-and-tear on your theatre. You need that down time to get those repairs done. So we’re having to scale back, to make sure we get enough maintenance time.”
Other earned income–related matters observed in Theatre Facts 2007 include the fact that royalty income continued its comeback in 2007, after a sharp drop in 2005. Production income (income from co-productions with other not-for-profits and enhancement income from commercial producers), the report’s authors note, fluctuated a good deal from year to year.
Now let’s take a look at money from contributed channels. Such philanthropically driven income swelled 7 percent above inflation over the last half decade—but as we’ll see shortly, the increase straggled behind expense growth.
Individuals were once again the industry’s heroes, providing more money than any other contributed-income source in each of the last five years. Average trustee generosity grew by over 27 percent between 2003 and 2007, while donations from non-trustees sidled up by 14 percent.
Meanwhile, average federal and state funding edged over inflation by 4 percent and 7 percent, respectively, while local government funding—which, the Theatre Facts authors note, oscillated significantly during the period, as a result of capital campaigns—glided downward by 54 percent. Foundation giving rose nearly 15 percent between 2003 and 2007, but corporate donations dipped by nearly 4 percent in that time period.
Responding in part to such mixed news—and in part to recent somber business headlines—theatre leaders reiterated a caution in late summer interviews: Never be complacent about contributors. “We have learned that we can’t take any of our donations for granted,” says Lena Carstens, managing director of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, in Atlanta, adding that her company is increasingly striving to show donors and subscribers “that they’re really important to us”—by giving them a sneak season preview in a ritzy restaurant, for instance.
“If someone gave you a gift last year, great,” says Rachel E. Kraft, executive director of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, striking a similar note. “You can’t assume that they’ll give you a gift—or the same gift—next year. So you have to come at them and give all that same energy of education and cultivation” as you do with new donors.
Joan Channick, managing director of Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, Conn., says she and her development staffers have realized that “we really need to talk carefully to each corporation to find out what they’re looking for: Why are they interested in having their name associated with the theatre?” Is the corporation concerned with raising its visibility, for instance—or with entertaining its clients, or with providing benefits to its employees? Each corporate relationship, Channick says, “becomes a hand-tailored kind of thing.”
If such painstaking development efforts succeed, and the money comes in the door, where does it go? Theatre Facts 2007 answers that question thoroughly. Expenses spiraled up 7.7 percent above inflation between 2003 and 2007, the report notes, attributing this development, among other factors, to an almost 20-percent hike in occupancy/building and equipment maintenance costs, in the aftermath of the industry’s oft-cited building boom. Utility costs alone vaulted up 21 percent in the time span under scrutiny. On the bright side, though, the rise in occupancy and associated costs tapered off a little between 2006 and 2007. Also, 43 percent of theatres are now proud owners of their venues—up from 39 percent five years ago.
The largest spending category, of course, relates not to buildings, but to people: At Trend Theatres, payroll accounted for more than 53 percent of total expenses in 2007, with administrative salaries representing the largest share. Over five years, average administrative payroll edged up 12 percent in inflation-adjusted figures, while artistic pay sank 3 percent. As noted in the last two issues of Theatre Facts, theatres are increasingly allocating resources to administrative pay, in response to increasing demands of fundraising, marketing and technology needs in a competitive marketplace. There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for the administrative/artistic ratio, of course: A glance at this year’s Profiled Theatres data reminds us that payroll patterns tend to differ according to budget size. Group 1, 2 and 3 theatres devote a greater portion of their funds to artistic staff than to administrators, for instance, whereas for larger theatres, it’s the reverse.
Other expense-related disclosures include the fact that, when compared with 2003, it was 18 percent more expensive in 2007 to bring in a dollar of education/outreach income—rising gas prices (many theatres bus students to performances) and increasingly rigorous reporting standards for education-related projects might possibly have been among the variables here.
Another number seems to leap out from the Theatre Facts 2007 tables: The average expense of production materials and supplies, together with other non-payroll production expenses, jumped 32 percent, in inflation-adjusted figures, in five years. The ever-meticulous Theatre Facts authors state that atypical behavior by a single large theatre (which opened a second space) skewed this statistic, and that without that factor, the rise would be closer to 3 percent. Be that as it may, a number of interviewees expressed grave anxiety over the steep increase in price for raw materials—a phenomenon that, they say, is affecting their approach to scenic design [See sidebar: If You Build It].
Other notable findings include a 14-percent uptick in the development/fundraising expense category over five years—not surprising, given the dicey contributed-income climate noted above—and a 7-percent climb in marketing expenses. The changing media landscape; increasingly intense competition for audiences’ time and attention in the online-era; and the falling away of subscribers (who are cheap to market to, compared with single-ticket buyers) make salesmanship ever more tricky.
“Aren’t we all pulling our hair out trying to figure out which way to go with marketing initiatives?” says Linda DiGabriele, managing director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, in Sarasota, Fla. She worries about a meteoric rise in print-ad costs and the bewildering proliferation of television outlets. “Which TV station, now that there are hundreds to chose from? It’s gotten far more complicated, in terms of how best to reach your audiences,” she says.
Chris Jennings, general manager of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C., looks on the bright side: Money earmarked for marketing is money well spent, he thinks. “For a long time, most theatres have been under-resourced in marketing,” he says. “We’re throwing these great parties”—namely, theatrical productions—“and yet, we’re not getting the invitation out.”
Getting the invitation out these days often depends on being technologically savvy—maintaining a presence on MySpace or Facebook, say, or designing e-mail blasts that can evade spam filters. Having technologically adept staffers is essential, as is investment in hardware and software.
“The constant upgrading of both the equipment and programs is a significant piece of the budget, where it didn’t even exist 20 years ago,” says DiGabriele. What a difference a score of years makes. “I remember the days when a big deal was when you got your typewriter cleaned,” DiGabriele confesses.
Pillsbury House Theatre’s Raymond compares I.T. costs to “getting your car fixed. You have to do it—but you don’t know why it’s so expensive all the time!”
Even as a brave new world of media offers new communications strategies, though, the low-tech method of word-of-mouth remains critical, many theatre leaders say [See sidebar: Heard It Through the Grapevine].
As for the folks on the other end of the promotion—namely the audiences: The news is less than cheery. Although theatres mounted nearly 2 percent more performances in 2007 than in 2003, overall attendance sank by 6 percent, continuing the dwindling pattern of recent years. The silver lining: The decline is less severe than the 8-percent ebb observed in last year’s Theatre Facts.
Various performance niches fared differently this time round: Children’s series pulled in a 21-percent larger crowd in 2007 than in 2003, while attendance at staged readings and workshops plummeted by 29 percent. Booked-in events seem to be booming, with 112 percent more performances and an audience that’s nearly 81 percent greater—no doubt another symptom of theatres’ concerted efforts to maximize the value of space and other resources. [Theatres are also endeavoring to get a clearer picture of their patrons—see sidebar: Masters of All They Survey.]
The scoop on subscribership may give you a feeling of déjà vu, if you’ve been a regular Theatre Facts reader: Even though subscription income has increased beyond inflation, the ranks of subscribers are still waning, tumbling down 8 percent in a half decade, as patrons feel ever more leery about advance commitments. (The subscription-renewal rate has held relatively steady, at around 73 percent, though.) Single-ticket buyers now fill a greater proportion of paid-for seats, providing theatres with a less reliable cash-flow situation than in the salad days of subscribership, and, as we’ve already noted, ratcheting up marketing costs. “The whole endeavor is more expensive and chancier,” Channick says, summarizing the field’s predicament.
What is the remedy? Several interviewees spoke of the need to make productions news- and buzz-worthy events, rather than business-as-usual art-and-entertainment. “It’s just harder and harder to be heard above the din,” says the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Jennings. “You’ve got to constantly not just do great programming but do events.” He points to Shakespeare in Washington, a six-month-long D.C.-area festival, conceived by Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and curated by the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, Michael Kahn. The excitement alchemized by this 2007 celebration created a “synergy” between arts organizations, and encouraged ticket-buyers to plan in advance, Jennings says.
Other theatre leaders, too, stressed the importance of synergy and bonds with other organizations. “Every show is about forming the right partnerships within our community,” says Channick, explaining that Long Wharf staff “sit down months in advance of every production to talk about, ‘How could what we’re doing on our stage resonate with groups in our community? How can the work we do help others do work they do—and vice versa?’”
Long Wharf scored a success with this tactic, she says, when it staged Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show about the human body. The theatre invited dozens of community leaders to an early workshop, a ploy that—once the full production rolled round—resulted in numerous socially meaningful initiatives, including sponsorships for the production from medical organizations; a Red Cross blood drive held at Long Wharf; and a local gallery’s exhibit of anatomy-themed art.
“You can do something like that with every play,” Channick asserts. “It’s a matter of thinking about, ‘What are all the communities within our community that might have some connection to this play?’ It takes creative thinking. It takes lots of minds working on it.”
Such strategies may be worth mulling over as the industry forges through a potentially scary fiscal climate. “People are really frightened right now,” notes Heather Kitchen, executive director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. But, she adds, “There are a couple of things that give me encouragement. One is that I’ve never seen the economy not rebound.”
Moreover, she declares, speaking of the theatre field, “As a business, we’re stronger and more integrated in people’s lives than ever. When people need hope, that is one of the places they look for hope: Something that takes them out of their own personal morass.” In other words, she says, the economic climate notwithstanding, “that transformative power that we have as an artistic field is part of the solution.”
Celia Wren is a freelance writer and a former managing editor of this magazine.
Theatre is sculpted from voices and bodies and genius—but sometimes items like lumber come in handy, too. In interviews this summer, a number of theatre leaders bemoaned a steep rise in the price of substances such as wood and steel. “What we’re noticing a huge change in is raw material. It is just off the charts,” frets Kevin Maifeld, former interim managing director at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Recently, he says, the theatre sought to buy casters, only to find the price had doubled since the company last purchased that item. “When you’re budgeting a year in advance, you just don’t see those kinds of increases coming,” Maifeld points out. Because of such inflationary developments, he reports, he and his colleagues have sometimes had to say, “We’d love to do this piece of scenery, or this costume, and we just can’t do it this year.” In a money-saving move, he notes, Intiman staffers now pick up materials like lumber from suppliers, instead of receiving deliveries. Maifeld reports that the suppliers blame the price hikes on the escalating cost of gas and petroleum.
WaterTower Theatre, in Addison, Tex., has also felt the pinch, according to producing artistic director Terry Martin. “Lumber, for example, is probably up 25 percent, at least in the Dallas area, in the past three months,” he says. “That’s a huge increase and challenge, particularly for us, because we’re a theatre that doesn’t have a lot of storage” and so isn’t able to recycle many set ingredients. “It’s beginning to affect the way I and our designers think about our set budgets and set capabilities,” Martin says.
Steel is the material whose cost has recently shocked Amy L. Murphy, managing director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company. When the Arden recently staged Our Town, she says, “there were set elements in the original design that ended up getting cut because the cost of steel was so high.” Murphy sees the phenomenon in the context of other expenses she’s worried about. “Printing costs for the brochure were up this year. It’s across the board—material costs are higher. And not the typical escalation. So it will be interesting to see, how do we creatively solve that?”
Rosalba Rolón, artistic director of Pregones Theater, in the Bronx, says that because her company has substantial storage area, and is able to recycle set items and the like, they’ve been somewhat insulated from soaring material costs. But she does note that the cost of fireproofing scenery has spiraled upward substantially. “That’s reality,” Rolón says stoically. —Wren
No one is hawking The Little Dog Laughed action figures…yet. But theatres, presumably conscious of descending attendance figures, are seizing opportunities to generate funds from sources other than ticket sales. Earned income from such channels covered almost 11 percent more of theatres’ total expenses in 2007 than in 2003, according to Theatre Facts 2007. Rental income zoomed up 32 percent above inflation, for instance, while concessions rose 9 percent, suggesting vigorous trafficking in $3 chocolate-chip cookies.
Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, Conn., recently started allowing patrons to bring food and drink from the concession stand into the seating area, for consumption during the show. “It’s a radical change in theatre,” admits managing director Joan Channick, who says the move achieved its goal: Concession sales have increased. There’s an added benefit, too: The theatregoing experience is now more comfortable, and less rushed, for weary, hungry ticketholders. Besides, Channick points out, “audiences now expect that. They’re used to going to movie theatres, where drink-holders are built into the seats.” Eating and drinking audience members, she’s found, are quiet and “respectful of their neighbors.” So, the occasional kicked-over drink notwithstanding, the new dispensation “is very manageable,” she says.
Some monetary wellsprings are more offbeat. Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, in Atlanta, has found improvisation classes to be a cash cow. “Improv is a skill that transfers to a lot of different areas,” managing director Lena Carstens points out, adding that in a Darwinian job market, “people are recognizing that it’s a way to give them a competitive advantage.” The classes are particularly in demand among one class of professionals, she says: lawyers.
Chris Jennings, general manager of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C., says his organization has studied the operations of its gift shop, with an eye to making the store more lucrative. And when planning for the fall 2007 opening of the company’s new space, Sidney Harman Hall, the Shakespeare team designed a new rental business for the older venue. “When you’re in these difficult economies, you look outside of your box office for other earned-income revenues, to help offset the difficult tide,” Jennings says. A company that has such income streams, he suggests, may have more freedom to make cheaper tickets available to young audiences. “The audiences want to come,” he says. “It’s about accessibility. And we as a field need to decrease the pressure on that ticket revenue, so that we can provide that access. Because if we can, the audience is there.”
A few years ago, Rachel E. Kraft, executive director of Lookingglass Theatre Company, stumbled on a group of boxes in the troupe’s Chicago offices. The containers, which had evidently been moved from the company’s old home to its current historically landmarked site, turned out to contain audience surveys that had been gathered, but never analyzed.
“We had started collecting data that no one was processing!” Kraft says in a tone half amused and half aghast, recalling that she’d immediately assigned someone to start parsing the findings.
The anecdote highlights an inconvenient truth: In an era of declining attendance, it makes more sense than ever to survey your audience—to learn who they are, and what drew them to your stage. But data analysis requires time, energy and expertise that an over-burdened theatre staff may be hard pressed to provide.
“This is why I never go with that trend of over-surveying people, if we’re just going to have the information, and it’s useless,” says Rosalba Rolón, artistic director of Pregones Theater, in the Bronx. Pregones doesn’t often have the resources to engage in factoid-crunching, she explains. But a Pregones board member chips in with biannual data analysis, recently helping the theatre orient its music series toward the taste of younger audiences, Rolón says.
Joette Pelster, executive director of Coterie Theatre, in Kansas City, Mo., is another who’s experienced the research bottleneck. “We have collected data all the time,” she says. “We’ve never let anybody go by without finding out why they were there.” But, she goes on, “We were never able to do anything with it, because there was no one on staff to analyze that!” Fortunately, a board member eventually introduced Coterie administrators to a statistician who was able to volunteer assistance. “She was able to look at it all and make graphs and make sense of it,” Pelster marvels.
Kraft says Lookingglass benefited last summer from the diligence of two interns who focused solely on data analysis. After all, now that technology makes it possible to track website clicks and the like, she points out, “we have tripled the information coming in.”
Of course, some valuable research is more qualitative than quantitative. Kraft says Lookingglass was recently able to conduct two valuable focus groups with lapsed subscribers. The experience, she says, “made us realize we had to open up the new-work process, that new work for a lot of people is scary” but that fuller explanations might reduce the fear factor.
“When you’re developing work that no one’s ever heard of, you have to work that much harder,” Kraft says. —Wren
With the relentless steadiness of the seasons—or of Woody Allen’s cinematic output—technology advances, bringing benefits and challenges to the theatre community. Blogs; Twitter; Facebook and MySpace; del.icio.us—they all offer ways to keep an audience informed and linked-in.
Facebook and MySpace are “inexpensive ways to market,” says Lena Carstens, managing director of Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, which tends to attract a young, technologically savvy audience. When a power outage recently forced the company to reschedule a Sunday night performance to Monday, she says, “Facebook was one of the main ways that we got that information out to people quickly.”
Of course, not all theatregoers have the Internet in their bloodstreams. “People want to be communicated with in their particular way in this environment,” remarks Chris Jennings, general manager of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C. “There are some people who only want to be spoken to with e-mail or in social media, and there are other people who prefer the tried-and-true traditional methods. And you’ve got to be at the forefront of both if you’re going to stay constant in your relationship with your audience.”
When it comes to marketing, a number of the new technologies seem to be souping-up, rather than superceding, one particular tried-and-true method: word-of-mouth. When a theatre mounts a successful production, says Joette Pelster, executive director of Coterie Theatre, in Kansas City, Mo., “One person is going to learn about it, and if it’s interesting, then they’re going to personalize it in their own e-mails, Facebook, everything.”
“We’re seeing more and more of our audience members blog about their experience,” says Carstens. “It’s helped fuel the viral marketing effort for us.” She says the Dad’s Garage marketing director makes a regular habit of going online “just to know what buzz is out there, if any, for a show.”
Kevin Maifeld, former interim managing director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, is a big believer in traditional buzz. “Even with all the technology and Facebook, and all the other ways, it’s really word-of-mouth that can sell the show,” he says. He points to initiatives like the Intiman’s Front Porch Theater series, in which members of the community are cast on-the-spot in dramatic readings of the shows in the Intiman season. “What we find is that they go back to their own little world and they talk about it. They become great ambassadors for the theatre,” Maifeld says.
But check out the schedule for Front Porch Theater offerings on the Intiman website, and at the bottom of the screen is that little e-mail-to-a-friend icon. When you’re aiming for buzz these days, Maifeld observes, “the Internet makes it easier.”—Wren