Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Real Problem with TBA's "Free Night of Theater"

(this post is in response to comments from TBA's Marketing Director Clay Lord regarding "Free Night of Theater")

The big problem with TBA's "Free Night of Theater" is that it in no way addresses the actual problem - it misses the forest for the tree.

The problem is this:

- Between 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater, and dramatic plays has seen double-digit rates of decline.

- Fewer adults are creating and performing art. Only the share of adults doing photography has increased.

Yes, there are a myriad of reasons why this is the case - film, TV, and The Intertubes have all made entertainment cheap and easily accessible. Arts education in schools has declined as well, leaving many children without a chance to experience the arts growing up. As media continues its descent into the toilet, so does arts coverage, leaving the public less informed about what's going on.

However, the problem with all this and with the thinking behind "Free Night of Theater," is that it refuses to place any of the blame for the rapid decline in audience on the Theater Community itself.

And yes, the Theater Community holds at least some, if not a large part, of the blame.

The problem with TBA's "Free Night of Theater" is that instead of asking the Theater Community to take a look at itself with an honest and critical eye, it assumes that everything is right with Theater, it's just these other factors that are getting in the way, and that once we can show people how jaw droppingly awesome theater can be, the general public will have no choice but to succumb to their newfound lust for live performance and spend $70 on a ticket to MacBeth.


"#1 barrier to attendance as the price of admission, with the #2 being "I don't want to spend money on something I might not like." What this means, to me at least, is that there are a lot of people who don't know they like theatre because they don't feel like they can spend the money to try it out." - Clay Lord, TBA's Marketing Director, responding to some questions I posted in comments on one of Chloe Veltman's blogs.

If the No. 1 barrier to attendance is the price of admission, should the Theater Community not take a long, hard look at its ticket prices? And ultimately, lower them?

If the No. 2 barrier to attendance is that people are nervous they might not like a show, then shouldn't we be offering them better shows? At least shows that are more likely to appeal to new audience members?

Instead of trying to answer these tough questions and actually solve the problem, the solution TBA has come up with is to give the product away in the asinine hope that people just don't know that they want to spend $100 on two hours of entertainment written 400 years ago.


Recently, TBA hosted a teleconference (subsequently turned into a podcast and posted here), which was called "Innovating Through a Crisis," and invited a number of Exec Directors of theater companies big and small to discuss how the recession is affecting them and how they're getting through it.

Again, this is an example of TBA missing the point. The problem is not the recession - the recession only compounds the real problem, which is the double digit decline in audiences over the last 20 years.

However, the one thing that was interesting about the podcast was that what appeared to be working for theater companies were mainly two things: talking to their audiences (can't believe this is a novel idea to some companies) and reaching out into their communities either by staging new work from those communities or simple involving those communities in other substantial ways.

Frankly, every theater company should be doing this all the time. But too often companies are only engaged with those who give them grants or big donations. The rise of not for profits has effectively ended the Theater Community's responsibility to audiences and instead made it culpable to the arts foundations which supply the money.

This is a huge problem and it doesn't appear that anyone really wants to acknowledge it. Theater faces big challenges these days from all sorts of entertainment and new technology and dwindling media coverage, leading to one simple solution: evolve or die.

Giving away the product is no evolution, it's just life support.

Again, Mr. Lord, my sincere apologies if this comes across in an ass hole tone (I am sure it does), but just like you, I love Theater. And I get viscerally angry when I see something that I think is hurting not only my ability to participate in and enjoy theater, but also everyone else's.


Dan Wilson said...

Hey Carl!

I have issue with the following statement: "If the No. 2 barrier to attendance is that people are nervous they might not like a show, then shouldn't we be offering them better shows? At least shows that are more likely to appeal to new audience members?"

As a theatre performer and producer who has done numerous shows with debt-inducing low turnout, but has gotten a wealth of "wow, that was amazing!" and "This is my first play. I had no IDEA it was this cool!"... I don't think the issue is "offering them better shows."

I think that we're offering some incredible shows, but that people don't know they're incredible until they, or a friend of theirs, shows up.

It's a catch-22, ultimately.

I'm still not convinced that Free Night of Theatre is the best solution (although I truly appreciate the release of those numbers), but I don't think that the answer is "do better shows". At least not for all of us.

p.s. if anyone doing this IS doing crappy shows, then yes, please do better shows. It hurts us all when new theatre people see crappy plays.

Carl Benson said...

Hi Dan,

I do understand that there are great shows that get bad turn outs.

But I think, and it appears that the TBA survey backs this up, there is a stigma attached to theater that stops people from buying tickets because they are nervous they won't like the show. Why is that? At what point did theater go from quintessential entertainment to being perceived as a truly risky purchase?

Some of the blame lies with Theater, period. I'm not saying that all theater is bad, cause it's not. What I'm saying is that Theater, to survive, definitely needs to pay more attention to its bottom line and what audiences respond to. If nobody comes out to see "Play X" is it really a smart move to continue staging "Play X" in the hopes that people will eventually show up?

Obviously not. And you're right, I could have phrased my point better in the post, definitely, but all I'm saying is that if what theater has been offering for the past 20 years has seen a large decrease in attendance, then maybe it's time to seriously question what theater is offering.

Thanks for reading man, and I always appreciate the discussion.


Clay Lord said...

Hey Dan and Carl,

So here's my thing - I think maybe Free Night just isn't right for certain companies - companies that fundamentally disagree with the premise behind it. And I say that with the understanding that there are some very legitimate critical debates to be had about free and discounted tickets and their effect on the percieved value of theatre.

So in some ways, I'm going to have to set aside trying to convince you of the value of Free Night, as it's an exhausting and circular discussion that ultimately comes back to a fundamental disagreement on whether the value of art hinges on the price one pays to see it.

Given that, I do have a couple comments on your original post here, as well as on the follow-up comments. I'm struck that you believe that, as opposed to the Free Night program, you advocate lowering ticket prices and "offering better shows."

What's surprising is that I agree with you on those two statements, but think that at least the first one reconciles with Free Night more than it rubs against it. In fact, I think chronically lowering prices (which I, again, am at least partially a proponent of) has more of a potential to short-term devalue the art than a one-off, "limited time only" free offer does.

A lowering of ticket prices needs to be accompanied by an explanation that goes beyond simply "we want to increase our audiences" or (worse) "we need more money!" There are plenty of arguments to be made to people should you pursue this, but lowering ticket prices without a plan is indeed a bad idea (and I'm sure you'd agree).

Offering better shows is a no-brainer - of course we should, if we feel we're offering productions that are sub-par. However, I know plenty of people whose idea of rapture is paying $100 to sit through two hours of entertainment which was written 400 years ago - and I know that some of them would actually feel cheated in a way were they to suddenly be able to get a ticket for $50 instead. It's like going to the opera in jeans - if you like opera, you like the whole thing, the pomp and circumstance, and you'll be put off by anything less. But unfortunately those exact parameters dissuade new attendees in droves.

Second thing - your comment on this post that "there is a stigma attached to theater that stops people from buying tickets because they are nervous they won't like the show." I think it's more nuanced than that. It's that they're worried they won't know what to do, how to act, when to clap/stand/etc. It's that they're afraid their reaction won't be valid (that they'll like something that "isn't good," or hate something that "is good."). It's that they're afraid they'll look dumb, or uneducated, or out of place. And addressing that worry is paramount (and separate from offering free or discounted tickets). But making people feel welcome, as rudimentary as it is, is not simply about pandering to tastes or lowering ticket prices. What we're trying to do with Free Night is lower one (of many) barriers, and allow people in whose main issue is price and/or companionship. We feel it works, you feel it doesn't, and there we sit. What's good is that we're obviously both concerned about the community and the future of theatre as a form. It's a good conversation to have, even if we're not going to agree.

Carl Benson said...


You are awesome man. Can't tell you how much I appreciate your thoughts on this. Couple of responses:

"I know plenty of people whose idea of rapture is paying $100 to sit through two hours of entertainment which was written 400 years ago"

Right, but part of the problem is that the people who dislike or are made nervous by the pomp and circumstance FAR outnumber the people who love it - yet all that is offered (in opera anyway) is the pomp and circumstance.

"It's that they're worried they won't know what to do, how to act, when to clap/stand/etc. It's that they're afraid their reaction won't be valid ... It's that they're afraid they'll look dumb, or uneducated, or out of place."

Finally a point on which we absolutely agree. Now the big question is, why do people feel that way? Again, the Theater Community has got to shoulder some of the blame for this.

My theory: As technology advanced and made TV, Film and the Intertubes the most effective way to reach the masses (as opposed to theater), a large portion of the people who created for those masses migrated to the new mediums. Naturally, Theater's focus turned more intellectual, experimental, and much less pop.

It has gotten to the point now, and I can speak from experience with PianoFight, that some people in the Theater Community turn their noses up at our loud, raucous, and quite frequently (though not always) inebriated audiences, saying, "Yes, they get great crowds, but it's just that beer drinking college crowd." Beyond the fact that our audience is largely not the "beer drinking college crowd" (closer to the young professional or middle aged 'I needed a night off from the kids' beer drinking crowd), who gives a shit if that is our crowd, and how exactly does that somehow lower the grade of art we produce?

For example, Shakespeare's shows were attended largely by uneducated drunks who hurled rotten veggies at the stage. Now, I am by no means suggesting that what we're doing is Shakespearean (clearly, it's not), but I am pointing out that you'd be hard pressed these days to find that level of engagement in an audience at a productions of Hamlet (or most other theaters).

Another example: I was running box or concessions for some show, and about an hour before it started, I had an actor ask me to check and see if the house was clear so that he could go to the bathroom without any audience seeing him.

How did this type of behavior become not only acceptable but the norm in Theater? Is there such a chasm between performer and audience member that they can't use the toilet at the same time?

I don't think Theater is entirely to blame for people's fears of looking dumb, uneducated, or out of place. As those new entertainment mediums emerged less and less people became exposed to theater at a young age, or any age for that matter, and, as people do, audiences grew fearful of that which they didn't know.

However, as I've said in the original post as well as this response, Theater has got to take at least some of the blame for this drop in attendance, awareness and relevance. If we do not collectively take a long hard look at our art and our business, Free Night of Theater won't save us, it'll just prolong the death spiral.

Clay Lord said...

Hi Carl and Dan,

I started a response comment and it got so long I ended up just posting it on Theatre Bay Area's new Chatterbox blog. You can find (and respond) here:



Matthew said...


I just got back from a wonderful trip to the Bay Area, reconnecting with the community and seeing some fun shows. Something that kept coming up is the online discussion taking place on various blogs regarding Free Night of Theatre. It was wonderful to see such passion on an important topic and watching the theater community go at it, something I haven’t seen since the space crunch. I realize I’m coming in as a bit of an out-of-towner, but as I’m still putting on shows and running spaces in SF I thought I would chime in.

I’d like to start with a thank you to Chloe and Clay for this forum and information and to all those making their comments to allow for this conversation. This is online community at its best and you should be applauded.

For the record, I am neither for nor against the general idea of FNOT. I see the value of mass marketing and the importance of getting new audience members into the theatre. I also respect the fact that it may appear that giving free tickets can decrease the perceived value of a product. I have never participated in FNOT as it never timed out with any applicable show.

There was much discussion about the value of the data and whether a free night of theater is actually a good or bad thing. This was all very interesting and while I do have a few thoughts on those subjects I am more interested in the real economic value of this program and the surveys attached to them.

Looking at the numbers--

Over $200,000 was spent on advertisement for a one-day event. I imagine there were other costs to TBA for this event (staffing, mailings, etc.) (Clay is it possible to get this amount?). All of this netted the following numbers:

Theatre Bay Area received 2,657 email requests for FNOT tickets.

– 2,488 requests for 2 tickets

– 139 requests for 1 ticket

I add this up to be: 4976 + 139 = 5115 tickets

Figuring that there was 30% no show—roughly 3581 people went to FNOT in SF with 2649 seeing a show for that company for the first time (74% of the audience and my perceived important audience. It should be mentioned only 18% of the people seemed to have never seen a show before)

Is this about right Clay?

That means, just looking at the ad value it cost – almost $56 per person to get them there. That’s amazing. And that number will only go up with the additional costs of the program not listed and doesn’t reflect the $40K for the survey. And if you figure that the goal of this program is to get new people into the theater, the number goes up to $75 (using 2649 people). I can’t imagine any theater or business for that matter, willing to keep with a program with those returns, even if 1/3 of these people do come back. Something’s not working here. The fact that that number is so high tells me one of three things:

1. This program isn’t marketing well enough to get the word out.

2. Perhaps a free night of theater is not the best plan to get new people to see shows.

3. And if the word is out there, a harder-to-swallow conclusion (and echoing Carl): people, we can’t just blame the recession. Appetites have changed. Whether it’s a free sausage or a cheap meal, people want something else. I agree that the theater community needs to address this issue that people don’t go to theatre for their artistic fulfillment. I’ve been to many meetings where the community has ignored this (“are tastes/attitudes changing?”) and instead concentrate on how to get more money given to them (in the form of grants). That model will not work, especially not in this recession. It is crucial that the theatre community discuss this.

Matthew said...


One final note. I realize that grant money is often forced to be spent on things addressed by the giver, a problem with many of the grant programs. I have to say though it is such a disappointment to see $40K spent on a survey which I fell has little or no value and that there are plans for further surveys and even a database. Perhaps I should say more, but I don’t see how any sized company can use this to help decide on how to get more people to the theatre. I’d love to be shown how I can use this survey. Perhaps as Chloe states it will take time and discussion to fully realize its importance. I think the money could have been used for other more pertinent projects.

Having been involved in the community for over 10 years I feel it critical for the bigger questions to be addressed. Free tickets and surveys discussing Intellectual Stimulation, can’t solve the problem of people not wanting to go to theater, if, they just don’t want to go. I look forward to the conversation.

Thank you,
Matthew Quinn
Combined Artform
Off-Market Theater –SF
Theatre Asylum – LA

PS- Before I was able to post this it looks like the conversation has already begun regarding theatres relevance on TBA’s Blog. I hope more people chime in.

Clay Lord said...

Matthew! Phew -- big long post full of very cool information. I'll do my best to respond.

I think, although I'm not positive, that your numbers are pretty much right. However, they're in some ways incomplete (although, as you'll see, the parts that aren't there are a bit less tangible and point-to-able than what you've got).

There are two different types of costs for Free Night that need to be meted out:

- Cost of tickets - the companies donate tickets, which, when translated (based on company-reported data) into ticket value equals out to around $182,000 in donated tickets. To point it out, this is not necessarily $182,000 in lost revenue, as often companies deliberately give us tickets on light nights, for previews, etc. The actually "lost revenue" number is not really knowable, since those tickets never go on sale.

- The advertising, PR, printing, distribution, etc. This is the $200,000 amount you're talking about, I think, and depending on how you run the numbers, it's actually closer to $250,000 in advertising. What wasn't noted in your comment is that perhaps 90% of it is donated advertising, services, etc. Theatre Bay Area runs this entire program (including staff time and overhead) for about $20,000. The cost of the survey (the WolfBrown survey, that is) was part of a separate grant and actually wasn't directly related to Free Night as a continuing expense.

This affects your numbers, somewhat, especially when you throw interpretation into it -- i.e., from my point of view, getting anyone new into the theatre is a coup, and follow-up costs to that person (i.e. the company's expense) are generally much lower than they would be had they had to pay the advertising costs to get that person through the door the first time. This is debatable, as you never actually know the hard costs of recruiting a person to your theatre, but the general wisdom is between 4 and 6 times as much for a first timer as a repeat customer.

In general, I think it's vital to remember that the companies aren't participating in this program by providing money. So your discussion about whether the return is large enough to offset the outlay is a bit mis-framed, in that way -- and also from the other direction, in my view. Free Night isn't just about one company or another getting people in the door -- that stuff is very important, of course, and we hope we do it well, but the program is also about raising general awareness of theatre, how much there is, where it is, etc. We estimate that we get about 6 million impressions via our various ads, articles, and other outreach every year for the field of Bay Area Theatre in general. Not considering those (admittedly abstract) returns in your calculations is a bit of a misrepresentation of the program.

It's a hard conversation (as you can tell from my back and forth with Carl). The data is unfortunately inexact, as much of marketing response data is, and so depending on how you look at it, you see different things. What I look to as a sign of success is the number of new patrons who do get through the program (even with all of the people who are either repeat Free Nighters or people who have, in fact, been to the theatre they're going to before). For many of these companies, Free Night, as imperfect as it might be, is a way to promote themselves to a circle much larger than the one they can normally afford. We're constantly adjusting, changing, trying new things, etc - and every single year, afterwards, we sit down here and with the other partners across the country and say "Well, is it still working? Is there still a place for this?" And so far, so good...

(More to follow)

Clay Lord said...

Regarding point two, all I can say is I hope you'll give it time and reserve judgment -- it's a very early type of research, imperfect and new, and we're still refining it. And yes, we're also still coming up with practical applications for it. I'm going to include in a second comment the text of an email I sent to another marketing director who asked questions very similar to yours about value and viability of such work.

We went out for that money for exactly the study that we conducted -- we believe in the value of it -- to the point that we're attempting to gather funding for a much-expanded version of the study.

Assuming our grant requests and such get approved, we should be moving forward with a 4-5 city version of the study looking at non-FNOT audiences sometime in October. We're incorporating into the new study a series of induction workshops with the companies participating to help them understand what's going to happen and encourage them to set thresholds and goals to gauge success, and then will be surveying 3 productions across a season for each participating company. Then, we'll be doing follow-up with each company to assess the work and make sure they've got good ideas for how to move forward with actionable steps.

Re: your second point about the value and viability – I think it’s safe to say that this work will never be a way of sidestepping more traditional audience research on attendance rates, audience make-up, satisfaction ratings, etc. But I do think it has value unto itself. Where I get excited about this stuff is in the possibility of using it in tandem with more traditional surveying and observation to gauge success of marketing initiatives that the audience may not even register -- things like whether providing parking vouchers eases stress on patrons, leading to a more fulfilling and impactful experience, or whether a glass of wine gratis before curtain allows for more engagement by audience members (or just puts them to sleep). For example: there's this sort of (till now) unproven trope on Friday nights you can get a full house, but the audience won't be responsive because they're tired from the workweek, whereas Saturdays your full house will be there and ready to more fully engage. What if you got zoom in an extra level and look at what particularly was the thing that was weighing Friday night audiences down (if that is, indeed, even the case)?

I guess my thing is that if we're really in the business of getting people to return time and again, and right now we can gauge how many people return, and can less specifically gauge why they return - if we could get more specific than that, wouldn't that be great (and here I'm speaking specifically from a marketing perspective -- I'm sort of in the same boat as you in thinking that the touchy-feel artistic applications are fantastic but not as enticing.).

The lynchpin of this for me is the direct correlation that our research thus far is demonstrating over and over again between anticipation, captivation and retention -- people who are looking forward to the show more (and have fewer "obstacles" to seeing it) have a more fulfilling experience and are in turn more likely to come back. And in some cases, they can't identify what exactly conspired to make that experience more fulfilling (but my bet is it goes far beyond just the show they saw).

My colleague, Sabrina Lazarus, has just posted a discussion of the new review by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker on the new book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" at The Mark-Up (www.theatrebayarea.org/themarkup). Might be interesting.

Ovoo said...

The problem (for live theatre) is that the wonderful rush is rare - most plays and productions, like most art, are just OK. You have to see a bunch of productions to get one where your hair stands on end. And seeing a bunch of productions is an undertaking: money, time, effort.

And, unfortunately, the "competing product" - dramatic TV - has become really very good in the last decade or so. Most TV, of course, is also just OK, or well below just OK. But some of it (The Wire, and then make your own list) is incredible - it's well-written, well acted and looks fantastic. And it's free, or cheap, and easily accessible.

Sure, you never get the "live buzz", but you there are other satisfactions - super-tight plotting, closeups of emotions, the compression of action available via the camera.

There is an underlying assumption in much of the discussion I read here that theatre is just de-facto "better". It isn't. I can be (the production of "Death of a Salesman" by the Travelling Jewish Theatre completely rocked me, and Cutting Ball has been on a roll) - but more often it's just OK, and more frequently than I'd like, it's really dire (after two years of attending the Magic, I just had to stop going in 2007 - play after play of pretentious drivel; and the ACT! Oh, my God the time and money I've wasted there). And the experience of a really dire play is expensive, time-consuming and depressing (the experience of a really dire TV show is easy - you turn it off).

So, yeah, it's a problem. And, yeah, losing live theatre is a blow. But don't put all the blame on generalities about declining civilisation, or lack of social connection. When you put on a production - is it better than an episode of the Wire? Is it better than an episode of Rescue Me for that matter? If not, well, there's your problem.

I'll keep going to the theatre in search of that elusive spine-tingling thrill, and because I love the moment when the lights come up on the stage and the ride starts, and because I love the courage and skill of the people who stand up and do it (and, of course, because I can afford to risk wasting $20-50 on a ticket). But I also wont give it a free pass because it's "special" or "necessary".

Anyway. Good luck!