By Jim McCarthy Jun 4, 2009 2 comments

1 More Frame-Breaking Strategy for Theatres to Grow Audiences Faster

Yesterday, we discussed how you might consider starting before the show starts and ending after the show ends.

Today, we’re on to Frame Breaking Idea number 2: Not Starting at Zero with Every Show.

In this case, sports franchises are an excellent illustration of my point.

Suppose that the lineup of the Los Angeles Lakers was different for every game.  Just 12 skilled basketball players, chosen to suit that particular opponent or game situation.

Theoretically, why should the fans care?  They’re there to see basketball, right?  And if this is the best collection for that particular game, isn’t that what they’d want?

Of course not.  It’s obvious that this example is absurd.  People want to develop loyalty to certain players on the team, which is why you see team jerseys with players names on them being worn by their fans.

In other words, the Lakers don’t start from zero each time they try to go sell tickets to a game.  They develop not just a brand, but a whole series of features and personalities that become part of that brand, more or less permanently.

As a theatre or performing arts venue, what have you got?  The building?  Your website?  The concession stand?

People don’t like the same old same old, and they don’t like complete novelty.  They like things to be familiar, but punctuated with novelty.  They want Kobe to stay with the team, but if the Lakers make a trade and bring in an exciting new player, that’s the best.

For a theatre or performing arts venue, you’ve got to come up with the equivalent.  You sweep away each show, completely replacing it when the next one comes in.  That makes logical sense.

But how can you give the audience some form of continuity through time?

One suggestion is more traditions: something special happens on the Halloween performance very year, maybe Ice Cream floats in the lobby.  Or perhaps during a slow period each year, the theatre stages a different Dr. Seuss story.  Why do so many people go to the Nutcracker every holiday season?  Maybe they suddenly discover a love of dance that then disappears again in the new year.  Maybe because it’s a tradition.  People love little rituals they can associate with good times.  Give it to them!

Another approach would be to create some celebrity.  I once saw a performance of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” wherein the “death scene” as performed by the actor who played Bottom was rip-roaringly hilarious and the crowd loved it.  Imagine taking a crowd-pleasing actor like that and giving him a show-stopping moment in every production you do.  After a while, the audience would be waiting for it, and coming to the show just to see it.

This is one of the biggest problems in the whole business: little to no personality.  Imagine where TV and movies would be if no one knew or had any feelings about the people who starred in those shows.  Some people will watch Will Ferrell in anything because they like him.  In Hollywood, they talk about whether a star can “open” a movie, meaning whether or not the mere presence of a person in a movie can generate early sales.

Have you ever tried to develop a star with “opening” power?  Could you do more?  My guess is that most venues could do a lot, lot more.

Another direction would be to create a meaningful connections between the shows in your series or season.  Sure, there are often thematic links: comedy, new works, all August Wilson plays, whatever.  But these are mostly just intellectual connections that don’t impact the actual experience.

To go back to the sports example, each game in a basketball season doesn’t have to stand on its own.  It’s part of a year long competition for a championship, and it makes going to the games much more compelling than if you staged 82 exhibition games with exactly the same game content.

Although of course you have to make it possible for someone to drop in mid-season and enjoy a show, how can you make it so that watching from the start really gives another dimension to your experience?

I may be venturing slightly into crazytown here, but the core idea is sound.  You could make an entire season into a puzzle to be solved, and for anyone who solves it, there’s a party at the end of the season. Or prize money.

Or imagine that each play or performance somehow contained inside it a ‘meta-story’ that you’d only fully understand if you saw each show in the season.  In other words, some sub-plot that intersected with the plot of the main story and didn’t distract from it, but if you watched the whole season, you actually saw an entirely separate story that existed on its own.

That’s an excellent reason to make sure you don’t miss the next show.  Stephen King has done this over the years with his “Dark Tower” books, where characters and story lines unexpectedly spill over into some of his other books, including ones that aren’t even in the fantasy genre.  You don’t need to have read the “Dark Tower” for the connections to make sense, but it makes you want to read the “Dark Tower” to find out more.

That sounds like a good thing to me.  How could this be done by venues?

And if it were done, does anyone doubt patrons would love it?

And before you dismiss the idea as too much, remember how I started all this off:  this is a time of frame-breaking, and a time when, to use another basketball metaphor, everything’s a jump ball.

The “winners” of the next few years will tell the rest of us what’s too much, what’s normal, and for the next couple generations, we’ll more or less go along with it, with little revisions along the way.

Don’t believe me?  That’s ok.  Many won’t believe until they see, but contemplate that just this week, GM went bankrupt and Google has introduced Wave, designed (and quite likely to) change everything about the way we communicate online.

Frame-break or be broken.  Which one is you?

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