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Unannounced Extensions

September 25, 2007

Over the last few years, increasing numbers of local performing arts groups of varying sizes have started relying on what some might construe as a sneaky tactic in order to get famously procrastinating Bay Area audiences into the house before the closing weekend of a run. The plan revolves around publicizing the dates of a production as being, say, September 22 - November 1, and then, about a month into the run, suddenly announcing that "the production has been extended, due to unprecedented demand for tickets, to October 17."

One artistic director I spoke with recently explained the reasoning behind the current fashion among performing arts organizations of adopting this technique:

"The unannounced extension has become popular because people in this city do everything at the last minute. I can't tell you how many times we've played to half-empty houses for the first few weeks of performances, only to have to turn dozens of people in the final week because they kept procrastinating about seeing the show until the end of the run."

The thinking is that by publicizing a fake, premature end date and then revealing the real end date later on, audiences will rally themselves more quickly to come and see a show earlier than they might otherwise. The aim is to create consistency of audience size to avoid a "feast or famine" situation.

It's an interesting approach to audience management, but does it really work? I know of a few organizations in the Bay Area, like Intersection for the Arts and Shotgun Players, where this idea makes sense. These groups have built up a dedicated following of laid-back, trendy young arts aficionados over the years. They know they can fill their modest-sized auditoriums on a nightly basis, so the unannounced extension simply helps to galvanize their core audience into an unintimidating state of hustle. The technique also works for big players like A.C.T., who know they can do more than cater to their core subscriber audience by dangling the extension carrot in front of the noses of various other groups from tourists, to convention participants to locals who've heard via word-of-mouth about the cool Sweeney Todd production that's in town from Broadway and want to see what it's all about.

But what about other groups who can't necessarily rely on these factors? If you can't attract a decent sized audience through the door in the first few weeks, then word-of-mouth probably won't help you bring in more people during the extension period. The unannounced extension relies upon one basic factor: there has to be at least a modicum of demand for tickets from the get-go in order for the tactic to work.

Beyond that, there is something dishonest about tricking audiences in this way. It's not that big a deal -- I'm all for the development of creative ways to get bums on seats -- but not knowing when a run might end can be frustrating to audiences members. All to often, I've rescheduled appointments under the notion that if I didn't, I would miss out on seeing a show in its closing week, only to discover after the fact that I needn't have altered my schedule at all because I could have gone to see the show the following week. In a way, playing this kind of game with your patrons too often can erode trust.

On the other hand, these clandestine extensions have often saved my ass as a critic. Fitting productions into a busy schedule can be tough. Sometimes discovering that a show is going to run longer than I initially thought allows me to slot it in for a review.

The question is, will the unannounced extensions become a staple of theatre-going around here? I hope not. If too many companies start adopting the technique, it could backfire on them. Instead of making a priority to see a show during the regular run, audiences will start saying things like, "Hey, no need to rush into buying tickets to Bulrusher. After all, Shotgun Players is bound to announce an extension to the run."

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