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Free Night Of Theatre Update

October 27, 2008

Since posting some thoughts about the 2008 Free Night of Theatre on October 16, I have received some valuable responses. Thank you all for writing in.

Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, which oversees Free Night in this part of the country, got back to me at the end of last week with direct feedback to points I raised in my blog post as well as a report containing some interesting information about this year's event. Thank you, Brad. Here are some of Brad's thoughts in response to issues I raised in my blog post:

Chloe: I'm puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn't seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

Brad: Even the very first year, here in the Bay Area, Free Night was more than one night. While the idea of one night where theatres everywhere threw their doors open for free was wonderfully catchy, in reality schedules didn't sync up. Some shows were still in rehearsal, others were closing, for others it was opening night, and so not appropriate for Free Night. We wanted to accommodate as many shows as we could, so in that first year, we expanded the dates to include a good month of performance options. This was advantageous to theatre-goers as well, since not every person is going to be available on any given night. Starting that first year, and continuing on, we have had theatres offer tickets on more than one night. This upped the total number of tickets available for us to give away, and made it less risky for the theatre companies to give away sizeable numbers of tickets (ACT holds the record of 800+ tickets given away - that was to three different shows over a number of nights - including two mainstage productions and one at Zeum). In the past two years, we have actively encouraged companies to consider multiple evenings for the free tickets, for the good reasons I mentioned a moment ago.

Chloe: While the generosity is admirable, I'm wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There's little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free.

Brad: Yes, which is why October 16 does not appear on any of our marketing material here in the Bay Area. In other cities (like New York), October 16 was used a focal point, or launch day, with performances beginning on that evening and proceeding over a few weeks. So, in NYC, and other regions, October 16 did have real significance.

Chloe: From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they're able to say, "well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I'll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre."

Brad: Any interesting point. One innovation we tried this year (and that was utilized in Chicago as well) was rolling release dates for new tickets (ours we offered every Wednesday in October, excluding the final Wednesday). We did find that tickets were not snatched up with the same frenzy as before. So people, knowing more tickets would be released the following week, were doing some online shopping. We are hoping this means there will be more real interest in the shows selected, and that will cut down on no-show rates (no-show rates for smaller, less-known companies and shows could be a problem. With well-known companies and shows far less so).

Chloe: And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It's not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

Brad: Theatres in the Bay Area have been extraordinarily enthusiastic about this program, year after year, because they understand it to be (for them) a very cost-effective way of attracting first-time patrons to their theatres. How much do companies spend on advertising? And what is the ROI? Here is a program that has proven to work in bringing in brand-new people to theatres - the most difficult to reach of audience members. Theatres in the Bay Area participate in the campaign at an exceptional rate. Of the 600+ theatres participating nationally this year, over 100 are from this region (out of 120 cities nationwide). Of the campaign's total ticket count of 55,000, over 7,000 are from our theatres. Our theatres participate to such a degree because they believe in the effectiveness of the campaign.
National numbers from TCG:
--32 Managing Partners
--Over 120 cities participating in 27 states
--656 theatres presenting over 1,700 performances
--Approx. 56,000+ tickets are now being offered.

Chloe: I'm also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year.

Brad: Shugoll Associates, (a Maryland-based market research company) has measured the success of Free Night since its inception. To quote researcher Marc Shugoll, "I have never seen a more effective audience development initiative." The skinny is: Free Night audiences are remarkably diverse. They do not look like the stereotypical theatre-goer (that is, middle-age to older, white, and affluent). They are younger, they are ethnically diverse, and they come from a broad range of income brackets. They look not all that different from the Bay Area itself. And they come back as paying customers. Within six-nine months of Free Night, half of the Free Night folks attend another performance, and pay. They go to the theatre more often than before, and they attribute their uptick in interest to Free Night.
2007 Statistics:
--398 participating theatre companies presented more than 600 performances offering more than 30,000 tickets.
--According to the online survey of 2007 Free Night patrons required when they made their ticket reservation, the program continues to attract a significant number of people who fall into non-traditional theatre participant categories, including infrequent theatre attendees, young people, less educated, non-white and those with lower household incomes.
--Specifically, 77% attended a theatre they had never been to before, 42% are under age 35, 26% have less than a college degree, 27% are non-white, and 33% have combined household incomes under $50,000.


  • Glad you raised those questions with Mr. Erickson. And while I think his responses are well thought out and backed by research, I still can't believe that the Bay Area's most successful way to bring in new audiences is to GIVE AWAY THE PRODUCT.
    Theater audiences have declined over the last 50 years for one very simple reason: entertainment can be accessed cheaper and easier online, on television, and in movie theaters.
    As audience declined and revenue shrunk, more and more companies searched for scripts that were commercially viable; namely, had been produced elsewhere and had a recognizable name or brand attached - Shakespeare, Neil Simon, Chekhov etc (another example: SHN's recent advertising campaign doesn't even specify a show, rather it favors some variation of "Broadway is Passion") -- (Another another example: Shotgun theatre's strategy, "Our strategy in 1992 was to build an audience base by doing rarely produced plays by oft produced playwrights. Even if an audience member didn't know who we were, they would be familiar with Mamet, Pinter or Shakespeare.")
    Compounding the problem, more and more writers turned to the outlets who were courting (ie had money to gamble with), and new scripts became screenplays.
    So theatergoers were largely left with tired adaptations of over produced work - an all female version of "Hamlet" where nobody dies at the end.
    Because of this, there is an entire demographic, 18-35 year-olds, who associate the word "theater" with people prancing around a massive stage singing in silly costumes.
    Now, I know I've just made sweeping generalizations and presumptions and blah blah blah, so here is a simple example to illustrate the point.
    Shakespeare wrote for vegetable flinging drunken commoners who loved him for doing so. That was 500 years ago. In an age when everyone can access entertainment vastly easier than in Shakespeare's time, it's utterly irrational to assume that 500 year-old work which can only be understood by the college educated is going to bring in new audiences.
    The ground game is important. Local writers/actors/directors bring in a local audience. Sleepwalkers Theater gets that. Which is why they are one of the few groups who accept new, unsolicited plays. It's basic community building.
    Beyond that, the theater community seems loathe to branch out into other mediums which would help marketing and expand their reach. Quick, name 5 companies with a daily blog ... Can't do it? Shocking.
    Sorry this is such a long and rambling rant, but this is a topic that actually keeps me up nights (yup, I'm a theater nerd).
    I guess my over all point is this: instead of giving away the product to find new audiences, why don't we have National New Play Night/Week/Month/Year? Or how about National Throw Veggies at the Actors Night? I would totally get on stage for that, and I guarantee most of my friends would be there in the audience, hands full of rotten tomatoes.
    Really, all I'm saying is for theater to create new audiences, in a world where it's easier to access an audience using technology, theater has got to start having more fun. That's what people generally want when they go out, fun. Hard hitting is good, politically charged is good, socially conscious is good, but if they're not balanced with being entertained and having a good time, nobody is coming to the theater, especially in a time where spending cash is sparse and the TV is free.

    By Blogger Carl Benson, At October 27, 2008 at 5:28 PM  

  • Hi Carl
    thanks for your thoughts. You make some salient points. I, for one, am in the process of weighing up the pros and cons of the endeavor, which like all worthy experiments has its cheerleaders and detractors. The idea of holding a National Throw Veggies at the Actors Nigh is intriguing. why not start one up locally?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 28, 2008 at 11:33 AM  

  • you got it. I'll let you know the date of the first ever National Throw Veggies at the Actors Night ... thinking Nov. 20th.

    By Blogger Carl Benson, At October 28, 2008 at 12:52 PM  

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