Humans with pulses
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in MinnesotaPlaylist in the December 2008 issue, Know your audience.
I’m teaching a class to a group of teens. The class is designed to walk them through the entire process of conceiving, writing, designing, marketing, and performing a show.
As we worked on our budget, I asked the teens who they would like to come to their show. They answered, “Family, friends, other teens, and theater artists. But only cool theater artists who are, like, you know, under 25.” I reminded them of two things: I was still cool even though I was over 25 and, since we’re working on a budget based on ticket sales, we want anyone with a pulse and $12 to come to our show. They heartily agreed with the latter, but the jury’s still out on the former.
Now that I think about it, however, I’m not sure I agree with myself that theater artists should want just anyone with pulses and wallets to come to their shows. Many small theater companies and producers who don’t have the time or money to collect solid data about their audience demographics simply want as many of the oft-quoted “butts in seats” as humanly possible. And why shouldn’t we want that? More people means more money and, hopefully, a more enthusiastic and engaging experience for both audience and performers.
I’m beginning to think that failing to be specific about who you want in the audience presents a risk to both the profit and enjoyment of theater. There is a tendency for artists to believe that any cross section of people will enjoy their work. After all, theater is good. Theater reaches out to people. It’s easy to reason, “This piece of theater I have created is good, so why shouldn’t any human with a pulse enjoy it?” Music is good, too. When I was fifteen years old my two favorite musical acts were Frank Sinatra and Guns N’ Roses. I chatted with my Grandma about one and with my friends about the other. Unfortunately, there was no chance in hell of any crossover.
I’ve done a lot of different shows for a lot of different people. And the what of the show greatly impacts the who that attends. Looking back has led me to the following opinions about the ongoing battle to get butts in the seats: People come to shows that are not just shows, but rather events. By “event,” I mean all of the following and more: My friends and I go every month; it’s supposed to be really good/funny/impressive; everyone else in the community is going to be talking about it; it’s a fresh take on my favorite show; it’s about me—my life, my hobby, my interests; it’s about something I never expected someone to do in a little theater show.
For over five years, my brother and I produced a raucous late night comedy/variety show called Look Ma, No Pants. The show performed the first weekend of every month and the content was designed to generate a cult following. Each month we packed the house with, well, geeks. By geeks I don’t mean pedantic Star Wars nerds. I mean intelligent, well-educated, comedy-savvy people with a taste for dark satire and a collectible mentality: people who wanted to go to the show each month to be a regular, to be a part of the experience, to be a member of the No Pants cult.
I’ve done multiple shows at the Minnesota Fringe. Several of them have attracted theater people who are interested in commentary on theater. The Worst Show in the Fringe was about an angry actor kidnapping a critic. Macbeth’s Awesome Scottish Castle Party was an audience-interactive version of the Scottish Play that mocked both the Bard and the pandering aspects of dinner theater. At the same time, since I was lucky enough to be successful in the marketing of these shows, they also drew what I refer to as PSMs or “People from the Suburbs with Money,” people who wanted to try Fringe out and heard those Scrimshaw guys are supposed to be funny. I don’t think those people cared what ideas about the nature of theater might be at stake in those shows, they just wanted the shows to be funny and engaging.
Recently, I produced a knitting-based, murder mystery comedy called Stitch, Bitch N Die. I was inspired to write the show based on my wife’s incessant knitting. She knits everywhere we go and constantly ends up talking to other knitters. Turns out, knitters are legion. We had knitters from 18 to 82, multiple ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders. The knitting demographic trumped all because they had an investment in the show: They wanted to see if this Scrimshaw guy (who’s supposed to be funny) had anything interesting to say about this craft that is their hobby and their passion.
For almost two years, I’ve been performing my audience interactive romantic comedy, Adventures in Mating, every Monday night at Bryant Lake Bowl. The show is scripted, but the scenes, and therefore the fate of the characters on the terrible blind date, are determined by audience choices. The show is a little racy, but perfectly engaging for fans of both Frank Sinatra and Guns N’ Roses. The show draws couples of all ages—we’ve had a lot of first dates and a lot of twenty-something wedding anniversaries. We’ve had work groups, college groups, and over-40s groups who want something fun to do on a Monday night. The show has also been performed in New York, Seattle, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, the UK, and Bulgaria with possible runs coming up in Poland, South Africa, and Israel. I have to conclude that people the world over think dating is an engaging topic. Particularly, if you get to affect how the date turns out by applauding and screaming.
Small theater and independent producers like myself can’t afford to do truly effective advertising. We can’t place an ad in the Star Tribune every week. It’s hard to cast a wide net. All we have is our message. I think our most effective marketing message is the what. What is the show?
Personally, if I see an ad or a postcard for a show that looks like good theater it doesn’t move me. Thankfully, our community is lousy with good theater. When I see an ad for a good production of a good show, I want to go. But I don’t. I only go to shows I feel like I have to see.
Producing shows to be marketed to hyperspecific groups may sound disingenuous to some theater artists. For myself, I have never created a show that didn’t excite me as an artist. However, I think it’s just as important to ask, Is this idea exciting to someone other than me? And if so, who are they? How many of them are there? Can they afford the ticket price? Will they bring their friends? Can I advertise this show to Sinatra fans and hope to convert some GNR groupies?
So, who do I want to see my shows? Humans with pulses, of course. But hopefully, HWPs who want to see the show because of what the show is. After all, theater is good. Theater connects people. I want to connect their money with my bank account, their identities with my ideas, their butts with my seats, and most importantly their who’s with my what. ❦