Theatre producers make things happen, they create the buzz, bring the audiences, develop a market and they understand how to develop a production for audiences. Without them, all you have is a bunch of talented creatives in competition with each other for who has the loudest voice.
To succeed, community theatre companies have to be producers but, whilst many companies can be strong on creativity and cast bonding, most don’t understand the role of producer. This lack of understanding is particularly obvious in their relationship with audiences. To attract audiences beyond your supportive family and friends, you have to understand that audiences have a completely different set of values and reasons for attending your shows, and it’s rarely about you.
You’ve heard the big fish, little pond metaphor. We get isolated in our own theatre world thinking that everyone else thinks the way we do, wants what we want and cares about what we care about. Most people don’t choose to attend your show to support your efforts; that’s your family and friends. People attend because they want to be entertained.
Audiences want value for their money and to enjoy their experience at the theatre. I can hear the creatives scream as I say that audiences are your clients and your show is the product. The producer’s job is to create a buying experience that will encourage repeat business. By paying attention to the whole theatre experience, you can satisfy and even exceed your audience’s expectations, encouraging them to return again and bring friends.
What’s your front of house experience like?
The front of house experience is the first physical impression you make on your audience. Regardless of whether you perform in a commercial theatre or a local community hall, you can create a great impression on audiences before they even see your production. You can also set them up for frustration if you’ve ignored their needs.
Explore your theatre foyer/performance space and see things the way your audience does. I find it helpful to take photos of the area because photos force you to see things as they really are. Without realising it, when you scan a room you see what you want to see or expect to see, especially if you know the space well. Photograph everything your audience comes in contact with and you’ll see things the way they do.
Often community companies decide to perform in a commercial theatre thinking that they’re hiring an image when all they’re actually doing is hiring a building. You choose that 1970’s architectural icon because it’s better for you to perform in but front of house is an overlooked opportunity to impress.
A common story.
On what began as a relaxed Sunday afternoon at the theatre, I walked into the foyer of the large regional cultural centre and found myself overwhelmed by an imposing art gallery. The lack of signage, or anyone in a recognisable uniform to ask directions of, made me wonder if I was in the right building. The main entrance was clogged by patrons obviously with the same problem.
A trestle table nearby was displaying show programmes but there was no indication of price and the seller wasn’t wearing a uniform so she blended into the audience around the table. Going for a wander, I found a cafe/bar but the layout of the foyer didn’t draw patrons to it so it was practically empty.
The lack of signage made it difficult to find the theatre doors so by the time I took my seat I was no longer as relaxed. The show was good but after a hugely long first act, I wandered out to the cafe, looking forward to a latte only to be told that the coffee machine had been turned off (at 3:30pm!) and the only thing available was cold drinks. The alcohol in the drinks fridge was looking attractive at this point but as I had to drive home, I decided I wouldn’t drown my rapidly growing frustration in cheap white wine.
I didn’t even bother trying to find the toilet and just went back into the theatre to sit through the second act. What do you think featured most in my conversations with friends about this little jaunt to the theatre? It was less about how good the show was and more about the general experience.
What if the experience had looked like this?
- The volunteers all wore a simple uniform such as black trousers and a bright t-shirt with VOLUNTEER emblazoned across the back and front, easily identifiable from anywhere in the foyer.
- The front doors to the building were manned by a uniformed volunteer welcoming patrons and assisting those with mobility issues.
- The foyer entrance displayed attractive company and show banners letting patrons know they were in the right place, regardless of the imposing art gallery.
- The visually prominent Box office sold programmes and uniformed volunteers also wandered the foyer selling them.
- There was a large display of principal cast headshots with their name and character. This stimulated conversation about the show amongst patrons.
- The cafe/bar was open and fully functional before and during the show and the foyer was set up in such a way as to encourage flow through to it.
- Toilets and the theatre entrance doors were clearly signed or a uniformed volunteer was readily available to ask directions of.
- After the show, uniformed volunteers were present in the foyer to assist patrons with mobility needs and to acknowledge the patrons as they left the building.
- Everything front of house had been about the audience experience, providing a ‘product’ that exceeded audience expectations.
Audiences view the theatre experience very differently to the creatives presenting it. As far as your patrons are concerned, they expect you to understand that they have spent good money on tickets and are looking for a great ‘experience’. If you can provide them with a memorable theatre experience, both on and off the stage, you dramatically increase your chances of them returning to see your other shows. Improving your foyer experience is inexpensive and simple but will impress your patrons.
It is well known in business that it is much easier and many, many times less expensive to keep and look after existing clientele than to find new ones. Master this concept and you will stand out as a more desirable fish in the extremely well stocked pond of local community theatre.