Are we losing the ‘community’ in our community theatres?

 

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I can still remember the opening night of my very first show. As a 15 year old, you are a messy mix of wanting to be noticed and being horrified when you are. Oh, the ‘actoring’.

The joy was that I was surrounded by experience; people who helped me learn to perform and become brave enough to grow. The community in ‘community theatre’ was strong and, while I learned that there are good and not quite as good ways to approach a piece of theatre in the amateur world, I became aware that it was what participation in community theatre did for individuals that made it most appealing to me.

I love the ones who struggle with nerves, but do it anyway; who are brave; who step out of their comfort zones and into the cushioned and understanding arms of fellow performers in their local community theatre company.

Since I began the Idiot project, I’ve studied the challenges of many companies and developed ways to make things better for them. This has exposed me to many wonderful theatre communities who love what they do and support and respect the people who do it with them.

But there’s a disturbance in the force that is really starting to tick me off.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I am passionate about encouraging and equipping community theatre to expect more and to be extraordinary. I see this approach in so many productions, performers, producers and companies and it thrills me to pieces.

But this drive to improve should never be at the expense of people. We should always respect the time and talents offered to our companies. We should never treat our volunteers like staff, we should keep our heads out of our asses and seek to include the diverse range of people who seek to participate in the arts.

It saddens me to see some community theatre companies be overcome by what can simply be described as a sense of embarrassment about who and what they are. They’ve leapt over the line of ‘community theatre doing the very best they are capable of’ and landed right smack in the middle of ‘we’re going to be better than anyone else’ – a very, VERY different attitude.

Working to create a piece of theatre that is the very best that your team is capable of, carries a beauty and value, not measurable at any box office. This attitude empowers individuals to reach further, respect everyone’s efforts, and encourage each other to create something far bigger than themselves.

Once you enter the realm of wanting to be better than everyone else, you do so by stepping over people to get there. Theatre companies make decisions that jeopardise their future. They insist on hiring theatres that are too big and expensive for their budget, everything becomes about ticket sales, and volunteers burnout at an alarming rate.

“But we have to sell tickets,” you cry!

Then let’s step sideways for just a moment.

I have recently come across companies making major decisions for their future based on false information. They have struggled to sell tickets and interpret this as a need to go bigger, change their culture, drastically alter their show choices in a way that does not reflect what their audience wants and build shows that force them to price themselves out of the community theatre market. These changes in and of themselves are not bad. It’s the reasons these decisions are being made that is challenging.

The statement, ‘we can’t sell tickets’ is false. It can be complex, but when it comes to community theatres run by volunteers without marketing skills, it’s false, and here’s why.

You are not marketing your shows! You think you are because you post a few things on social media, maybe spend money on print ads in your local newspaper and badger the cast to sell more tickets but, from experience, I can almost guarantee that YOU ARE NOT MARKETING AND THAT FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT YOUR SHOW/COMPANY EXISTS.

The mistake people make is thinking that the world is no bigger than their own – “I think this way therefore everyone else does. I know the show is on, I’ve posted on facebook so everyone else knows what I know.”

FALSE. WRONG. NO. NO. NO!

Marketing 101 – Do not market to yourself! And, I’m sorry, but that is exactly what you are doing. Please, please, for the love of all the gaff tape you have used in your career, stop making decisions based on these assumptions.

Improve your marketing first. You haven’t even scratched the surface of ticket sales yet, I guarantee it. It doesn’t matter what the show is. I’ve sold thousands of seats to Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hammerstein through to contemporary theatre simply with good, basic and inexpensive marketing techniques. Learn the basics, do the basics consistently. Everything else is a bonus but not necessarily sustainable.

DISCLAIMER: I still can’t sell crap! End of conversation.

Stepping back to what’s really important!

Our theatre communities are all different and extremely valuable, making up a smorgasbord of creativity that provides training and companionship, a place for our creativity to thrive and even explore the potential of making it a profession. Size does NOT matter. Bigger is not better. It’s simply different. Whether your season is a series of plays, musicals or cabaret, or whether you perform in a 90 seat hall or a 500 seat theatre, know that you are family to thousands of creatives who need to feel accepted, challenged and seen.

I do not want to be part of a local theatre community that is embarrassed about their amateur status, who feel the need to be better than everyone else or want to be considered ‘professional’, and fail to cultivate a culture of belonging, joy and humility.

I want to be part of something great, but that greatness comes from all of us working together to do our best, not from a company driving their cast and volunteers to be a product, simply for the purpose of selling tickets and satisfying individual egos.

Actors and creatives who have worked with me could tell you that I love the people I work with, I will challenge them and expect them to challenge themselves, I will protect them and I will fight for their joy in what they are doing, but I will never waste their time telling them what they want to hear, only what I believe will make them better – for their sakes.

I love you, community theatre. You are joy, family and passion.

Don’t forget who you are and what you are worth.

It’s everything.

Sher.

 

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Gaff Tape Fixes Everything and Other Advice for New Theatre Performers.

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Dear New Theatre Performer,

Welcome to the mad and wonderful world of community theatre. We’re glad you’re here to put your own mark on the stage. Your enthusiasm reminds us of our own beginnings –

  • the first time an audience laughed at our lines.
  • Sitzprobe with a 20 piece orchestra.
  • Nerves that made your body shake involuntarily as you waited in the wings for your very first entrance.
  • the euphoria you felt when the final curtain closed on opening night.
  • the fear you experience when you forget your lines on stage or part of your costume falls off or you choke during your big song or … wait a minute … what? Excuse me …

So many wonderful memories.

We’ve been here a long time, dear new friend, and have seen many actors come and go. Theatre can be tough. We will stand by you and encourage you to do what you never thought possible but there are some things we want you to know. Things that will carry you through many shows and will go with you well after you have walked through our stage door and into the big wide world.

Keep these things in your makeup box, your rehearsal bag, in your dance shoes. They have been tried and tested by many who have left their mark on many theatres and lives. Heed them well, dear New Theatre Performer for they will determine what sort of player you will be.

  1. You are here because someone else is not. Your position in this cast was hard-fought and you deserve it but never forget that many equally talented people missed out. Walk humbly and remember that pride always comes just before you fall on your face.
  2. We’re not your parents. We will love you like a brother/sister but we expect you to be responsible for your own performance. Learn your stuff and come to rehearsal prepared. Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be.
  3. You have two ears and one mouth. You’re new and your brain needs filling with all the good stuff. That’s not going to happen if you’re not listening to others that actually know stuff.
  4. You don’t know what you don’t know. Oh, the things that you’ll learn. Exciting things like gaff tape fixes anything; makeup isn’t just for girls; and you can change a complete set of clothes in 30 seconds.
  5. Manners are not dead! “Please” is worth more than silver and “thank you” is worth more than gold.
  6. It’s not about you – it’s about all of us together. We will walk on stage with you and cover your dropped lines, improvised blocking and forgotten choreography because we know you’re nervous. Know that we will always be there to share your bad days and celebrate your good but we expect the same from you. Here, in this theatre, we support each other as we step onto the stage and do what most of the population avoid – performing in front of hundreds of people. It takes guts, dear friend, but we do it because we know you are standing there to catch us if we fall. Don’t be an ass and only look out for yourself. Make sure your decisions reflect your understanding that we are all working together to create something greater than ourselves.
  7. The technical people in our production never get to take a bow for all their work. Respect them and never be rude to them. It’s also good to remember that they have the power to have you sing your solo line in the dark or trap you behind a piece of scenery (only joking).
  8. We will ruin your experience of singing Happy Birthday for every party you ever attend. No one can beat 45 people singing this song in 30 part harmony. That’s right! We’re a little competitive!

Dear New Theatre Performer, we want you to know that we’re a team and we look after each other. Mr and Ms Diva don’t really last long around us because we don’t take no crap. We will pick you up off the floor, boost you up the ladder, share your load, and any other team building cliché you can come up with.

Just know that we’re glad you’re here – and you’ve brought lollies.

Cheers, Sher.

An Idiot On Stage exists to equip and encourage community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary.

anidiotonstage.com.au

 

 

Why Won’t You Sell Me Tickets To Your Show?

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“I’m performing with XYZ Theatre Company. Come and support us and enjoy a great concert.”

Oh, the potential in those words. What could go wrong?

We’ve all received this call to action from a theatre friend and, like me, you probably make the effort to show your support. After all, the tickets won’t cost more than your weekly grocery budget. You click the link on the Facebook event invitation to ‘purchase now’ and the fun begins …

I ended up on a website that looked like it had been created as a child’s IT project. Side note – we’re in a creative industry, folks. It’s important that our websites are creative, attractive and functional as they’re your first impression on potential audiences. My first impression of this one said “you will drink much bad wine and enjoy a poorly rehearsed rendition of Memory from Cats.”

As I clicked through the small site, I eventually found a logo for the show and rang the mobile listed beside it. I was connected with ‘Mitch’ who didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I found an email address on the website and sent a request for information – I still haven’t had a response. Returning to the Facebook event, I sent a text to a different mobile contact.

24 hours later I received a phone call from someone asking me what I wanted. About now I was wondering why I was trying so hard to buy tickets to a show that had drastically gone down in my expectations and the only reason I could come up with was because my friend had asked me to. I was going to have serious words with said friend when next we saw each other.

I eventually got my ticket and quite enjoyed the concert – although I did have to sit through “Memory” from Cats.

Get this – PLEASE – the average person would have given up after seeing the website and definitely after finding that the listed mobile contact lead them to ‘Mitch’.

If your communication with potential audience is not simple and clear, you will lose ticket sales. Don’t make the mistake of believing that the public think like you, because I guarantee, you will always be wrong.

You can convince your family and maybe even some friends to buy tickets but the general public are selective about where they spend their money in this crowded theatre community. They don’t think about your show at all, they don’t really want to buy tickets and generally, theatre companies don’t do much to show them why they should other than constantly scream, “BUY TICKETS”.

One contact phone and email that is managed extremely well is all you need to improve this situation [and to save ‘Mitch’ from receiving calls from irate theatre goers]. Get a decent website which offers potential ticket buyers a clear and simple ticketing process and respond to their communications within 12 hours.

This, along with decent branding of your company [another post; another day] will help you make headway through the crowded waters of community theatre.

Cheers, Sher.

Read how to improve communications within your theatre company here.

An Idiot On Stage exists to equip and encourage community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary.

anidiotonstage.com.au