Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Patron Review (It’s a Good Thing)

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

(This is part 2 of a 3 part blog. Click here for Part 1)

We have a communication void in theater. This communication void is between artists and patrons.  It’s always been there, only now with the new world of blogs, social media, chat forums, etc, the silence has become deafening. It’s time for a paradigm shift in how the theater community as a whole interacts with our patrons.  In the old world, we might have a talk-back now and then, and ask our patrons to fill out marketing questionnaires.  We would measure our success in ticket sales (profit success), and in the number of good reviews and awards won (artistic success).  But, in the new world, we have to do more. We have to engage our audience.  We have to discuss why we chose/wrote the play, what we hope to accomplish, and what it means to us. Then, we need to invite our audience to tell us what they think. And we have to respond. And we have to do it publicly, on our websites, on chat forums, on facebook, etc.  Because in the new world, if we want theater to be relevant, then we must measure our success by the conversations we inspire.

We spend a lot of money in the arts trying to understand our patrons.  We research every demographic possible to find out how much money they make, what zip code they live in, what shows they like to see.  We hire companies to compile all this info and break it down for us so we can better market our shows. And it is true that this info is helpful when we market shows.  But it doesn’t really help us understand our patrons. What questionnaires don’t offer, is a forum for us to listen. 

In the theater community, we often like to think of ourselves as more than just “entertainment.”  We like to think we are making a difference in some capacity.  It’s why most of the people involved in the 99-seat theater scene aren’t paid, or are only paid very little.  “We sacrifice our income for our art” is a common refrain heard in dressing rooms around town.  For more proof, you don’t have to look much farther than the mission statements of most of our theater companies. Often, they go something like this: “Our mission is to begin a dialogue with our community by contributing a vital voice on the relevant topics of today.” If we are to stay true to our stated missions, we should be measuring our effectiveness not by box office receipts and awards, but based on our mission.  If our mission is to begin a dialogue, create social change, or raise awareness of whatever issues our particular show is dealing with, then shouldn’t we be talking and more importantly listening to our patrons? After all, they sit through an entire show listening to us.

This new world of internet communication and social media will soon render the old communication models outmoded.  In the old world, communication processes occurred one-way: from theater creators to the patron.  But things have changed. Communication is now, across almost all industries, a two-way street: from theater creators to patrons, then from patrons back to theater creators.

Sadly, I think many people involved in creating theater in Los Angeles don’t yet understand this.  All too often around Los Angeles you can hear the theater community lament the rise of the “Uneducated Los Angeles Theater Patron.” And more often than not, our creative community shuns patron feedback and patron reviews on sites like Goldstar or Theater Mania.  This type of response is short-sighted and detrimental.

People want to be able to take part in something.  They want to be in the know.  If people are talking about a specific film or television show, then they will go see it.  They want to have discussions.  Our job is to not only encourage these discussions, but to start them and take part in them. We can do this by encouraging our audiences to talk to us publicly on our websites, in theater forums, on facebook, and best of all start blogs.  We can find creative new ways to open up these discussions online. We need our patrons to tell us what they think, what we are doing right, and– yes– what we are doing wrong. 

Most importantly, once we’ve invited our patrons to talk to us, we have to respond.  We have to explain our choices, educate our audiences and allow them to educate us.

It’s no longer enough to “let art speak for itself.” It’s time for art to listen, and respond.

(Click here to go back to part 1) or (Click here to go to part 3)

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