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Is “Audience Development” Bunkum?

July 23, 2014

After reading a blog article on “Whatsonstage.com” http://bit.ly/1sPrIzy  from someone who makes a living studying it, I’m rapidly heading to that conclusion. The author basically concluded that subsided theatres get 46% of audiences who are very regular theatregoers. Commercial theatres around 13% – their audiences go once or twice at year, compared to 6 or more in the subsidised sector. Conclusion: everybody needs to “reach out” more, of course.

It’s an old idea, and now I’ve thought about it, I’ve finally seen the flaw.

At the end of my street, some wasteland has been turned into a football ground – using my council tax money, i.e. “public subsidy.”

I got a leaflet inviting me along to a “fun day” and to see a match.

Did I go? Of course not.

Why? I can’t think of anything (except if a close relative were playing) that would get me to watch a football match. Very cheap or even free tickets? Post-match talk? Celebrity on the pitch? A specially arranged game for newcomers? Nope.

As you’ve worked out, exchange “football” for “theatre” in the above, and it boils down to the same thing.

If someone isn’t interested in something, they are never going to go any further.

In other words, why bother developing audiences?

30 years ago, I was told that theatre audiences were white-skinned, grey haired and middle class.  They were. They still are… but it is a different lot of white-skinned, grey haired and middle class people. Those I’d first gone to the theatre with are now of course in that great auditorium in the sky.

Point is, people are still going if they want to go, and I’d argue it’s better to spend money on making them comfortable than trying to catch the interest of the disinterested.

Put another way, as the Lloyd Webber TV casting shows of 2006 onwards proved, and as Michael McIntyre and every other arena-filler confirm: if anyone wants to see something live, they’ll go. It’s OK. You just have to put something on that people want to see.

For the rest, those who are already reached, I’d say it’s far better not to put them off the purchase in the first place. Booking fees, dynamic pricing making a “last moment” decision too expensive to contemplate, expensive parking and drinks etc, etc, that alienate your regulars… those are the areas to think about if you want to generate audiences. Tidy the garden first, before you buy the field next door, to me, is the answer.

4 Comments
  1. Clive permalink
    July 25, 2014 8:06 pm

    I take your point and as a regular theatregoer I’m all in favour of increasing comfort and doing something about ridiculous booking fees etc.

    I’m also sure that you are correct in the vast majority of cases, however there are exceptions.At my local theatre (Theatre Royal Stratford East) audiences are definitely not predominantly white-skinned, grey haired and middle class .Reaching out to the community can work with intelligent scheduling and other devices. Having a bar which serves good food, is accessible to non ticket holders and has free entertainment nightly undoubtedly helps get people used to coming into the building and creates awareness of the non-stuffy atmosphere etc.

    • Steve Rich permalink
      July 26, 2014 8:01 am

      That’s really interesting, Clive.

      Funny enough, I was at a matinee of “Fings” recently, and sadly my stereotype held true for that… I later checked, and was told that it was typical for that show but not for the venue as a whole. I had that in mind with my “if the audience likes what’s on offer, they’ll come” comment, I think.

      Good point about getting people used to the building through other services, even if mostly those are there to generate cash and nothing much else LOL.

      Thanks 🙂

      • Clive permalink
        July 27, 2014 3:28 pm

        I didn’t see “Fings”, the last thing I saw there was “Kingston 14” and I (who does fit your stereotype) was definitely not typical!

        I think your “if the audience likes what’s on offer, they’ll come” comment is pretty much on the nail. However I do think sometimes more work is necessary if you want to attract those who normally wouldn’t think of going to the theatre. A lot of the events at TRSE are free (although if they generate cash at the bar good luck to them) and along with the popular yearly pantomime etc. I think they promote awareness of their main programme.

      • Steve Rich permalink
        July 28, 2014 2:53 pm

        Is it good or bad to be a stereotype?! LOL.

        Very true that you need to work to attract new people. What I find sad is when they do that at the expense of the regulars, then wonder why the regulars drift off and the newbies don’t stay…

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