The words “new play” or, even more so, “new musical” tend to strike excitement in the hearts of artistic directors, terror in the hearts of managing directors, buzzworthy glee in the hearts of funders, and, unfortunately, hesitancy in the hearts of audiences.
This is not a universal truth, but I think those of us who have tried to present new or unknown works know that it is an entirely different animal than producing something audiences have an instant recognition of. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It means the marketing strategy requires getting in and getting your hands dirty in ways that might be uncharted for your organization, particularly if you don’t have a subscriber base.
I run a professional theatre in Madison, Wisconsin focused on new and lesser-known musicals. My master’s thesis was focused on a question that had plagued me since starting the company at age 23: “How do you convince audiences to attend pieces they’ve never heard of?” (I’ve spent too many years having coronaries over our ticket numbers and doing 2 a.m. “panic math.”) The existing research was fairly scarce, so I did a survey of about 150 theatergoers nationwide. Parts of my research were published in HowlRound and through the Culture Lab Research Library, for which I had the pleasure of creating a collection in association with Wolf Brown and Drexel University. In 2018, my theatre sold 88% of our tickets for a season that consisted of a workshop of a new musical called Hephaestus, the Wisconsin premiere of Little Miss Sunshine, and a curated revue of musical theatre songs about women that were not about looking for love called Beyond the Ingenue. Slowly but surely, the things I’m learning are working.
I also got to speak on this topic at the 2017 National Arts Marketing Project conference in Memphis, alongside three other very smart marketers from around the country. The session was standing room only, and it gave me hope. “Other people have the same struggles!” It also scared me to death, for the last thing I have is all the answers. There are so many facets to producing a piece that is new or rarely performed, particularly to an audience that is conditioned to seeing the same popular titles over and over. In this post, I’m happy to give you the overarching theme that helped me to understand how to get audiences on board.
The key word is familiarity. That may seem completely counterintuitive to what we’re talking about, but it’s not. Your piece might not be familiar, but that doesn’t mean the subject matter is also unheard of. This is where you can begin when building your marketing campaign for a lesser-known piece. It also might seem obvious, but all too often I see the same marketing strategies applied to new works as to well-known ones, with boards and staff often blaming the resulting low ticket numbers on the fact that “new works just don’t sell.”
All works of art are about connection. So, what is contained in the piece that audience members can see themselves connecting to? Love? Relevant issues? Familial troubles? Race? A historical event? A burning question? A mystery to solve? A certain musical or visual influence? The list goes on and on, and I guarantee you every piece has an element you can pull out and use in your marketing to pique theatergoer interest. Some are going to be far more difficult than others, which is why I always maintain that whoever is doing your marketing should be part of selecting your season.
I am in no way suggesting that your work not be adventurous, daring, even shocking. Innovation is essential, but without audiences, we lose our ability to innovate in the long term. What I am saying is, when you reach out to your audience, what will you tell them that will strike a chord of familiarity and make them want to learn more? The more obscure the piece, the deeper you may have to dig. But you have to find it.
This, of course, doesn’t solve the whole problem. Next are the issues of providing thorough information, opportunities for education and engagement, and previewing the piece in a variety of ways. Because whatever familiarity there is in the subject matter, you have another hill to climb in convincing people to make the financial, emotional, and time commitment to turn off Netflix and come to the theatre. The Wallace Foundation did a lengthy study with Ballet Austin on the topic of gaining audiences for unfamiliar works, and the results indicated this very thing: Familiarity is the first step, but a multi-faceted marketing plan that builds trust and helps the audience to feel their investment is worthwhile, is an important part of building an audience for new works.
There is no magical equation, and there is much more to learn when it comes to this topic. But I have always felt the key for building audiences for new works is to utilize the same innovation we put into our art when we develop our marketing plans. After all, we’re all artists at heart.
Read more about this and other marketing topics on my blog, Arts Marketing Matters.