Stage Whispers | Theatre

How to woo a theatre audience

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

If you want to attract and keep audiences, engage and be engaging

I’d like to think I know a little something about the struggles of cultivating an audience for theatre. Whether it is for a certain kind of content, which we have been doing for the past 20 years, or for a new venue on its journey from anonymity to becoming a cultural hub. A few years ago, I ventured into the world of curation, to try to develop a performance space, and while I was moderately successful, it made me realise how difficult it is to develop an audience and then maintain it.

Reaching out to a potential audience, diversifying the current audience mix, converting people who are inclined to attend, but don’t, into attendees, getting current audience members to attend more often; these are difficult but important challenges. In the last month, we have performed at two very distinct outstation venues. One was celebrating its ninth anniversary, but has generally struggled to get a steady flow of viewers. Despite being a lovely venue, one can attribute this to geography and location, or perhaps the lack of aggressive outreach. The other venue was brand new, well located and backed by decent marketing. However, it is in a city whose people aren’t used to regular theatre. But we discovered that they were fascinated with stand-up comedy, so we baited them with that. Once they showed up and learned of the existence of a fun and attractive venue, with the added advantage of a great restaurant attached, perhaps they will show up again. One can hope.

Millennial code

Something that does seem to be working, though, is cracking the millennial code. Creating and retaining younger audiences is critical for the future of the art form. Q Theatre Productions saw this back in 1999 when it came up with Thespo, the country’s first large-scale youth theatre festival. Participants had to be under 25, and hence, so was a lot of the audience. Theatres have taken this one step further with popular seasons for children — like Summertime at Prithvi, Summer Fiesta at NCPA and AHA at Ranga Shankara.

I remember the demographics of our audience began to change quite interestingly when we started working with younger actors and writers. Experimental venues have flourished with fresher content and again, the advent of stand-up comedy. Another thing that seems to work well, and this is supported by research here and abroad, is food and beverages. Younger audiences want to socialise before and after a show, so an attached café or bar really helps. It could seem sacrilegious to be moving away from “content is king” to creating “a wholesome experience”, but it really isn’t, primarily because it works.

Building trust

Constant engagement with audiences is critical. Regularity really helped us create a loyal audience at a co-operative venue in Delhi. But the establishment and the performing group need to be on the same page, which is rare, and they both need to be unafraid to take a risk. There comes a point where we as creators or curators need to step off our high horses and ask, “What does the audience want?” The audience should not be a problem that needs to be solved. The key is building a relationship. Yes, it is a relationship that is often fraught with difficulties, suspicion and a lack of trust. But trust has to be gained. I read an article about how British playwright Howard Barker didn’t care if the audience listened or not, or even if they understood. If they didn’t, it wasn’t for them. On the other hand, David Mamet has reportedly said that the audience is the only judge that matters. “If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats it is not suspenseful.”

Maybe we can take Mamet’s idea further. If, despite all the marketing, social and otherwise, audiences don’t turn up, could it be that they are simply not interested in what we are doing? Or merely that there is something more interesting on Amazon Prime? Nobody has the right to an audience; they have to be wooed, looked after and cherished. So perhaps we can wine and dine them. And perhaps we can loosen up and make whatever point we want to in an entertaining manner. And all this can be done without compromising on the quality of content.

The writer, a theatre producer and director, is often broke. To cope, he writes and directs films and web series and occasionally acts, albeit reluctantly.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 5:37:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/how-to-woo-a-theatre-audience/article30760273.ece

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