We Love Our Shows, And It Shows

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about American Theatre’s reporting in May on a Wallace Foundation supported audience building effort at Opera Theatre St. Louis.  American Theatre just published another piece about a different Wallace Foundation supported effort at Portland Center Stage (PCS).

As I wrote in my earlier post, one of the things I value about these Wallace case studies is that they discuss all the unexpected outcomes, both successes and failures.

Among the insights that caught my attention was PCS’s realization that in order to achieve their goal of diversifying their audience, they should target by age rather than some definition of diversity. .

“But it became clearer and clearer to me that we should target age.” At the time, in 2013, Portland had seen a huge influx of transplants between the ages of 25 and 45, and this population was now the most diverse age group in the city. Targeting them, Fuhrman reasoned, was a way to kill two birds with one stone, “tapping the most diverse population of the city while focusing on the age group.”

Most of the efforts discussed in the article are those focused on connecting with this age group. In surveying 25-45 year old current and lapsed audience members as well as non-attendees whom they identified as being inclined to attend, they collected some good information about where and how to advertise shows.

They also made an effort to provide all sorts of pre- and post-show events in an effort to enhance attendee experience in every possible way. Managing Director Cynthia Fuhrman says, “The theory was that the value add would deepen people’s commitment to return.”

However, they ended up discovering that less is more.

But interestingly, feedback from the focus groups actually led PCS to reduce the number of engagement programs in the grant’s second year. “We thought we had to do something every night,” says Furhman, which proved “exhausting on staff. But when we pulled back on programming, the numbers actually went up. It was deeper engagement. Quality of the program was more important than quantity.”

Another discovery they made that ran counter to their expectations was that people didn’t necessarily want to see stories set in the Northwest or written by playwrights in the region, despite the fact these were the best attended shows.

Interestingly, market research from the Wallace Foundation grant found that audiences in Portland were in fact not inherently more interested in plays set in the Northwest or written by Northwest playwrights, despite the fact they brought in larger audiences. Results like this, that disconfirm expectations, call for critical analysis. PCS hypothesized that perhaps the greater turnout had to do with better marketing, which might reflect their own internal investment in these shows more than audiences’ enthusiasm, but there is as yet no solid conclusion about why they outperformed.

Personally, I would credit internal investment in an event as being a stronger factor in the success of shows than we imagine it is. Which is not to say that shows we really adore won’t be flops. The subject matter may not resonate with the community at large or we may speak of the event in terms that aren’t relevant to people outside our profession.

On the other hand, I am sure we can all identify events that suffered due to our lack of enthusiasm or succeeded despite our worst efforts. Love isn’t the only ingredient in the success of a show, but advocacy sounds a lot more organic when there is authentic enthusiasm behind it.

The fate of PCS’s loyalty program provides something of a lesson about making sure technology will be compatible before investing a lot of time and money into development and implementation.

PCS hired a web developer to create an online loyalty portal which would allow members to earn rewards by attending shows and interacting with PCS online. But, while its launch attracted 3,500 sign-ups, PCS recently put the portal on hiatus, as the program did not integrate with the ticketing platform Tessitura. Because the loyalty app and the database couldn’t talk to each other, it became unwieldy for audience members to use and staff to manage. Fuhrman and the portal developers still hope that integration might be possible in the future.

As I have written before, I really appreciate the fact that the Wallace Foundation provided grantees with the funding and permission to try things out and make mistakes that provide valuable insights to both the grantees and the rest of the arts and culture community.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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