Theatre ‘on demand’

Over the last few months, with six shows on tour to a range of venues across the south east, we have been seeing a growing trend of late booking amongst audiences.  I would like to explore what that means about audience, and in turn what that could mean for venues, companies, and the industry as a whole.  How could we adapt to be more like our audiences?

In venues where last year’s pre-sales in the week before the show were 60-70% of final numbers, those are now going down to more like 20-30%.  In the most extreme example, only one ticket had been sold by Tuesday the week of the show, but on Saturday night there were over 100 people in the audience.  This means that companies and venues managers have to hold their nerve, to sit tight and convince themselves not to worry, that the audiences will show up on the night.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, at our most recent venue network day we heard from venue programmers that they look to programme shows 12-18 months in advance, and from companies that they are booking tours 6-8 months ahead.   In other words, when they woke up this morning, venue programmers were planning for spring and even autumn 2016, companies were booking for autumn 2015, and audiences haven’t decided yet what they’re doing this week.

What is causing them to book so much later?  It seems to me that audiences no longer actively go pick up their local venue brochure at the start of a season, choose the shows they want to attend, consult their diaries, and book their tickets weeks or even months in advance.  Instead, audiences are more passive, waiting for something to catch their attention in the same way that not many people go online looking for cute cat videos, but rather just click on and share the link that someone else shared with them.

This is old news to many other industries- unless it’s the opening of the new Star Wars movie, audiences aren’t likely to book cinema tickets in advance, and no one books a table before going to their local pub, curry house or coffee shop.  Advance planning is motivated by scarcity rather than just being the norm, and while comedy or festival tickets may sell out within hours, contemporary theatre performances in regional venues probably won’t.  Even our favourite TV shows no longer feature as part of our planned schedule, as they are mostly available through on demand services.  So why not just wait to see what the weather is like, what your friends are doing, what Twitter is saying, and then decide on the night?

What does this ‘on demand’ attitude towards theatre mean for venues and companies?  Do venues really need to programme over a year in advance? Of course I’m not suggesting that programmers and companies should stop planning ahead altogether.   Companies have to book accommodation, hire vans and actors, and secure elusive tour funding; venues must plan and deliver long marketing campaigns and both strive to create appealing print in the form of brochure, poster and flyer.  But if venues book something that is hot and trending now, there is a chance it may not be as interesting or topical in a year’s time, and this ‘futures market’ of theatre no longer seems necessary.  If audiences don’t need to plan ahead, do venues and companies?

Perhaps we need to start thinking a bit more like our audiences, acting in the moment.  Imagine if a venue programmer attended a show on Thursday, booked on Friday, and a few weeks later the show was performed in their venue.   Reviews would be current, Twitter buzz would be fresh, and word of mouth could generate more audiences than months of advance notice.  Brochures and flyers may become a thing of the past, and what will replace them?  Some venues are trialling creating trailers for their theatre seasons, posting them on their website or showing them before films or live screened theatre, and are seeing increased ticket sales in the 20min after the audience comes out.  Others are testing announcing each show as it goes on sale, rather than a whole season at once.   E-newsletters are not only cheaper than brochure mail-outs, they also allow audiences to be reminded just before events, and to click straight through to the box office.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry about having images and copy for flyers and brochures months in advance, if audiences aren’t even starting to book until a few weeks before the show and many are simply walking up to the venue.  Venues and companies could be focusing energies on visibility so that potential audiences, whether they’re walking through town or browsing online, know what’s going on tonight and tomorrow.   Sending company members out into the town the afternoon of the show in costume and carrying flyers, a big banner over the venue and a Twitter takeover in the last 48 hours could be more effective at motivating these ‘on-demand’ audiences than a carefully planned 10-week campaign.

It can be scary to see these low audience numbers in the weeks leading up to a show, and tempting to view them as a sign of failure, proof that theatre just doesn’t attract the big crowds.  But maybe the reason is because we’re stuck in a system based on traditional, venue-loyal, season bookers who simply don’t exist anymore, and instead of expecting our spontaneous ‘on-demand’ audiences to conform, maybe we as an industry are the ones who need to be more adaptable and explore new ways of responding to that demand.