Hitting your numbers

by Jini Stolk

I understand why the theatre community is feeling such a strong undercurrent of anxiety about audiences. After all, the New York Times recently ran an alarming piece on the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2012 public participation survey. Arts participation across the board dropped from 2008, but the most precipitous decline was in attendance at musicals and plays. Go figure. Live theatre audiences had, up ’til now, been consistently solid.

As the U.S. goes, so goes Canada? Our most recent nation-wide numbers aren’t in yet, but TAPA’s 2012 statistical survey reported stable single ticket sales for 2009/10 and a steady increase in the number of people buying subscriptions. If these numbers are shown to have tanked since then (and I do hope that CADAC is planning to release annual reports on these and other data collected from grant applications to the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council, and others), let’s talk strategy.

First of all, I go back to this post by Adam Thurman of Mission Paradox. He challenges us to be specific: exactly how many tickets do you need to sell to how many people? Is your work touching enough people to make selling that number possible? If not, how can you expand your reach?

This advice is solid and calming. When we were selling tickets to the Creative Trust Gala – a major fundraiser for an organization that barely existed and had no track record of donation or attendance – I found myself getting agitated whenever I read that such and such a celebrity had attended such and such a gala. Why weren’t they coming to our gala?

It was only when I fully realized that we had 1,100 tickets to sell that I understood the task: to sell 1,100 tickets to the 1,100 people who were willing to buy them – because the show was going to be great, or they loved one or more of the performers, or they were connected to someone working on the show, or they knew one of our board members, or they believed in the cause and wanted to show support, or they were part of a company that hoped to benefit from our program, or they were my friend and didn’t want to disappoint me.

That made it so much easier. There were obvious tactics to reach all of the above, and we began to write, phone, email, and talk to them all. As anyone who remembers that night will attest, it was a great success and the theatre was full and happy.

Even the NEA survey offers hopeful tips. Shifting demographics, abundance of supply, a growing interest in participation rather than attendance, new electronic delivery methods, are all likely factors that should be triggering creative ideas and approaches. CAPACOA’s Value of Presenting Survey reveals that “bringing energy and vitality” is perceived by Canadians as the top benefit of having performing arts presented in one’s community. That in and of itself should stimulate a range of fascinating audience development initiatives!

And I’ll return to my perpetual theme: collaboration works. Hill Strategies Research Factors in Canadians’ Arts Attendance in 2010 reports that “cultural crossovers” are a huge factor in influencing attendance. In other words, people who attend one cultural activity are much more likely to attend others; this was also a strong theme in Creative Trust’s Audience Engagement Survey. There are specific predictors, with certain art forms aligning closely with another different form (i.e. art galleries with classical music and festivals; theatres with classical music and culturally specific or heritage performances.)

Really what this study is saying is that your audiences are not yours: you’re sharing them already and you might as well attract and engage them with your allies and friends in yours or other disciplines.

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