Monday, November 07, 2005

Lots of Numbers…and Reviews

posted by Damaso Rodriguez at 8:20 PM
(We’re going to get a little specific here in an effort to shed some light on what “a hit” means in a small theatre, at least at Furious Theatre, and some insight on how reviews, critics, and audiences affect the life of the theatre. Prepare for lots of numbers and no talk of art.)

The Extension
We just completed the 4th week in the run of The Fair Maid of the West. Our closing date was originally set for Saturday, November 12, but very gladly we have decided to extend our run for nearly a month to Saturday, December 10. That’s an additional 13 performances. This is really big news for us and a significant milestone in the company’s development. To put it in context, our first shows at the Armory Northwest (3 years ago) generally ran for a total of 13 performances. Our first show to ‘extend’ (Noise by Alex Jones) in July 2002 extended for a whopping 4 performances for a grand total of 17. If this show closes as currently scheduled, it will have had 37 public performances. Certainly, this is a low number when compared to Broadway, Off Broadway, West End and our major regional theatres, but in the world of “99-Seat"/"Waiver”/intimate/start-up/developing/small/new theatre in Los Angeles it’s indicative of a pretty successful run—some shows run longer, most run shorter. Regardless of how it compares to other theatres/shows/cities, it’s a big deal for us and now that we’ve produced 10 plays here in L.A. we realize it’s a rare enough thing.

Playing to Strangers
We’re experiencing a real treat these days at the theatre: playing to full houses of strangers. Strangers are very important. It means your marketing initiatives and word-of-mouth are working. It’s nice and too rare. This past Saturday and Sunday, The Balcony Theatre was sold out. The Sunday sell-out was shocking. “How did that happen? Sunday’s are usually half-empty,” was my response when I heard. Every seat was taken and unfortunately we had to turn some people away. Overall, our average capacity this Thursday-Sunday was slightly over 85%. We’ve never even approached this kind of audience response. Some context: 72 seats in the theatre. Only 288 seats are available in a given week. 248 were taken this weekend. Not huge numbers. Still, progress is the name of the game.

Was it the Play or the Marketing Budget?
Generally, we produce plays that are new to L.A. and most often few people ever know the plays or the writers. These are particularly hard to sell. Fair Maid is no exception. The difference is that we generally produce work that is politically charged and often what some people consider ‘offensive’ (based on the audience walk-outs and the condemning comments we occasionally receive). O.K. So this show has a ‘broader appeal’. Was it the pirates and sword fighting (pirates are ‘hot’ don’t ya know)? Fine, so we made life a little easier there, but does that mean that every ‘broad appeal’ show plays to full houses? It also got good reviews (more on that later), but the reviews haven’t been particularly better than other shows we’ve done. So: what was different? We spent some money on marketing. Lots of it-- about 10 times what we have in the past. 2 different posters/postcards, a mailing to 10,000 people, a sponsorship that allowed for ads to run before films at Laemmle’s movie theatres in Pasadena, search engine marketing, aggressive efforts to get groups booked for as many performances as possible were all new initiatives, and lots of meetings with our marketing-focused board members. After struggling for years to get audiences into our theatre (despite good reviews and an enthusiastic welcoming from L.A.’s theatre community), we decided to make some changes to how we approached a production. The biggest decision: if we can’t afford to spend the necessary money on marketing, then we can’t afford to do the show. This was a tough decision to make (it required fundraising and a bigger risk), but performing to an average house of 20-30 people (as many, many, many of our small and successful (!) local theatres do) is not acceptable. Our hard-working ensemble and the talented actors new to the company who are doing great work at our theatre deserve so much better. It’s all proving worth it. The energy at the theatre is high. Stress is low. The shows are more fun. The energy that a full house provides to the entire theatre experience is palpable. Audiences are more relaxed and therefore more responsive. Those in the house who are eager to be there ‘warm-up’ those that were dragged there by their friends or spouse. And, best of all, no audience member is there pitying the ‘poor actors’ up there playing to empty seats. The real test, of course, will come soon when we apply our new marketing budget and strategy to a show that’s a harder sell. And, we may be destined to play to a tiny house this weekend as I write this, but the trend still seems to be more full than empty.

The Reviews
First of all, we view reviews as a marketing tool. We have a policy at the theatre that we’ve stolen from other mentor theatres: No reviews are to be discussed backstage and within the walls of the theatre. It’s a serious policy—there’s a handout and everything. That means we don’t post reviews in our lobby, we don’t bring copies of reviews to hand out to the cast and crew, we certainly don’t congratulate each other on those ‘great quotes’ and we most certainly won’t change a performance because of something a critic might say. The idea here is that if we validate good reviews, then we MUST validate the bad ones, right? That doesn’t mean that reviews and theatre criticism aren’t valuable and important. Critics and theatre editors define a theatre scene. They can promote it and actually make it better. In most cases reviews (and critics) are actually key to the success of a production or a theatre company (ourselves certainly included). I love reading reviews (of shows I’m not involved in)! It’s just unhealthy and completely unproductive for us to seriously engage in their content when we are so closely attached to a project. Defenses must be up—how could you walk out on stage after reading a review dismissing your performance if you believed it? It’s best to detach oneself. The audience will tell you what you need to know.

Some actors and theatre artists don’t read ANY reviews, good or bad. It’s the best way to go, I’m sure. However, the actor-producer (or director or designer or writer-producer) will find themselves repeatedly hitting ‘refresh’ on their computer around the time the local newspaper websites publish their reviews online. It’s a tense time awaiting the fate of your production—will this be a struggle to overcome the bad or indifferent reviews, or will we get those valued ‘quotes’ that we can put on our posters, postcards and email blasts?? More important, really, than what the reviews actually say is whether or not your production will receive the coveted “Choice”, “Pick” (and now the very cool “GO!”) that will keep your capsule review prominently placed in the newspaper listings after the initial review runs. Good or bad, Recommended or not, it’s a cathartic experience finally having the reviews out in the world. And, it’s extremely comforting walking into the theatre, knowing it’s a safe place where everyone pretends they don’t exist.

More on reviews later. Maybe.


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