I often find myself annoyed when I try to get friends to go see a new play I have heard good things about, but they seem uninterested. The first thing they ask is, "What is it about?" The second question, "How much is it?"
Most theatres make tackling the first question extremely challenging with lackluster descriptions on their website that completely fail to intrigue. When choosing to go to a movie, Hollywood stars, favorite directors and flashy trailers all play into your decision, but first time theatre goers have much less to base their decision off of. And then, if I successfully convince friends that it should be a good show based on my own familiarity with the local actors, writers and directors, I have only won half the battle.
Have you ever asked a young professional to take a risk for over $20 on something they are not sure they will like? Forget about it.
That's where building the experience comes into play. Having worked in marketing at IndyFringe, my job wasn't to convince people to go to each individual show. I had to make a case for why taking a risk to go to the theatre would make a great night out; not just for the show but for dinner and drinks on Mass Ave before and after. (With a $10 ticket price this was a little easier.)
Other theatres are getting better at this. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has made Time For Three stars by throwing a Happy Hour party with food and drinks that incentivizes getting people in the door. It's the talent on display, though, that brings the audience back - not the long lines for sliders.
This past season, I have had two friends that have become regulars at Dance Kaleidoscope. Give them a choice of nights and they will always chose Opening Night because they know following the performance, there is a free reception with champagne and snacks and maybe a chance to talk to a dancer or two. Now they aren't outsiders going to see a show out of their comfort zone, they are sharing the experience with others, discussing and really feeling part of a club.
The first time I saw NoExit perform at the Big Car Service Center, I wasn't thrilled at the idea of traveling to the west side, having been spoiled by living downtown near most theatres. But after one trip, I fell in love with the excuse not to just see a show but to explore the many ethnic restaurants in the area I otherwise had put off.
That was an experience that I came to on my own. But I would love to see theatres be more intentional in how they market their shows and rather than just pushing a show, I hope they will create an experience around it. Once you build a good experience, you are giving people reason to return beyond convincing them of the merits of each individual show. Basically, give people an instagram-worthy night to remember.