Related News

Home » Feature

Selling 'early bard' stage tickets

THE recession has forced North American theater companies to take stock of their summer programs and develop strategies to sell tickets all year.

At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, there's an "Early Bard" special to entice theatergoers into buying tickets in advance - the further in the future, the bigger the discount.

At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, set and lighting designers are doing more with less, learning to make the most of minimalism, whether it's for a Pinter play, "Shirley Valentine" or "Hamlet."

And at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, the menu of musicals is deliberately familiar, shows featuring songs the audiences can sing before they enter the quaint Victorian playhouse.

From major theaters such as Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival to small companies such as the Barnstormers Theatre in bucolic Tamworth, New Hampshire, uncertain economic times have forced theaters across North America not only to re-examine what they are putting on stage this summer - and beyond - but how to sell these plays and musicals as well.

At the 2009 conference of Theatre Communications Group, the national association for nonprofit professional theaters, the mood was upbeat, according to Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director. The conference was held in early June in Baltimore, Maryland.

"But nobody knows what will happen from month to month," Eyring says. "I would describe theaters as 'optimistic,' but with clear eyes about the realities of the situation."

For one thing, audience ticket-purchasing habits have changed with the recession.

"We are finding that people are waiting to make their decisions," says Antoni Cimolino, Stratford's general director. "People are buying later. It's really created an uncertainty in advance, although theatergoers have started to buy now at Stratford, particularly for our 'Importance of Being Earnest' and 'West Side Story.'"

Still, it's forced some theaters to put more money into marketing and advertising to reach potentially wavering audience members.

"I think the theaters that are primarily destination theaters ... are going to be facing the challenge of people cutting their travel budgets this year and possibly not making the trip," says Eyring.

"On the other hand, some companies ... are seeing people who might have made much longer, international trips, traveling more locally," Eyring adds.

At Canada's Shaw Festival, located in picture-perfect Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the theater is trying to capitalize on people - both Canadians and Americans - forgoing European vacations and staying closer to home. It has created getaway theater packages with 12 different partners in the Niagara region.

"We are in the heart of the Niagara wine country," says Valerie Taylor, Shaw's director of marketing. With one winery - the Hillebrand Winery - the theater has created a "go-local" dining package that celebrates wine and food grown in the region and includes, of course, theater tickets. Taylor calls it "one-stop shopping."

That shopping also includes the search for value, and more theaters than ever are offering discount tickets.

"You name it, we probably have got a discount for it," says Tina Packer, founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, which is located in Massachusetts' Berkshires. Among the theater's many special offers: a 40 percent discount for Berkshire County residents (except for Friday and Saturday evenings), a discount for those over 64 or under 19, a day-of-performance youth rush, a discount for purchase of the five-play Shakespeare package and free tickets for up to three children (ages 5-18) if a parent purchases a full-price matinee ticket.

In New Hampshire, the Barnstormers, according to artistic director Bob Shea, has an affectionate hold on audiences who come every year to this most traditional of summer theaters. Founded in 1931 by President Grover Cleveland's son, Francis, the theater presents eight plays in eight weeks, each one opening on a Tuesday and closing the following Saturday. This year, the season runs Tuesday through August 29.

Yet the Barnstormers, too, hasn't been immune to the national economic downturn.

"We're really kind of cautious this season," Shea explains, mindful, he says, of the fact that the area is very rural "and a lot of families are struggling to make ends meet."

Older musicals

He's instituted a special offer, a Friday night discount for families, that cuts the top ticket price in half - to US$14.50 for orchestra tickets and US$9.50 in the balcony of the 282-seat theater.

Shea has also been cautious with his programming, scheduling only one big musical, "Brigadoon," which will open the season this week. It has a cast of 28 and a five-piece orchestra. The rest of the season will feature such smaller-cast shows as "Private Lives," "Dinner With Friends" and "The Weir."

Savvy programming has helped the Goodspeed Opera House, the Connecticut River Valley theater that specializes in musicals, increase ticket sales this year. Its season's three big shows - "42nd Street," "Camelot" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" - were deliberately chosen because they are well-known.

The first, "42nd Street" received strong reviews and has become a hot ticket, says Michael P. Price, executive director of Goodspeed Musicals.

"While we are doing our usual thing of tinkering with the older musicals, the titles themselves are familiar," Price says. "When you are looking at 25 dancing actors in a 400-seat theater (as in '42nd Street'), you are delivering a lot of value. And I think that's what people are responding to.

"We have been very skillful in marketing and pricing, too," he says. "We used to offer a senior citizen discount. If you click on our Website on 'senior citizen discount,' it takes you to the Super Saver offering all three shows at a discount. We are selling well into the season this way. And it will cut down on our advertising and marketing costs."

Yet at other theaters, falling ticket sales and the drying up of corporate and private donations have taken their toll, with some theaters slicing their budgets dramatically, according to Eyring.

For example, the Utah Shakespeare Festival cut its fiscal 2009 budget by US$800,000, from US$6.7 million in 2008 to US$5.9 million this year.

The drop was not without pain, says R. Scott Phillips, who runs the Utah festival located in Cedar City. Three full-time staffers were laid off. The seasonal company, which includes actors, dancers, electricians, carpenters and more, was reduced by 55. And the remaining full-time staff took a 2 percent pay cut.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend