How to get people out to the theatre…

Unfortunately I have no magic answers, but getting bums in seats is certainly a challenge.

Grinder’s Grumblings has a piece about just that.  Since Grinder is talking about theatre in Canada in general (but mostly outside of Toronto – with a focus on smaller and community theatres) it can be an even more difficult challenge.  Although, that said, when I used to work with Guelph Little Theatre we often had bums in seats, and the theatre operated in the black with no gov’t funding at all, so, there is also something to be said for being the only game in town. 

Anyway, I like a lot of what Grinder says.  All too often, with smaller productions (not things from established houses like Tarragon or Factory etc) it seems like the philosophy is ‘if you build it, they will come.’  Unfortunately this is, as you know, a flawed philosophy in this day and age.  So, I’m going to ramble about this for a bit, and then give folks some of my tips on marketing their shows…

All too often I’ve seen a great production be lost in obscurity because the producer (who is often the director too) doesn’t have the time to do any kind of publicity, and of course, there isn’t enough money to hire a publicist.  They prioritise making the show as amazing as possible something that is completely understandable, but if no one knows about the show, it kind of doesn’t matter how good it is.  So, the publicity often consists of some posters up around town, and, these days, an event invitation on Facebook.

In fact, I couldn’t tell you the number of smaller companies who don’t have a website.  In this day and age, a website is paramount, so many people get their information from the web these days, give them a place to go.

I remember having a conversation with a publicist once who was frustrated because she was trying to do publicity for someone.  She said to me with exasperation that it seemed like if a show wasn’t an equity show no reviewers could be bothered to come.  This was a unique situation, because she was a good publicist and was really pushing for people to come and had all the things she needed, but unfortunately she was effected by people’s previous experience with tiny productions.

I can’t speak for others, but for me, honestly, non-equity shows are actually kind of a priority for me.  You know, it’s the whole ‘root for the underdog’ kind of thing.  BUT…  all too often it is like pulling teeth to get enough information to review a non-equity show.  You often have to chase down the director/producer, then repeatedly ask for information.  Then, once you go to the show, they often don’t have production photos available to go with an article, in fact, I have, in the past, had to stay after a show and take my own production shots – bad for two reasons:  1) By the end of a show you just want to get home, because, well, you’re going to have to be up writing an article and you’re tired, so you want to get to it ASAP.  2)  I’m not a particularly *good* photographer, and so the pictures aren’t as good as they could be.

When you contrast this with the number of requests a reviewer gets in a day to see a show, so, tickets and press kits offered up front, all the details taken care of.  Production shots available, and someone there to answer questions right away – it’s not hard to see why a reviewer is more likely to go to a more established (and likely equity) company’s production given the hectic schedules everyone has these days.


Things to think about to get someone to come to your show…

The timing of your production is another thing to take into consideration.  In the example I mentioned above, the frustrated publicist example, the other unfortunate thing was the timing of the production.  It’s important to do some research before you decide when to mount a production.  In this case, in a three week production the first week was in competition with a large theatre festival, then the second week most people were kind of recovering from the festival, and the final week was during the biggest vacation week in North America.  All of those things have an effect.  So, take the time to check what you’re conflicting with.


Venue is important to, people are more likely to go to something that is easily accessible.  That said, there are a lot of factors playing into the venue game.  The biggest is cost.  So, you basically go with what you can afford, but you have to remember that if it’s an out of the way theatre you’re going to have to advertise that much more.


All companies or shows should have a website, without exception.  I have heard the argument of no money to host, no one who knows HTML, no one who can design the site and so on.  My response, inevitably, is that it doesn’t need to be fancy.  Get a blog from something like blogger, they’ll host it for you for free, there are templates, you just need a home to put down information.


Free listings
Don’t forget all the free and easy ways to advertise.  List your play with listing services like and NOW theatre listings, and EYE theatre listings, and blogTO’s event listings, and the City of Toronto events calendar, not to mention the website.  I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that are on the top of my head right now.  And remember, make yourself a website of some kind – DO NOT just link to your facebook page.  Contrary to popular belief, not EVERYONE has a facebook account, and, some people might want to look at these things while they’re at work, where it’s very possible that facebook is blocked.


Make it easy for reviewers to cover your show
When it comes to getting someone to come review and write-up your show, you have a lot of competition, so you’re gonna have to make it easy (and appealing) for them to come to the show.  Things like:

– Pull together a good press kit, give it to them, but also make sure it’s available online for easy copying and pasting while writing things like the details section of a review (make sure you include all the logistical information – dates, showtimes, ticket costs, whether or not there is a PWYC performance, running time, and venue with address)
– Take some production shots and host them online somewhere
– Be proactive in contacting the reviewers, get yourself on their radar and offer them two tickets to the show on a night of their choosing
– If you can’t get people for opening night, don’t think that’s the only chance to have a reviewer come
– If you have rush seating (which, likely you will if it’s a small production) reserve some good seats for your reviewer – aisle seats are usually best, because reviewers like to make a quick break for it as soon as a show ends because they have some writing ahead of them before they can sleep.


When in doubt, as for help

You’d be surprised how many people there are out there who are more than happy to help you and give you guidance.  I have been approached by people who are about to publicise a show and asked for my advice on how to go about it, and I am happy to help.  Remember, we’re all in this industry because we love theatre and we want it to be as successful as possible, so we’re happy to work *with* each other, not against each other.  Yes, everyone’s time is tight, but if you keep it short, like, ‘hey, can I buy you a coffee and pick your brains for 15 minutes’ then you’re likely to get a good response. 


Something I forgot to include initially

When you’re putting out your posters and flyers and postcards, make sure that they go to all the theatres in town.  While people are waiting to go into a show they will often pick up the various flyers on the tables to pass the time.