Last year the Lampeter-Strasburg Thespian Society put on an amazing fall play. Everything was on point. Talented cast. Authentic period costumes. Professional quality set, lights, and sound.
There was one thing missing…an audience.
On opening night in an auditorium that sits 1,400 only 200 people showed up. It was disappointing.
I was disappointed.
It wasn’t from a lack of trying. They performed Arsenic & Old Lace. One of the top ten most popular high school plays in the country.
I build set for the high school’s theater productions. I personally invested over 90 hours building the set for Arsenic & Old Lace. That’s 90 hours squeezed in around my full time job.
I don’t mind the time commitment. I just want more people to see the finished product.
I’m not alone either. There is a team of faculty, staff, and students involved who work harder than me to make these productions a reality.
Even more disappointing was the fact that just five months later more people showed up on opening night for the spring musical, High School Musical, than the entire three night run of Arsenic & Old Lace combined. COMBINED!!!
The fact that over a thousand people showed up on a Thursday for a performance told me there’s an audience out there. I just needed to figure out how to get them to show up not just for a musical but also a play.
I was making it my personal mission to get more butts in the seats for the 2017 fall play. But how?
So after months of online research, conversations with other playhouses, and lots of contemplation here are my ideas for filling that 1,400 seat auditorium.
1. Do another musical.
People love musicals. Period. And plays aren’t musicals. So my first thought for putting more butts in the seats for the play was not to do a play but a musical. Why not just do two musicals instead of one play and one musical.
After talking to a few people involved, the idea didn’t gain any traction. Musical kids don’t always go out for the play and vise versa. Musicals are a lot more work. The list went on.
Fair enough. I had other ideas.
2. Larger cast.
More actors = more tickets sold. It’s that simple.
While the play usually has 20 students involved, the musical has 70. Every student is probably good for selling ten tickets whether directly or indirectly. With an extra 50 students involved, you just sold another 500 tickets without lifting a finger.
A larger cast is more difficult to manage but more student actors mean more family and friends purchasing tickets. It’s probably worth the headache.
3. Family friendly.
If we wanted a larger audience, we needed a show that both appealed and was appropriate for a larger demographic. This is a public school so none of the titles were ever inappropriate. They just weren’t always something an elementary student could sit through.
I’m not the director so I don’t pick show. I just build the set. But if you do have control or even input on the selection, then consider a title that appeals to the widest audience possible.
4. Free tickets for elementary students.
Taking a page from the Lancaster Barnstormers’ playbook, we could give every student a free ticket. That almost guarantees an adult ticket sale for every elementary student who comes.
If we offered the free ticket to high schoolers–knowing full well that many would come sans parent–we could try to recoup that through concession stand sales at intermission.
Of course, this approach only works if the show is appropriate for elementary age students. See number three above. Luckily, it looks like this year’s title is going to be family friendly.
5. Movie style poster.
A traditional poster with the WH questions answered on it doesn’t generate much buzz. It definitely doesn’t go viral.
After two years advising our online student newspaper, I knew that an image always performed better than just text. That image always performed better if it had a student on it. It did even better if there were two students in it. In fact, the more faces the better it does.
Why would a poster be any different? Last year with help from a student photographer, I created this poster for High School Musical. It exploded online earning several thousand views.
Those were ten of the actual students in the show. Just like every student actor is good for selling ten tickets, every student on the poster is good for twice as many likes and a couple of shares each.
I realize that making a poster like this a reality is easier said than done. Our High School Musical poster paid off. There were multiple factors involved but this show broke attendance records.
We do a teaser for the musical every year. We needed to do one for the play. The musical’s teaser generates a lot of interest among the student body because despite hallway posters, local media coverage, and morning announcements they still have no prior knowledge of the musical. Granted for the cast, it’s their most nerve racking performance having to perform in front of their peers.
Doing a teaser for a play is different from a musical. For a musical teaser you a perform a few of the numbers that guarantee people leaving humming the tune.
What about the play? My educated guess says run through the first 30 minutes looking for a cliffhanger to stop at.
Nevertheless, a teaser should be good for ticket sales especially if it’s a show people aren’t familiar with.
7. Retirement communities.
Senior citizens loves the theater. My parents are constantly taking bus trips to see Broadway shows. Every time we see my wife’s grandmother, she talks about about a bus trip to a local theater.
All we needed was a bus full of senior citizens coming to our show instead of somewhere else.
The plan was simple. Arrange for local retirement communities to attend the show by calling their director of activities. I was even willing to sell them discounted tickets since they were buying in bulk.
8. Coupons for admission.
Who doesn’t love a coupon!?! How many times have you bought something or went somewhere because you had a coupon? I have!s Giving up one or two dollars on a coupon is still four or five more than we had for a person that hadn’t originally planned on attending.
Who do you give the coupons to? Where should they be distributed? See number nine below.
9. Increasing visibility.
Our fall play is traditionally the second weekend of November. Two weeks before there’s a Halloween parade in the neighboring town of Strasburg.
Why not have the actors march in the parade dressed in character? In addition to passing out candy, they could distribute $1 off admission coupons.
I’m even toying with doing a small float.
Depending on the parade’s turnout, our merry band of actors should effectively reach hundreds of people.
I got this idea at the Independence Day Parade in Montrose, PA where the Endless Mountains Players were walking the parade in costume handing out coupons to their upcoming show.
My conservative goal? Double attendance from the previous year. Moonshot? Sell out performance. Check back after November 11 to find out how it worked.
Moonshot? Sell out performance.
If you have any suggestions or ideas to improve attendance, I would love to hear them.
— Update —
Since publishing this post, I’ve gotten some great suggestions. Here they are.
Lunch with the cast.
Have members of the cast in costume visit the elementary schools over lunch. They can sit with them and talk up theater and the production.
Another approach to “Lunch with the Cast” is children come eat lunch at school. The cast will be there in costume for photos. Cast members could also autograph tickets.
This idea has lots of potential as we are discussing having a Saturday matinee performance.
Dinner and a show.
A neighboring school district had food trucks in the parking lot the night of a performance.
They said that it got more people out to see the show and was a great fundraiser for the high school PTO.
Chicken BBQ Combo Tickets
Hold a chicken BBQ in the school parking lot. In addition to purchasing regular BBQ tickets, community members could also purchase combo tickets where they get a meal and a ticket to the show. People could even tailgate in the parking lot with their meal before the show.
While vacationing in Rehoboth Beach, DE we walked by Clear Space Theatre Company. I noticed these fun face cutouts.
My plan is to make two or three of these. In addition to having two characters painted on, show information such as location, date, and time will be added. These cutouts can then be positioned in high traffic areas near the school district. The locally owned grocery store, Darrenkamps, springs to mind as an example. See can read how I built ours here.
Social media director.
In addition to the traditional sign-ups for stage crew and tech, have a sign-up for a social media director. This student’s job is keeping up the positive press about the show. Social media, traditional print media, tv, everything. Blogging about the rehearsal process. Posting video clips to Instagram. Tweeting the arrival of new props or set piece completion.
Hollywood generates a lot of buzz for a show months before it opens by dropping hints and interviews on social media. You can have the best show in the world, but if you don’t get the word out no one will know.