A friend in the theater

Written by

[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

Last week, I had you check your three favorite intimate theater websites to see what was playing through July. Chances are, you came up mostly empty. Maybe you could find the next play but probably not a season, right?

So why is this a problem?

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesIt’s not nurturing an audience and it’s out of step with the realities of virtually every other entertainment choice.

Let’s imagine two imaginary theatergoers. The first is a rabid theater lover. She adores theater but may be new to town or just unfamiliar with the theater ecosystem. The second loves theater but has a busy life or has kids or loves movies too.

Now for our rabid theater lover, she’d like to see as much theater as possible. She’d like to see everything. She logs onto the website and can’t figure out what’s playing. Worse, it doesn’t lead her anywhere else so she clicks around for a few minutes, gets frustrated and moves on. Maybe she’ll start a book club instead.

Our busy theater lover wants to see more shows but it requires scheduling. She’s got to have a few weeks’ notice – time to arrange a sitter or make plans with a friend or reschedule dinners. She logs on dutifully with her calendar open, hoping to pencil three or four shows before summer. She clicks around for a few minutes, get’s frustrated and moves on.

Just for a second let’s imagine these folks are Netflix fans – say “House of Cards.” They can log on, binge on an entire season, see another couple, and then watch a handful of Kevin Spacey movies.  Netflix is ready to take care of its audience. You search, they’ll serve something up.

That (and a dozen other entertainment options) are small theaters’ competition. So here we are in the theater making it tougher for an audience to engage and commit. We are almost encouraging them to find their culture elsewhere.

Now, the silver bullet for this problem would be the same kind of recommendation engine we’ve experienced at Amazon or Netflix for years (“you liked this, you might like this” or “other people who stayed up all night reading this book also lost sleep over . . .” ). The challenge is, of course, how to find the single umbrella for all of L.A. theater and then have the money to build the website  – oh, and then figure out the key metrics and which shows are like other shows – and this is all before we ever get to finding the money to pay for this site and keep it going. You get the point.

(Side note: Several folks mentioned LA Stage Tix, part of LA STAGE, as a potential solution to this  problem first raised in last week’s column. Check it out, and you’ll see both the promise and the limitations.)

Aside from the technical and financial challenges, there’s the issue of trust. Our theatergoers don’t want to go see any theater; they want to see good theater. It’s not enough to simply shuffle them off to whatever is playing across town. It’s got to be a match.

So the silver bullet isn’t going to work (for now). What can we do?

Each small theater isn’t doing enough work, consistently enough, with enough funding to support the care and feeding of a broad audience.  The website is simply a symptom of a systemic problem in small theater.

“Well,” you might say, “theaters should just do more work, right?”

We hit a couple of massive hurdles down that route: The theaters don’t have either the funds or the work capacity to support a season of more plays.

So what’s the answer?  What do I wish I saw on every small theater’s website across Los Angeles (whether they have a show running or not)?

Basically, their own personal, home grown version of “people who liked this, should go see that.”

If theaters in Los Angeles could embrace these ideas:

  1. No one theater is doing enough work to support a broad audience;
  2. Their competition isn’t other theaters;
  3. A healthy audience for all of Los Angeles theater will mean a healthy audience for their theater (when they do good work),

then you might see theaters saying on their websites and in their curtain raisers “you should go see work at this theater across town”  or “we won’t have another show until March so in the meantime, go see . . . ” or “if you like our work here’s three other companies working in the same vein and here’s one that’s totally different, but really good!”

I’m not talking about casual, convenient cross-promotion. I’m talking about a fundamental commitment to leading a theater’s audience to other good work. The moment after you’ve planned your plays, you figure out a “season” for your audience that includes work from around town (it could be thematic, it could be geographic, it could be aesthetic, it could be anything).  It becomes part of every theater’s mission – you take care of your audience the way you would a good friend.

Think about it.

If you had a friend who only called you three times a year, each time out of the blue, desperate for a favor, how many times would you take his call? Now imagine a friend who was always there for you, recommended a great show every month, and, also, asked you for a favor three times a year.

Which friend would you rather have?