Friday, October 30, 2009

Our Audiences

This morning I received notification of a comment on my last post. Wow, that was quite the comment and one that should be addressed.

First of all I haven’t seen ”The Miracle Worker” at The Playhouse so I am not about to comment on the production itself. And, while I think that saying that they deserve to lose their funding because of the play, is a little harsh (ok, maybe way harsh, especially at a time when the words “arts funding” is such a contentious issue), it is his opinion and he is entitled to it.

However, the point that he raises, and one that obviously has made him so angry, is what I want to address. Obviously, he did not enjoy this play choice. The major reviewers in this town, Peter, Jerry, Jo & Colin, all seemed to either at least like it, if not full out, love it. But critical praise does not necessarily equate into audience praise or vice versa. What we have to remember is audience members, for the most part, are just Average Joe’s. They didn’t spend years in school studying theatre or reading plays. They haven’t written plays themselves or seen everything playing in town for the last 30 years. Plus since most of these critics (I don’t know for sure, I am just guessing here and I mean no offence) are at least 50 years old they certainly don’t represent a young audience members opinion.

Furthermore, if what he says is correct and the house count for the evening was approximately 25%, then that certainly says even more than the comment itself. For one of the largest companies in this city, who has a lot more exposure and reaches a lot more people than most of the theatre's in this town, to be selling shows at one-quarter of the House then there is definitely something terribly wrong and broken with our system for sure.

I don’t have all the answers but I do have a question: if audiences aren’t coming, plus they leave the theatre feeling the way this man did, then why are they doing it?

Theatre is about the audience. If I have to keep screaming it from the rooftops until someone hears me I will. Without the audience you might as well being doing sculpture or painting or something. If all you are interested in doing is creating theatre that is going to get you good reviews or win you a Jessie then you are missing the point. Theatre exists because of its relationship to the audience. Read Kris Joseph’s and Simon Ogden’s blogs for more on this discussion.

We write letters and get all worked up because the funding to arts is being cut but what if we created theatre that was so popular that we didn’t need funding from the government.

STOP. Before I continue I am going to make a statement because I can already see the hate emails piling into my inbox:

Yes, of course, I believe arts should receive funding from the government.

Ok, now that I’ve made that statement everyone can stop hating on me. Thank you. And continue…

What if we started listening to our audiences and we started having full houses instead of 25% houses. Then maybe someday, down the road, maybe after I’m dead, we won’t need to rage against the government because we won’t be relying on them to fund us. We would rely on our audiences. Wow, now that is an amazing dream and one that I want to be a part of. It could happen. I believe it could happen but we have to start investing in that dream today.

How do we do that, Mrs. Soapbox? Well, thank you for asking Mr. or Mrs. Reader.

We could start by the taking the same energy we put into writing letters to the government and put that same energy into writing letters to our theatre’s. If you want them to listen, to you the audience, then you need to start taking action. So, my advice to Doug is, if you felt so strongly about your experience at The Playhouse then you should write them a letter and tell them. It could all begin with one letter. Then one letter turns into 50 and so on and so forth. And, maybe the next time a theatre goes to choose their season they might just think twice about the material they choose to produce.

But that’s just me. And my two cents.

~Sabrina Evertt
Artistic Producer


  1. Such a good point Sabrina! I work at a mid-sized theatre company (just to show this is NOT shameless self-promotion, I will not say which one), and while we are really hurting financially this year, it's not because of funding cuts because we hardly receive any cash from the government. We have a very loyal audience who supports us with subscriptions and, from a few generous people, private donations. Our pie chart on where our money comes from is actually the reverse of what most companies have, with government funding as one of the smallest and private donors as one of the largest.

    Part of the reason we have this, I think, is because the staff and the artistic director take all audience comments very seriously. Obviously we love the positive emails, but we read the negative ones too, and if the person is feeling especially strong in their opinion, a staff member, or the AD, will take the time to phone or meet in person to discuss why they didn't like the show.

    It's kind of cool, and I wish more people would do it. And if you don't like something, know why you didn't like us and tell us what kind of thing you'd rather see. Honestly, it doesn't mean we're going to all of a sudden dramatically change our mandate or the kind of work we do, but at the very least we know what people are looking for. And even if you don't change our next season, you never know what you will inspire.

    Oh, and if you see a show that's magical, that's heartbreaking, hilarious, makes you see your soul, and does what theatre is supposed to do- tell the company that too. Because that is why we do it, and it's nice to know once and a while that we did it.

  2. A very interesting discussion. One of the things that I would chime in is not to forget about the size of the house the Playhouse is working with. I actually had a discussion with someone who works at the Playhouse today at the Making a Scene conference about this very subject (filling the house.)

    What would fill a 600+ seat house? I'm not sure on which day Doug went, but let's be serious here - in Vancouver, with as much going on right now as there is (not to mention this terrible flu that is knocking people right out) is it next to impossible to fill a venue of the Playhouse size with people for eight shows a week of a four week run? Big commercial name shows (very few of which are plays as a matter of fact.) Shows like Rent, like Les Miserables, musicals, in short, have a much easier time filling larger houses. Why do you think we don't get the National Tour of August: Osage County through Vancouver? It might be unpopular to suggest it, but the fact is Vancouver audiences don't flock to plays the same way they flock to musicals -- and yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but the theatres that they are being presented in are usually much smaller than a venue like the Playhouse. 25% of the Playhouse would pack a venue like Pacific Theatre, Playwrights Theatre or the Havana.

    And also, do we want the Playhouse (the second largest theatre in Vancouver) doing only those "crowd pleasing" shows? Don't we want some variety? The Miracle Worker is a great show - hell, it's even being revived on Broadway this year with Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and Alison Pill (Milk.)

    Obviously Doug didn't enjoy the show - from the sounds of it (reviews and what I've heard from other people) he's in the minority. I didn't see it myself, so I can't comment on the show itself, but as a producer of theatre in Vancouver I am beginning to learn what sells and what doesn't. And unfortunately as someone who receives no government funding, we have to be looking for shows with artistic merit - that also will turn a profit of some kind. Like Sabrina, I will keep yelling from the rooftop "it would be great to do all Mamet all the time, but sometimes you have to toss a Sound of Music in there to make it financially viable."

  3. Put it in another context.

    Concerts. U2 was sold out last week.
    Why? because they give their audience what they want.

    Go back to theatre here: There is an over-abundance of "out-there" shows in this city. While that's great if you have big name shows as well, but we don't. You have to get people out to shows they know and want to see, before you can entice them with stuff that's a little more out there.

    Just once would I like to see the firehall or Havanna do something like a murder mystery or something that appeals to a large audience, not just their regulars.

    Maybe i'm the minority, but I rarely see shows that don't grab me from their taglines. And I work in theatre.

  4. Hi Sabrina,

    I think you caught the essence of my comment perfectly, tho i'm not angry and I surely will not write to the directors of the Playhouse.

    to me, the telling part of this discussion is that neither you nor Ryan saw the show. two prominent members of a vibrant young theatre community didn't attend what should have been a highlight of the theatrical year. Am I wrong if I suggest you both knew it would be dull? Do you go at all? Seriously. Do either of you feel a connection with the Playhouse beyond nostalgia for what might have been?

  5. Hi Doug -

    Thank you for your comment. It has created a lot of discussion and I am all for that.

    To answer your question, I didn't go to see the Miracle Worker for many reasons and although, 'dull' might not be the word I would use, yes, you are mostly correct. My reason for not going is this:

    Tickets to The Playhouse are comparatively more expensive (ranging from $30-$56) than most other theatre's in this town. So when I am faced with the question of how and where I want to spend my money I look at the productions themselves and their appeal to me personally. And, yes, personally, "The Miracle Worker" is not something that I would usually pay to go see. My personal taste is for something more 'exciting'.

    Now to answer the second part of your question:

    Do I go to The Playhouse to see their shows at all? Yes, I do, but (and here's the BIG but) I'm not usually the one to pay for it. My family has this tradition of going to see Christmas musicals - and my mum's birthday is right around Christmas so we are usually celebrating that as well - which is why the only show I saw at The Playhouse last year was The Drowsy Chaperone. And, this year the only show I will probably see is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (she's already bought the tickets).
    I did enjoy The Drowsy Chaperone and I will probably enjoy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but would I have bought tickets to see them on my own? Probably not.

    So I can't speak for anyone else but, yes, I do find it rather interesting that neither myself nor Ryan attended the show. It says a lot.

    But that's really my (and your) point, isn't it?!