It’s the age-old question. The playwright writes. The producer produces. The director directs. The actors act. All the countless busy hands do their jobs behind the scenes. But when all that is said and done, the curtain opens on an empty house unless there are people in the seats. So, how do you sell out a show? Here’s my answer.
I was asked by a friend recently, how do you have a sold out show? It makes sense to ask me, I suppose, since I did have a sell out show at the 2013 Ottawa Fringe festival and considering I did write a very popular article telling people how they can put bums in seats along the Fringe circuit.
When she asked, the best answer I could spit out paraphrased the opening to that article – promote it well, have something worth talking about – which I don’t think was very helpful. I’m pretty sure she was looking for specifics that she could apply to her upcoming Fringe show and planned four-city tour. I may also have joked that she could pay people to come. Also not helpful. Pretty sure I got a look for that one.
As much as I would have liked to give her the answer she wanted, some quick fix or magic spell, there weren’t any specifics to give. Not of the kind she wanted. At that point, all I could’ve talked about were basics. Have a good video. Have a good poster. Have a good ground plan. In that order of importance. All the really core promotional things (draw, hook title, etc), and the how you actually set about having a great show part are all worked from the ground up, not applied with a coat of paint. Having not had anything to do with her show, decorating advice was all I could offer.
Having had time to think, I’ve got a better answer now. I will, in fact, confidently say that I have the answer to the question: How do you have a sold out show?
Book a small venue.
No, seriously. There’s a big difference between filling a 280-seat venue, and filling an 80-seat venue. Would my Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy have filled a bigger venue than the ~75 seat (at extended capacity) Studio Leonard-Beaulne? We were (happily, unexpectedly) turning people away from the show thirty minutes before our opening performance so there’s definitely a chance. But we would have to have had nearly twice the audience we did to fill Arts Court Theatre, let alone Academic Hall.
So if you want a sold out show, nab a small venue, increase your odds.
I think a more valuable question than how do you sell out is how do you have a successful show?
That’s much more interesting to talk about. Because as much as much as I enjoy being able to say “the sold-out Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy” (and add that I’m always interested in hearing about potential work, collaboration, or consultation), I would have traded in that sold out tag for Arts Court Theatre’s extra fifty seats, even if we only ever reached 80-90% capacity. Those extra tickets, those people we were turning away, were people we wanted to see and (hopefully) enjoy the show. And frankly, it would have been added cash in our pockets.
Regardless of whether we could say we sold out when all was said and done, the show was a success by any measure we could set. We brought it together to the level we wanted to – and given how ambitious it was and some of the obstacles we had, that wasn’t easy. We got a lot of bums in the seats, and we sent those people away happy, happy enough to tell people they enjoyed it. We had fun in the making, and we loved doing it.
Maybe that’s the answer. Love what you’re doing. Only by loving it will you want to work to make it the best it can possibly be, even when it’s hard.
Make it a show you’re not only loving working on, but that you’d love to see as an audience member. One surefire way to fail as a theatre creator/producer at any level (festival or mainstage) is to stop seeing theatre as the audience. Do work that you’d watch and love. Knowing that you’d love this show if you were in the audience also makes promotion that much easier. If you wouldn’t watch it, or can’t say why you would, then why should anybody else?
Equally importantly, make sure your team and collaborators love the show. You might have a stage manager or actor you like working with, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not talking to multiple people and finding the one who most loves the project, not just the work. The most talented people in the world aren’t worth their water molecules if they’re unconnected and uncommitted. The ones who love are the ones who will go above and beyond to make the show the best it can be.
Plus, that kind of love always shows in the final product. Always.
Quick sidebar to talk about professionalism because that goes a long way, too. Professionalism isn’t in your training or how much you’re being paid. Those may make you a “professional” but they don’t bestow you with the magical quality of professionalism. Professionalism is an attitude. An ethic. A professional does the job. And does the best possible job they can without excuses. Period. In the 9-to-5 world, you can afford to call in sick, take a day for yourself, maybe lose a few bucks. But in the entertainment industry we have deadlines and we have deliverables and we have show dates – and we meet them, without half-assing them. Ever. If you’re sick and on deadline, you tough it up and you get the job done, because it’s the job.
Professionals who love what they’re working on are the most important assets you can have.
That’s what we had in The Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy that can be replicated time and again, a group of professionals who loved the project and loved what we were doing, pants or no pants.
Is there something to be said here for audience reach? Of course. No matter your show, you’re going to have a maximum potential audience. There’s an upper level to the number of people interested in any show, whether it’s about clown sisters going through puberty or three friends fighting over a painting and the merits of art. The harsh truth is that you can’t fix your audience. So don’t try. Trying to be something to everybody is a great way to dilute your work and create something mediocre. Instead, recognize and appreciate that only certain audience segments will care for your show and create the show for them. In other words, and other people’s words:
It’s better to be nine people’s favourite thing than to be a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing.
(Although forgetting that, ignoring that, and trying to be something for everybody is another good way to sell out. Sell out your art, that is.)
With The Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy, I never once worried that people wouldn’t like this, that, or the whole thing. Actually, untrue. Of course those thoughts popped into my mind now and again. But I pushed them aside. I reminded myself that I was writing and directing a show for people who would love about it the things that I loved about it. I was putting together a show that I would love, I attracted people to the production who felt the same, and we all did the work for the audience we knew would love it – because we were that audience. I’m taking that same attitude with the show I’m writing now.
Just like I might have slightly preferred a larger venue than to say I sold out, I would prefer selling 400 tickets and have 80% audience satisfaction, than selling 600 tickets with only 40% audience satisfaction.
In the end, you do need to be able to promote yourself well to best reach that potential audience (especially your initial audience) and let them know you’re there. But after that it’s your love and professionalism and putting on the best damn show for the people you know are likely to enjoy it most that gets people talking. Not just liking it, but loving it. Not just enjoying it, but talking about it. Because getting people talking (and so cycling more people in the door—somebody who might not initially be interested in your show might give it a second thought if somebody they trust is raving about how much they enjoyed it) is one of the best ways to measure your success.
If you’re in an appropriately sized venue, you might even end up with a sold-out run.