Theatre Companies: Put Your Money Where The Mouths Are

Word of mouth is the single biggest contributor to a play’s success. Nothing gets people into seats faster than a good personal recommendation. No well-designed postcard or billboard can begin to compete. People want to hear about your play from someone they trust—a friend, co-worker, or even a respected theatre reviewer.

A metropolitan city such as Los Angeles may have a dozen or more union theatres and many dozens of equity waiver venues for an audience member to choose from on any given night. Without exception, great productions draw great audiences. Good ones on the other hand, can leave a theatre struggling for revenue.

When the historic Pasadena Playhouse closed it’s doors earlier this year, many venues began to re-think their product and practices. After all, if a ‘good’ theatre such as this was forced to consider Chapter 11, what danger would the other venues be facing? It became glaringly obvious that theatre-goers were going to be very judicious with their funds and that theatres would have to try harder to remain in business.

Recently, in order to create more value for theatre patrons, lobbies have been spruced up, houses have been made more comfortable with seating repairs and air-conditioning overhauls, and special events have been planned in conjunction with performances. I’m also noticing that restrooms are being kept cleaner and made as welcoming as possible with flowers and flattering light. Even snack bars are seeing an upgrade. Alongside box-store water and nacho chips, one can now find the likes of Metro Mint Water and Bumble Bars. All of these details have been honed in an effort to bring superb value to the theatre patron, and to inspire positive word of mouth.

There’s one tactic though, that so far only a few venues have had the savvy to pursue— that is to modify casting and rehearsal practices in order to achieve a higher quality product overall, especially when it comes to integrating dialect into performance. The changes these select venues are making are simple, extremely cost effective and can boost a production from ‘good’ to ‘great.’ Personally, I think everyone should know about them.

Here are the practices those at the leading edge are adopting:

1) Keeping a dialect consultant on staff to review the theatre’s entire season of scripts and to alert the production team of voice and speech challenges they may be facing in mounting certain plays. In this context, the dialect consultant typically provides detailed reports and custom written and recorded dialect acquisition materials.

2) Including a dialect consultant as a central part of the casting process. (A dialect consultant can quickly determine an actor’s dialect abilities and help save a theatre from casting an actor whose limited skills might negatively affect the rehearsal process or prompt a bad review.)

3) Providing actors with MP3’s of the target dialect along with the audition sides, so those who audition can properly prepare.

4) Casting only the actors who accurately present the target dialect during auditions, or barring that, planning adequate time between casting and the first read-through for actors to master the dialect with the help of the production’s dialect coach. (Learning a dialect takes time, no matter what an actor’s skill level is. Not even dialect maven Meryl Streep walks onto a set without substantial preparation.)

5) Membership companies are making training a central part of their mission.  For instance, if a play requires a Baton Rouge accent, the entire company is given access to group dialect classes months in advance of auditions. (This not only creates value for the theatre patrons in the form of a better show, but it also creates value for the company members in the form of new skills for their resumes.)

Final note: I love Metro Mint Water, comfy seats, and after-show soirees, but I feel it deeply in my bones that these lovely gestures alone will not be enough to keep audiences buzzing about live theatre. Only exceptional work onstage  can inspire this kind of response.

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