The Art of Obtaining the Audience

Rachel Hampton

We recently had the pleasure of learning more of the inner workings of the theatre. This time, though, instead of getting to witness the magic behind the scenes that brings the productions to the stage, we learned of a not often considered craft that helps bring the audience to witness the art once it’s there: marketing.

While perhaps not the most flashy trade to most, what the marketing people are doing is invaluable to keeping the festival alive. A production needs viewers, after all.

Stratford Festival’s own very knowledgeable Maria Williams (pictured) guided us through a brief overview of what the marketing department undergoes. With fifteen years of experience in the industry, she had much to share with us about both marketing in general and marketing specifically with the Stratford Festival.

Theatre is quite a challenge to market for, it seems. It only appeals by default to a specific audience and even then, it isn’t the cheapest hobby to have. Tackle on a time-consuming nature and a social stigma about the perceived elitism of “theatre people” (and who wants to be seen as stuffy?) and theatre becomes a hard sell to make to the general population. But the challenge isn’t insurmountable, and we learned about both the “core” demographic that comprises the majority of ticket sales and how to appeal to various other demographics that might not even have a preexisting interest in theatre at all.

The most tickets are sold to people over 55 years old – they’re called the “traditional” audience – and that demographic, like any other, requires their own specific catering in advertisement. One of these tactics that Maria Williams shared with us was the use of printed, punchy reviews on advertisements for productions. This wouldn’t be used for any audience, even if it might at first glance seem logical to include.  A smaller demographic called the “commercial” audience is those who go see the big, popular shows because, well, they’re big and popular. In those cases, the inclusion of reviews just isn’t as necessary. Instead, the focus in advertisements is simply placed on iconic imagery to draw them in, as this particular audience will already know the plays they’re interested in are popular and don’t need to see reviews to know that others think it’s good.

The other demographics we primarily focused on in the workshop were the niche audience and the “play-on” audience. The niche audience was an interesting one, because, well, as the name suggests, they’re unique. They’re extremely hard to locate and sell to, as a result of this special quality. We were taught that the best tool for niche audiences is word of mouth – such as reaching out personally to the target audience and letting them spread the news among their own communities.

The “play-on” audience, however, was a demographic most of our class fell into, encompassing 16-29 year olds. The challenges for marketers there are plentiful, also. Our general lack of free time and money makes it hard to convince that we want to spent our time and money on shows, especially when there are other far more convenient avenues to walk down. (A generalization that none present, of course, refuted.)

To prove this difficulty, though, we had the main activity of the workshop. We were given image stills from Romeo and Juliet and put into groups to pick what we would consider the most appealing picture to the play-on audience and caption it accordingly to draw their attention. I can happily report that even as a member of that demographic, I still found it supremely difficult to figure out how to sell something to my fellows!

…And that was only figuring out how to appeal to one specific audience chosen for us for one specific show. In reality, there are so many more audiences to consider – even the ones briefly mentioned here are only a small sampling – and which target audiences to consider per advertisement per production must be decided. The art of drawing an audience in is surely no simple matter. But, it should certainly be all the more appreciated for it. Their hard work (and hard it sure seems) sells tickets, fills seats, and helps keep theatre alive.