How to Choose the Next Play.
It’s the eternal question in amateur theatre committee meetings around the globe. In dusty back rooms, in drafty church halls, in glass fronted avant-garde offices, in someone’s sitting room; “what play shall we put on next?”
And the cliches begin…. you’re only as good as your last play, they only like comedies round here, we’ve done that one before, we must put bums on seats, the last play made a moderate profit so we can afford to put on a Shakespeare – for us, let’s put on a good play…? But what DOES make a good play? Is it full houses, happy audiences, happy cast, a theatrical feat of achievement, a profitable run?
Of course the financial element is important if the troupe is to continue entertaining the community. But if money were the main goal then I suggest few members would cite that as their personal motivator . They are in it for other reasons; acting, entertaining, enjoyment, a hobby, the social aspects, an escape from their day job, a community spirit, doing something they are good at, for the love of the art… Never for the money because if they were then good luck with that. There’s little money in professional acting (unless you are extremely lucky) let alone amateur dramatics. The fact is amateur actors leave their business head at work when they enter the rehearsal studio.
So it’s up to us. The committee. To steer the path between financial ruin and artistic gratification.
We’re nothing without an audience. Care must be taken to cultivate a following. People will always put a personal recommendation above all manner of advertising. Word of mouth is key especially to organisations with little marketing budget and expertise and as such all efforts and expense are reduced to an awareness campaign. If audiences are to recommend and return, then I’d argue that the actual play choice is only part of the story. A prominent part but not the whole thing.
The overall experience is the bit that can be easily overlooked or paid minimal attention. There’s something known as the Extraordinary Customer Experience. The ECE. It’s the reason people drive right past several perfectly good greasy spoons and corner cafes to get to a McDonalds. Tales of having your iPhone screen replaced, often for free or at least for a reasonable fee, are as much a driver for people to buy Apple and pay heavily for the privilege as the iPhone itself. Customers are great but advocates are better. And you get advocates by providing ECE. For clarity, the definition of an advocate is a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. We all need advocates. We all need to provide an extraordinary customer experience.
With that in mind, the play choices should be obvious. It’s what the audience want, not the players. The finances will follow. The audience will follow. The play choice should be guided by the things people want to see. The plays that will make them leave their house on a winters night after arriving home from work through heavy traffic in driving rain only an hour before curtain up. Above all they want to be entertained, amused, challenged and this has to be tempered by the talents of the actors, director and crew. Few actors will abandon their beloved hobby because they can’t appear in Waiting for Godot. What actors want is an audience. But audiences will not come to a play they don’t recognise as being ‘worth the effort’. And critical to the evenings experience and ‘worth-the-effort-ness’ are the greeting as they arrive, being recognised by name, the farewell as they depart, personal interaction whilst they settle into their seats, taking their feedback and responding and acting on it are as important as the actual play. Their comfort. Their inclusion and feeling of belonging. Their security. Their desire to invite their friends. Their feeling of membership, of a club, a team, a social entity are the foundations of a successful performing arts society.
So my advice to the committee out there looking at which play to put on next are to focus on the audience, focus on their desires, their wants and needs. They are customers. You are a customer too. Be a customer. Go to other amateur productions. Speak to their teams. Compare what they do to what you do. Focus on your brand. Make it memorable so people can advocate easier. And get busy with ECE.