Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How to Get the 18-40 Crowd to Put Down the Controller and Go to Your Theatre

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

“How do you get so many young people into your theatre? How can we do that?”

I’ve been asked these questions over and over and over. And over. The real answer is: I’m not sure. All I can tell you is what we’ve done, how we’ve done it and what I think you can do to better your chances of attracting the 18-35 audience. Will it work for you? I don’t know. Did it work for us? Yes, indeed.

Bear in mind that you need to do all of these things, all at the same time. This isn’t a pick-and-choose situation.

1. Do the kinds of plays young people want to see.
I am astounded by the fact that some larger theatres seem to believe young people should *always* be willing to translate, and blame self-centeredness, lack of interest in culture, lack of education and general boorishness when the 18-40 crowd don’t turn out in droves for a production of Dinner with Friends or Love Letters. Yet these very same theatres won’t slot a new play by an emerging playwright for fear of their subscribers’ reactions. They expect young people to translate, and heap condemnation upon them when they don’t, but they see older audience members’ potential lack of interest as their due. (P.S. Believe me when I tell you that 65 is the new 35. Many older Bay Area theatergoers are more adventurous than you think. TRUST. Moving on.)

While it’s always a good thing to have an active interest in the stories of people not in your age group (or ethnic group, or regional group, or religious group, etc), everyone longs to see their own stories, hopes, dreams, fears, realities and fantasies reflected in honest ways. Young people are no different. The key phrase here is “in honest ways.” A play by an older playwright with roles for young actors may or may not speak honestly to your desired potential younger audience members. Some older writers write very well for younger characters. Many do not. Large numbers of young people are not going to spring for tickets to a show that portrays them as mindless, boorish assholes. Find plays that speak honestly about the lives of young people in some way.

But how do I do that, Melissa?

I’m so glad you asked.

There are over 400 theatre companies in the nine-county Bay Area. We do more world premiere plays than almost any other region in the country—last I checked we ranked third. Yet it’s very common that staff from theatres who purport to want young audiences don’t come to world premiere productions at small theatre companies. How many emerging playwrights have you read this year? If the number is under 10, you’re slacking. Impact Theatre, my company, has produced a world premiere by, and/or entirely introduced to the Bay Area, these playwrights: Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Prince Gomolvilas, Enrique Urueta, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Liz Meriwether, Lauren Yee, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Joshua Conkel, Trevor Allen, Jon Tracy. This is a partial list—I stuck to people you’ve probably heard of. Most importantly, we’re a tiny dog on a very, very big block. There are a wagonload of companies doing precisely what we do. Find them. See their shows. Spy on the playwrights they use. Companies like mine are your R&D department.

Find directors who can make classic plays relevant and interesting—because they are. There are directors all over the country who draw loads of younger audience members into theatres to see Shakespeare, and a bunch of them are directing at these aforementioned smaller theatres.

2. Be realistic about your pricing.
It’s always annoying to hear people say, “But they’ll spend $60 on a concert ticket! Why won’t they spend $60 on theatre?” It’s like wondering why someone would drive all the way across country to be with her beloved but not drive just as long in the hope that she will meet a hot stranger in a bar. People drop bucks on concert tickets because they already know and love the artist and have every expectation of seeing a great show and having a great experience. Condemning those people for refusing to drop a similar amount of money on a show they may know little about that will, let’s be honest, likely bore them because it’s aimed entirely at someone else, is a bit much, yes? If you’re going to condemn the under-40 crowd for not dropping $60 on your play about middle-class, middle-aged white people and their midlife crises, you should also condemn Grandma because she’s not stocking her DVD collection with $60 of Robot Chicken.

So keep your ticket prices accessible. Some companies do an under-30 rate, which, quite frankly, I’m not wild about. That 30-40 crowd is young enough to need enticing into your theatre but old enough to be on the brink of having enough money to become donors and subscribers. You want them. They’re routinely ignored and that’s not going to pay off in the long run for your audience building. Make an under-40 rate if you must. Make some performances pay-what-you-will. Make your less attractive seating areas $20 for the first few weekends. Whatever you need to do, do it.

3. Market to young people.
If you’re not active on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be right now. Learn how to use these powerful tools properly. This isn’t a social media marketing post, so I’ll assume you can figure out where to get this info and move on. The blog on your website is going nowhere unless you’re pushing it with Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

Find ways to make your outreach to young people honest and, most importantly, unpretentious. One of the main things keeping young people out of the theatre is that they’re afraid they won’t fit in—they’ll feel awkward and out of place. As my friend’s dad was fond of saying, they’re afraid they’ll “stand out like a sheep turd in a bowl of cream.” You want to make them as comfortable as possible. A big step towards that is to use your marketing to make them feel welcome. Not pretend welcome, as in, “We want to sell you tickets,” but truly welcome, like “Come over and play with us! We just got a new toy!”

Theatre is not medicine. We don’t go because it’s good for us. We go because we think it’ll be awesome. Make sure you’re approaching your marketing properly. “It’ll be awesome” + “You’re totally welcome and will be comfortable” + “We’re not stuffy and pretentious” will go a long way. Make sure you’re delivering those goods onsite as well. Nothing drives someone away from your company forever as efficiently as an undelivered promise.

And that’s pretty much it. This is what I believe has worked for us over the past 15 years. I hope it’s successful for you as well. We all need to work together to build audiences for our future as an artistic community. There’s not a single one of us that exists on an island. We’re all in this together.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

A Conversation with Actors' Equity

On Monday, February 28, Theatre Bay Area hosted Alt Stages in conversation with Bethany Umbach from Actors' Equity Association.

Alt Stages hosts several round table discussions through out the year on issues facing small, professional theatres. These issues range from publicity and social media strategies to managing a board. The recent conversation with Bethany Umbach was aimed at helping these theatre companies better understand the contract process and the producer's relationship to equity.

A full report of the conversation is available on the Alt Stages Facebook page here. Below are a few of the questions posed to Bethany during the discussion.

Are there exceptions to the rules? If waivers/exception can be made, how do producers pursue them?

Concessions are exceptions to agreements and codes made by the union for certain projects/companies. Codes are often strict and the union doesn’t usually allow for concessions on those projects where codes apply. Agreements have more leniency. The union’s objective is to ensure that actors are paid for their services and treated fairly. Concessions may be requested through the appropriate Equity business representative and will be presented to the appropriate Equity committee for consideration. Contact Bethany Umbach about questions and concerns. (Bethany can be reached at or (323) 978-8080.)

When you say "annual budget," do you mean "operating budget?"

No, this refers to the annual production budget (with regards to MBAT or BAPP).

Who can hire Equity Membership Candidates (EMC) and why?

Anyone can hire and pay an EMC actor as a non-professional/local jobber (provided they are not a member of any of the 4A's unions), but only seasonal agreements (such as BAT) allow the EMC program to be approved for us and for those actors to earn weeks (points) towards Equity membership. EMC program approval is granted in theatres where there is a minimum equity ratio and an equity stage manager required, along with other criteria. The EMC program is set up to be a mentorship program if there are not enough equity members to mentor an EMC, so having Equity Actors and stage managers at the theatre is essential.

What are the time frames suggested for approval for the various contracts?

Deadlines are listed here and in the Bay Area Equity Contract Comparison. All deadlines are before the first rehearsal and are intended to give both the producer/company and Equity time to work out the contract.

What is the general path from BAPP to MBAT? Is there a bridge?

The goal is to get actors paid. Contracts serve members in specific areas. The BAPP will not change much in the future, but the MBAT is the lowest agreement. The MBAT is the bridge between codes like the BAPP and agreements like the BAT. There really is not really a way to create an agreement between a BAPP and MBAT due to minimum wage and legal employment issues.

How does a company operating on a MBAT contract hire an actor who has opted for financial core with American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) or one of the other sister unions? Are they considered union?

If they are financial core with AFTRA they are not actually members of AFTRA. If they are AFTRA members or members of one of the other sister unions, they should be hired on an Equity contract.

How does theatre in an educational setting apply to union contracts? Is a project considered educational simply by virtue of being performed in a physical school setting?

There are some projects that don’t seem to fit into the above codes or agreements, or maybe there have been rumors about what kind of contracts are needed for outdoor theatre, educational theatre, children’s theatre or some other specialty show. The best way to get specific questions answered is to call equity and have a phone conversation with a representative about what the performance will be, who it is intended for, why it is happening and who will be involved and how. Being clear, open, honest and willing to have a dialogue is the first best step to getting the best agreement or code.

What if a company/performance doesn’t take in any ticket revenue, they just pass the hat?

It depends on how many people are expected at a performance and where the performance will be. Even if all revenue is by donation and the number of seats are uncontrollable (like in outdoor theatre) there is a way to make it possible for equity participation (LOA or concession to a standard agreement). Producers/companies won’t know if they don’t ask.

Once you go on one equity contract, are you stuck at that level?

No. Equity wants producers and companies to be able to move up to the next agreement level, but they generally don’t want producers/companies to move backwards. Remember, Equity’s goal is to get it’s members paid fairly for their work and to make certain employment opportunities for its members are possible.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where Do Original Musicals "Play" in the Bay Area New Play Landscape?

There’s no question that the Bay Area is a hotbed for presenting new plays. Interestingly, the proportion of new musicals produced in the area, seems (to me) surprisingly low. Aside from ACT's upcoming production of Tales of the City and last year's showing of American Idiot at Berkeley Rep, world premiere musicals are few and far between, particularly when it comes to smaller theatres. Recently I have become aware of two world premiere musicals in the area, which I found to be an interesting convergence in happening (if not in theme): As Always by Peter Tucker and Dogs! It's the Musical! by Rose Tobin O'Connor. After speaking with Tucker and Silver Moon Productions artistic director Nellie Cravens, I was able to learn more about each production and shed light on some of the unique challenges of producing a world premiere musical.
Currently in performances through March 27 at the Eureka Theatre, As Always ( traces a psychological journey through love, loss, and redemption during a single night of dreams, where inner battles come to life within the timely allegory of a foreign war. “Dreams have always fascinated me," Tucker says about his inspiration for the piece. "We create a world every night that is an emotional echo chamber from our waking experiences. As both participant and observer in dreams, every image, experience, interaction and character necessarily is born from our subconscious mind. Without the filter of conscious thought while sleeping, our dreams can go places we can't. This dream world has historically been ripe for theatricality, of course, and As Always found it to be a perfect device to tell a story about these themes. Much like we interpret our dreams upon waking through the lens of our own experiences, I also wanted our symbolic and non-literal world to speak to the audience members through their own lenses. After the applause, I hope they glean from the story and music what is most relevant to them and they find their own emotional ethos."
Tucker responded to the challenges of getting a world premiere musical produced by producing the show himself. Though necessary, doing so presented its own unique challenges. "While networking in preparation for the show," he says, "I noticed that theatre companies and industry groups seem to take self-production less seriously than works produced within the established frameworks of even the smallest theatre companies. This stigma exists even though access to those frameworks is difficult. Many producers and writers have been waiting years for a reading or production of their work.”
Silver Moon Productions presents a contrasting example with the world premiere of Dogs! It’s the Musical! at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center (April 15-May 15; The show follows an angel who is sent to earth to learn how to be a dog. Even though the show, which was written in 2004, had an "inside track" to the producers (the author is the sister of the vice president of Silver Moon’s board of directors), the musical was a bit of a tough sell. Nellie Cravens, artistic director of the company, says “We were cautious about producing a new work, especially a musical. Nevertheless, in 2010, we had a read-through/sing-through of Dogs! in Sonoma. We were charmed and excited by its potential. One of our theatre company’s goals is to become a valued part of the Sonoma community. We are always looking for works that will draw a family audience, and at the same time provide an entertaining experience for adults. Dogs! It’s the Musical! moves us toward that goal. We think it has a future, in a variety of possible venues. Audiences of all ages are bound to appreciate songs with titles like “Smell Me and Tell Me” and “Come On and Let Me Lick Your Pants.”
Have you ever been involved in a Bay Area-based original musical?
What Bay Area original musicals have you attended? What are your favorite(s)?

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arts + Kids = Scientists

This special guest blogpost was written by Impact Theatre Artistic Director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

When I was in grad school at Cal, I taught a number of undergrad intro courses. I taught DA10, DA1A, and DA1B, which were intro courses for acting and dramatic lit, and they drew a large number of non-majors. I learned two things very quickly teaching at Cal: If you think it’s plagiarized, it is (thank you, Google!) and disproportionate numbers of science majors take theatre courses.

I was struck over and over by how many science majors there were stuffed into these acting and dramatic lit classes. I had expected crossover from other arts and from English, but in each and every class I taught at Cal, science majors outnumbered English and arts majors. What was going on?

A new article from the Psychology Today blog might provide some insight. It turns out that scientists are built out of arts education. Provide a kid with music or theatre in elementary school, and out comes a physicist in college.

Is it really that simple? Possibly. The study outlined in the article “Artsmarts: Why Cutting Arts Funding Is Not a Good Idea,” demonstrates that science graduates are three to eight times as likely to have had arts education as the general population. When looking at science innovators (as defined by number of patents held and companies created), the likelihood of an arts education background is even higher.

I know many of you will remind me that I get up in people’s grills on the regular about correlativity not being the same as causality, but in this case, it does seem as if there’s a hard case shaping up for causality. After the famous “Mozart Effect” study of the 90s, dozens of studies about the impact arts education has on children’s brains, cognition, intelligence, and academic performance have been done, and they almost all point to some benefit. And while many are labeled by detractors as “inconclusive” or showing only correlativity, when taken as a whole, these many different studies done in many different ways do indeed point to a high probability of direct benefit.

Whether we like it or not, it appears that we’re all participants in a very wide-scale study at present. Budget cuts (and our hyperfocus on the high-stakes testing we use as nothing but a stick with which to beat teachers) have decimated arts education in most US schools. Conversely, four out of the five highest-performing nations in reading, math, and science—South Korea, Finland, New Zealand, and Japan—all fund arts education and require it in schools in some way. China does as well. Will our science graduates be competitive in 20 years? Will we still be world leaders in science innovation in 30?

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