Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 20: Your “What” (Your Value Proposition)

You’ve started thinking about Customer Segments. (I use the plural “segmentS” because you can serve more than one. However, each different segment requires a different approach, including a different value proposition.)

I suspect you are getting antsy to talk about what you are going to do. What will be your artistic vision? What plays will you do? You know, the fun stuff that made you become a theater artist and not a marketer.

I also suspect that my initial focus on your customers (your audience) has started to worry you a little. “What about me?,” I imagine you wondering. “Isn’t this about my artistic vision???” Yes, of course. OF COURSE. You are an artist, not a theatrical vending machine. If you were a vending machine, you could just stay in the traditional theater system doing what other people think will sell and you wouldn’t be taking on the risk of creating your own company. That’s why this book isn’t called Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss. You are the boss, because you are an owner who has agency.

But without an audience beyond the handful of friends and family who will come to anything you do, well, you can’t create a sustainable business. This is why your choice of Customer Segment—your “1,000 True fans”—is so important. Paraphrasing the subtitle to Value Proposition Design, you want the type of art you want to create to be what your chosen customers want. “Chosen” is the most important word in that sentence. The people in your audience should not be there by accident. You want there to be a fit between you and your audience. When you have that fit, you fulfill yourself and serve your audience.

The key to creating a strong Value Proposition is understanding the Customer (Segment) Profile. I know, I know—I keep talking about customers (audience) instead of art. I know I have emphasized ad nauseum that your choice of customer segment strongly influences what you’re offering (and later, how you present that offering), but it is SO important, and it is something that theater people have a tendency to overlook. Our preference is to get into rehearsal as quickly as possible and hope that the audience finds us when we open. Then we’re shocked when they don’t.

I was no different. Back in the day, a buddy of mine and I produced Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder (we were in Minneapolis, so we figured all the Norwegians would naturally just head on over), decided to run it for three weekends in a venue that sat about 500 (because we just knew it was going to be packed), and one night we played to an audience of one person.

It’s just what theater people do.

We imagined that the general public desperately wanted the same thing we wanted, and then were angry when it turned out that they actually didn’t. Didn't in a big way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard theater people complain about the “blue hairs” in the audience, and decide they want to do shows for younger people. They then imagine what these younger people want (usually some sort of edgy, avant-garde play that they and their theater friends like), offer it in the same way and at the same places as traditional theaters, and then predictably they find themselves playing to empty seats and lots of them.

So you need to “get out of the building” (i.e., get out of your imaginative assumptions like I had about the Norwegians) and talk to people who resemble the Customer Segment you wish to serve. The purpose of doing so is to create a customer profile.

According to the authors of Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want, a Customer Profile has three segments: jobs, pains, and gains. Let’s start with jobs: there are different kinds.


There are functional jobs. These are tasks a customer is trying to get done. Functional jobs are the closest to what we usually think of when we say “jobs.” If you’re working as waitstaff in a restaurant, your functional job might be to serve as the conduit between the kitchen and the customer; if you own a home, your functional job might be to mow the lawn or vacuum the carpets. Usually, this doesn’t apply to theater, although if you are performing for people in, say, prisons one of your most important customer segments would be the prison administrators whose functional job is to provide educational programming for the incarcerated. You can help them succeed at their job. And unless they let you in, your audience is out of reach!

More important to theater, I think, are social jobs and personal/emotional jobs.

Social jobs “describe how a customer wants to be seen by others.” Does going to a show at your theater provide the customer prestige among their friends or co-workers, for instance? Think of all those people who were willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get tickets to Hamilton. Were they dyed-in-the-wool theatergoers desperate to see a great new musical? Probably not. But being able to say to their friends, “I have tickets to Hamilton”—well, that creates envy and confers prestige. Certain venues are often considered particularly hip—long ago in a galaxy far, far away, Studio 54 was a New York club that had such a reputation, and getting in was a sign that you were “someone.” Similarly, when the Guthrie Theatre opened to much media fanfare in Minneapolis in 1965, having season tickets gave you a certain cachet in the Twin Cities. There are social circles in which going to the theater is a sign that you are cultured, sophisticated, or educated, and not necessarily in a snobbish way.

A Broadway show might solve a social “problem” for non-New York-based tourists—they want to come back from their Manhattan vacation to announce “I saw a Broadway show!” A better production of the same show might be available at an Off-Broadway theater, but the tourist is unlikely to see it, even though it is probably cheaper and they might enjoy the performance more, because saying “I saw an Off-Broadway show” won’t have the same cache back home, especially if the Broadway production has a Hollywood star in the lead. The “problem” they want solved involves being envied by their friends.

Personal/emotional jobs are those in which customers are seeking a “specific emotional state.” I once did a single performance of A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters on Valentine’s Day opposite movie star Andie McDowell. The venue sold out weeks prior to the performance, prompting the local newspaper to label the show the “hottest ticket in town.” Of course, there was some social prestige attached to seeing McDowell in person, but I’m pretty sure that the fact that we were performing on Valentine’s Day was the driving force. For all those couples looking for something special to do to celebrate Valentine’s Day, our show checked all the boxes. Personal/emotional jobs can take many forms. Some people go to a performance because they love the playwright’s work (the Shakespeare Industry has this as a foundation), or because they like being part of an audience laughing and applauding together, or they know somebody in the cast and they like seeing them perform, or they like learning new things. There are many, many personal or emotional reasons to attend theater.

You can imagine answers, of course, but until you are actually hearing from someone outside your circle of friends, you’re just guessing (and most likely projecting you own preferences onto other people). When you’re talking to someone who actually has the characteristics of your ideal audience member, listen very carefully, and try to find out what type of “job” theater (or other forms of storytelling, for that matter) helps them with.

Pains and Gains

In some ways, these don’t require a lot of explanation.Think back to Ten Thousand Things. Once Hensley had chosen her Customer Segment (people in homeless shelters, prisons, women’s shelters, etc. that were economically and racially diverse) she could look at the way theater is usually delivered and consider the pains her chosen audience might encounter. For instance:There are more, but that is enough to give a sense.

Hensley realized that many of her chosen audience would never have encountered theater before—that a Ten Thousand Things performance might be the first contact they’d ever had with live theater. She wanted “people to be blown away by their first encounter with theater.” So she did her best to eliminate the pains.The plays were carefully chosen to speak to the experiences of the specific audience for which they were performing. For instance, they did Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan, a play about a poor prostitute who suddenly is gifted some money by the gods, at a homeless shelter. Hensley always asked, “Who else would really care about this story?” In other words, it couldn’t just be a play she thought was cool, it had to be one that might speak to her particular audience.

And what was the gain? Hensley called it “radiance”: “the ineffable feeling of deep exchange with an audience.” More than just “connection,” Hensley says, radiance “comes from such a deep place, with minds, hearts, and imaginations all engaged at once.” Her chosen audience members, who often felt socially isolated as a result of their situation, were allowed to “imagine new worlds together in a moment.” I love this term: radiance. Let Hensley elaborate:

“[W]e were entering places where people were without expectations and used to making do with very little, where the rooms we had to perform in were already very spare–cinderblock walls, linoleum floors, maybe industrial carpeting. As we held up a Hula-Hoop and asked the audience to imagine it was the moon, we could viscerally feel the pleasure they took in the invitation. They would giggle, resisting for a bit, of course, but then take the plunge. We were offering them a chance to exercise the muscles of their imaginations and participate in the creation of an escape from their barren surroundings, at least for a few hours. We were helping them remember that they could still pretend, just like kids do. There is a palpable energy when everyone in a room is making things up together.”

Trying to “match a play to a specific audience,” and doing so in a way that wasn’t condescending, meant trying to imagine a play and performance through the eyes of the chosen audience. When you’ve chosen correctly, the connection is strong. “I think someone wrote my unauthorized biography!” one woman wrote after seeing Good Person of Setzuan. “It was moving and a release,” wrote another. "Wow! it helped me get a new perspective on a lot of difficult things in my life. It was fun and heartful.” And another man wrote, “Things like this make me really want to get my life in order. It makes me see that life really has a meaning. Thank you.” By watching a play, people surviving difficulties were allowed to feel not so alone—representation matters, right? They could see someone onstage struggling with something that they understood and may have experienced themselves.

The pains and gains of your chosen audience will be entirely different, of course, and while Michelle Hensley did not “get out of the building” to ask her chosen audience what they were wanting, she instead learned on the fly by closely watching every single performance, focusing almost entirely on the audience reactions, and gradually she came to understand them more deeply.

That’s your goal, too.

Let me give one more example of how other elements of your business model flow from your decision as to who you are serving, what jobs they need done, and what pains and gains they are experiencing.

Let’s say you love performing for children, and you decide that you want to focus on serving people in your community who are in their 20s and 30s and have children. So far, so good, but still awfully broad. Zoom in a bit more: people who are stay-at-home parents, homeschoolers, and child care professionals.

Now you need to “get out of the building” and talk to people who fit this description: what problems do they have that your theater might be able to solve? What ages are their kids? What are the needs of pre-K vs older? And so forth.

I haven’t talked to these people (YOU need to do that), but I’m going to use my imagination to come up with a few themes that might have turned up.

Stay-at-home parents with young children might tell you that they would really love to have an opportunity to have a break sometime during the day, maybe late morning of early afternoon. Just a chance to have a breather for an hour, maybe have a cup of coffee and talk to other adults, or run a quick errand.

How does this affect your thinking?

Well, one thing you might do is investigate open retail spaces at the local mall, preferably one not far from the food court. Parents could take their kids to the show/activity and then hang out at the food court or do some shopping. Maybe you do a show at 11:00 and 1:00, so either after or before parents could buy their kids lunch.

But a parent is not going to be comfortable leaving their small child without supervision, right? So you need to make sure the company members have been trained and licensed by the state, and that this fact is publicized. You also cap the max attendance at a number small enough to be supervised. You also might provide a free ticket for a couple parents to serve as observers/assistants for the show. Do you provide a snack after the show for the kids? Do the performers hang out with the kids afterwards?

What about the homeschoolers? This group of kids might be older, so anxiety about leaving them would be lessened. What you would need to find out is how you could help the parents with the curriculum they’re covering. What topics are being studied by that age group? How might you create a show (or find one already written) that could be considered a curricular enhancement? Because they’re older, you could schedule the performance later — say, 2:30 or 3:00.

When you talk to the parents, you ask about ticket prices. Money is tight, you hear a lot. Maybe you start to think: what if, instead of buying single tickets, parents did a monthly subscription that allowed them to bring the kids as often as they like, or up to a maximum number each month? This might be worth asking them about.

But if you need to keep the price low in order to make these shows attractive to people whose budgets are tight, how can you make it sustainable? Well, first you’d make sure that your shows didn’t cost an arm-and-a-leg to produce. Maybe you devise your own scripts, so you’re not paying royalties; maybe your designs focus on creative use of a small number of (reusable?) elements to encourage the kids to use their imagination (Ten Thousand Things might provide a nice model here, or something like black light theater); maybe the company is kept small, or other members of the company are involved in creating the evening show for adults in the same space? Maybe. Remember, once the parents trust you and know you personally, they might become curious about what else you do and join your audience for your grown-up shows in the evening.

Also, ask yourself: who else might benefit from what you’re doing and who might be able to provide supplementary income? Malls have started to feel the pinch of internet shopping, and many have a lot of empty storefronts. Might they find it worthwhile to give you free or reduced rent in order to draw people to the mall during the day? Might the food court owners be willing to kick in, even if it was something as small as, say, lunch for the cast (remember Robert Porterfield)? Worth a try. Alternatively, you might create an “adopt a cast member” program where families could host a company member for a meal once a month—I could imagine what effect this might have on a young audience member, for instance.

Your choice of Customer Segment opens the door to so much creative thinking, and lead to a business model that can provide you with a sustainable income and an enjoyable artistic life. Once you understand your customers, you can have the thrill of finding plays that you find creatively fulfilling and that your audience is likely to appreciate as well.

Here’s a good explainer of Value Proposition on YouTube:


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