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

Chapter 21: Customer Channels and Relationships

It has always seemed weird to me the relationship that theater artists have to the audience. Maybe it’s that many of us are introverts, but it seems as if we model ourselves on film artists who, once the movie is over and the screen goes dark, no longer exist in the same place or time as the spectators. And we set up our performances to make this happen as much as possible.

Someone decides they want to see your show. Yay! They call the box office where they often speak to people who haven’t been involved in the show (or maybe haven't even seen it), or they order online without speaking to anyone (and get charged a fee to do so -- annoying!). When they arrive, the front-of-house staff are often looking at them through a small, barred window, and then they are ushered into the space with little interaction except having a program thrust into their hand. They sit in an empty theater quietly chatting to whomever they came with, and then a disembodied voice tells them that they should turn off their phones and that recording or photographing the performance is prohibited. The lights then go down on the audience and come up on the stage, forming a barrier of light that prevents the performers from seeing the audience, thus allowing them to pretend as if the audience doesn’t exist. Spectators learn that they should remain quiet and still except, if it’s a musical when they’re allowed to applaud at the end of songs. If their phone goes off during the performance, they should feel embarrassment and shame; if they have to go to the bathroom, they should hold it until intermission lest they disturb the performers and their fellow spectators. When intermission arrives, the lights come back up and the audience has 15 short minutes to stand in line to relieve themselves in rest rooms that accommodate only a few at a time, or buy coffee that will be too hot to drink or a beverage that there is insufficient time to drink. They are not allowed to bring any of these back into the theater. The show starts again, audience in the dark, actors in the light. At the end, the lights are raised just a bit during curtain call so that the performers can, for the first time, see their adoring fans providing the expected standing ovation. Only the performers are allowed to bow—the director, choreographer, playwright, designers, stage managers, backstage staff—are not included in the bow, and the audience assumes they don’t exist. Then the performers scurry offstage to the dressing rooms never to be seen again, while the audience slowly shuffles out of the theater.

And we wonder why only a handful of people attend theater.

In this chapter, I hope you will examine this model and consider whether any changes might be viable.


A “channel” is “how a company communicates with and reaches its Customer Segments to deliver a Value Proposition.” They serve several functions, including “raising awareness” about a show or company, “helping customers evaluate a company’s Value Proposition,” allowing customers to purchase tickets, and “post-purchase customer support.”

Let’s examine the Broadway model in terms of these channels.

A Broadway show raises awareness mostly through newspaper and TV advertising. They buy display ads in the entertainment sections of newspapers, they provide information to newspapers for their listings, they film promotional ads for television, they use social media by creating a Facebook event or develop a presence on Instagram, they put posters in the display cases at the front of the theater and enlarge the posters into ads for subway stations and the sides of buses. They make their stars available for interviews.

As far as helping customers evaluate their production, they rely on reviews. If they are good, they splash them on their posters and ads; if they are not so good, they close immediately.

They allow customers to purchase tickets online through a company that adds its own additional charges, or through the box office which has a minimal staff comprised mostly of grumpy, impatient employees. If the attendance is starting to fade, they make tickets available through the TKTS booth, where spectators earn their discount by standing in line for an hour or two, or they provide half-price coupons to students through area schools, especially theater schools.

There is no post-purchase customer support. You’re hustled out of the theater as quickly as possible after the show so everybody can go home.
Most institutional theaters mimic much of this model.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Post-Performance Customer Support

Let’s start with the element entirely lacking: “post-purchase customer support,” by which I mean what happens after the performance is ended. I’ll do this in terms of questions:The point is that you want your spectators to feel connected to your company, and feel as if they came away from a production having been enriched in some way, and it doesn’t take that much to make that happen. If you have some of these in place, it can provide an opportunity to do a play that you might normally avoid because it was “too difficult.” But if spectators know that they’ll have a chance to sort through their reactions afterwards (and/or be able to attend a short pre-show event to provide context for what they’re about to see), they might be willing to step outside their usual comfort zone.

Purchasing Tickets

Theaters tend to be pretty traditional about this. Your options are to call the box office, order online, or buy tickets the night of the performance. All fine, of course. Each could be tweaked in order to increase connection to the company (e.g., have cast members share the duty of answering the phone). But how else might it work?

When the regional theater movement was taking off in the 1960s and 1970s, Danny Newman became the star of selling season subscriptions through his still-in-print book, Subscribe Now! (The exclamation point was his, not mine.) The nature of society has changed, and it is harder for people to commit a year in advance to seeing a series of shows on a particular date. Theaters then switched to a coupon book model, where you get a discount if you buy a book of coupons that can be converted into tickets for whatever shows you want to see on whatever days you want to see them (as long as tickets were available). This provides upfront income for the theater, but ironically gives reduced priced tickets to the very “superfans” who would probably happily pay full price regardless. And all too often spectators would use all their tickets on a few well-known shows while skipping the less popular entirely.

So the single ticket buyer remains dominant. And that’s OK, too. But how might we reach them?

Channel Types

Business Model Generation separates channel types into those that you own, and those that involve partners. The authors list five examples: 1) sales force, 2) web sales, 3) own stores, 4) partner stores, 5) wholesaler.

It’s always interested me that theaters have never really had their own sales force, by which I mean people who go out into the community with the intention of selling tickets. Sometimes the artists are invited to give “talks” at places like Rotary Club, but those invitations are few and far between. What if there were a couple people, working on commission, who were out there visiting, say, company CEO’s to provide tickets to their employees, restaurant owners, college classrooms or professors, nonprofit groups whose area of focus touches on the theme of a specific play. Or perhaps they facilitate arts clubs that see plays at several different theaters in the area, or that attend a variety of arts events and films.

Seth Godin wrote an interesting book called Spreading the Ideavirus, in which he used the metaphor of how a virus is spread (through people sneezing -- in this COVID world, this metaphor may be less appealing) to how an ideavirus is spread (through enthusiasts telling other people). At one point, Godin created what he called the “Domino Project,” which published his own books and made deeply-discounted books available to anyone who was interested, except there was one catch: they had to buy at least five copies. The idea was that he wanted his fans empowered to give copies of the book to their friends, colleagues, or employees and then, presumably, discuss some of the ideas afterwards. He wanted people talking about his books. Might you not develop your own cadre of “sneezers,” fans for whom you’d provide discounted tickets if they bought three or more on the same night and they all sat together? This might be particularly useful in the early stages of your audience development, when these “loss leaders” might increase your fan base to people you’d have never reached otherwise.

Another channel type is “own stores.” Usually, this would be our box office. But what if we made it easier? Could there be a drive-through box office along a popular thoroughfare, for instance? Or could you partner (now we’re on to another channel type: “partner stores”) with, say, a local fast food restaurant to sell tickets through their drive-thru, making the pitch that they might attract customers for their food that might never have tried them? Or have a nice endcap at a local grocery store. What if you could convince the state to allow free tickets to be one of the prizes on a scratch-off ticket? (OK, that might be a reach.)

The ”wholesaler” might be less useful, although this is what the TKTS booth is in New York, and there are people who have businesses that buy blocks of tickets to be sold at a markup by nonprofits as a fundraiser. Perhaps you could partner with a local nonprofit, say, to serve as a source of half-price same day rush tickets, providing a cut to the nonprofit for each ticket sold. Or do what the Pickle Family Circus did, and split ticket sales with a local nonprofit in exchange for their advance work.

I’m sure you can come up with many more creative and innovative ideas. Not all may work, but some might, and they might help you expand your audience and build a revenue stream.

What about Customer Relationships? Well, the first thing might be to avoid contacting people only when you want to sell them something. Find out what you could do for them. Is there a high school theater teacher that you could help with a production they’re doing? Send someone over to watch rehearsal and provide feedback to the teacher or the cast? Share some props or costumes? Provide a workshop for one of their classes? Maybe you have a connection to some health care workers in a children’s hospital or a hospice: could you send somebody over to do a 10-minute play, sing a song, do improv with a kid in a hospital bed? Use your imagination.

What if you created 10-minute plays that were perfect for performance in a living room or back yard, or readings of short stories, and you let people know that these were available…in exchange for the artists being able to join the party afterwards. Again, become part of the community, instead of standing outside it like you’re special.

What about when the spectator comes to a show? How are they treated? Are any of the artists hanging around in the lobby or running the box office? Are there complimentary snacks available at intermission (do you really make that much money selling them, even at ridiculously inflated prices?). Does the staff make an attempt to learn names? If you behave like a functionary, you lose a chance to make a connection.

Here’s an idea: what if you had a special deal for people who have never been to a theater before, where you have a company member meet them prior to the show at a restaurant, eat together, and then accompany them to the performance and even watch it with them. Do you think that might make things less intimidating to a non-theatergoer? Maybe you schedule a special free performance where the only people who are allowed are those who have never seen a play live before. Maybe it involves a tour, meeting the artists, and a post-show conversation.

Often prior to a show these days, somebody comes out and lays down the law: turn off your cell phone, don’t take pictures or make videos, if you have to leave sneak out like a thief, and so forth. What if you didn’t do that? What if you had a section of your theater where people weren’t forbidden from quietly using their phones to text, for instance, or take pictures without a flash? Or what if you explicitly encouraged the audience to vocally respond to what’s happening on the stage, and taught the actors that this is OK. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Richard Wagner turned the lights off and told the audience to shut up during his operas; before then, performances were noisy, food and beverages were sold during the show, wealthy spectators sat on the stage itself and bantered with the actors, angry spectators threw things at the stage… I’m not suggesting that you we return to those rules (although showings of the film version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show certainly replicates the experience today), but dang it, we’ve become way too uptight about “theater etiquette,” and we may be driving people away. Do you want to be stuffy?

Are there any opportunities to allow the audience to participate in the show? I know, I know, many audience members hate this idea, but we sure like it with magic, and a play like Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself is built on it. You may remember Mike Wiley from Chapter 5 who invites audience members onstage to play a variety of roles, staying in character himself while integrating his volunteers into dramatic events in a way that is non-threatening and humorous. Because he’s the playwright, this is skillfully integrated (another benefit of having a playwright in the company).

Over the years, we have made theater less and less inviting, more and more formal. How could we make it more inviting, more personal?

This page has paths: