For many years, my wife and I have held a season subscription to the plays at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco. They put on some really great shows -- a mix of new and old (including at least one play by either Tom Stoppard or David Mamet pretty much every season, which is great, since those are probably my two favorite playwrights). This latest season kicked off with a bang a few weeks back with an amazing adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter
, done by the Kneehigh Theatre group from the UK. Having attended dozens of plays at ACT over the years, I can't remember any that I thought was quite so amazing or that made me want to run out and tell lots and lots of people to go see it. It's the most imaginatively staged play I've ever seen, and you have to have a serious psychological disorder not to smile through most of it (despite the serious subject matter: marital affairs). I think the opening line to the SF Gate review summed up my thoughts
Every so often a theater piece comes to town that is so brilliantly conceived and executed, so entertaining on every level, that you want everyone you love or even like just a bit to see it. Kneehigh Theatre's "Brief Encounter," the opening show in the American Conservatory Theater's new season, is that kind of experience.
You kind of have to see the play itself to understand what's so creative about it, but as a hint, before the play even starts, the actors show up in different parts of the theater and start playing instruments and singing songs -- totally unannounced (and many in the crowd ignored it) right up until the play starts. Then, during intermission, they ended up doing something similar in the bar area (downstairs, not upstairs), before mingling with the crowd as everyone made their way back to the theater. Considering most of the actors are on-stage close to the entire time during the play, it's noteworthy that they then end up extending things both before the play and during the intermisison. It really is a neat way for the actors to more closely "connect" with the fans at the show.
Anyway... that, by itself, obviously isn't the sort of thing we post around here, but when I saw the news that the engagement had been extended for another week
(the second time already) due to popular demand, I wanted to send that news to a few friends who I knew would enjoy the show, and did a quick search to find that SF Gate review (separately, I believe the play is heading to NY and then Minnesota in the coming months, for folks in either place). In doing so, I came across a blog post from a dramaturg who works at ACT talking about how the artistic department of ACT is trying to get much more involved in meeting
people at the theater and improving the overall experience:
An idea I had over the summer, the SHOP puts the creators of Words on Plays (my supervisor and me) in the theater to personally sell our product and discuss it--as well as the play itself and the theater more generally--with our patrons. Part of our theater's mission is to encourage conversation; we're taking this tenant literally. Previously Words on Plays was sold at the merchandise counter, but that counter is remaining unmanned this season because of low sales. So our timing was good.
The idea is to get more in touch with the fans coming to the theater and build a stronger relationship, while still offering "reasons to buy" (the whole RtB part...). While it sounds like direct sales of the book weren't a big deal, it is still helping more people connect with the theater overall and come back to see more plays (a bigger moneymaker than any book...):
Our patrons are most familiar with our theater's hospitality and fundraising staffs. Certainly not a bad thing, but what if this model was exchanged for one in which representatives from the artistic staff were always present to discuss what the patrons are really there to think about--the art?
This is how smaller theaters have to do it because everyone is doing everything. The artistic director is the ticket taker. The playwright is the one who knows where the fire extinguisher is. And it's lovely. Every show you are being welcomed in by a family.
This is where my thinking started. I would stand at my booth selling my product and furthering conversation about the show. But I think I may have been thinking too small. Last night I sold five copies. Commendable but negligible. But I also sold at least two couples on November, our next show, by simply telling them how funny a script it is. I spoke to another gentleman about his time in England. I made a handful of people laugh when I directed them to the new location for the hearing devices: "Why don't you put a sign up?" "Because then I wouldn't get to talk to you."
Indeed. Over the last few months, we've been seeing how the whole CwF + RtB
concept isn't just working for musicians, but authors, movie makers, photographers and many other content creators as well. Most of these experiments are still early, but you get a sense that actually building real connections with fans is really working for those who truly put their hearts into it. And, oh yeah, if you're in San Francisco, you really should go check out Brief Encounter