A Monthly Repertory of Shows works for NYC improv, and could work for your theater too

Check out the schedule for NYC’s Peoples Improv Theater and UCB Chelsea. First of all, yes, there’s a sizable volume of programming and that has a lot to do with NYC’s teeming volume of audience and talent. This sort of loaded schedule is the only way to get a lot of them in.

When I visited these theaters, the midweek shows sold well, and not just because NYC is big and full of improv fans. I saw a monthly Harry Potter themed show turn away people at the door, as well as several other monthly themed shows.

Most theatres with nightly programming tend to run the same shows each week, or multi week runs of the same show on one or more nights. Several of these runs tend to sell fewer tickets, while some runs sell very well. Many lament the difficulty of promoting the show and getting butts in seats, but the NYC Improv model illustrated in the above calendars speaks to a key difference: Most theatres run the same shows over and over again, while the NYC theaters spread many monthly shows throughout the calendar.

Yes, the NYC theaters still have weekly flagship shows (Magnet Theater runs a more Chicago-like schedule of weekly shows and weekly headliners with guest groups). I also recall that the Magnet off-night shows were more lightly attended, despite being a popular NYC improv theater on par with UCB and the PIT as well as having a smaller venue.

I suspect that UCB and PIT’s monthly repertory had as much to do with their lucrative off-night houses as the vast NYC audience and improv community.

Show demand for a monthly show doesn’t get stale from repeated runs. If you miss a weekly show or a show in mid-run, you know there’s several more performances coming soon. You can go tomorrow night or next week. If you miss a show that only runs on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, you can’t see the show again until at least next month. If you’re a fan of the show, there’s incentive to save the date on your calendar and make sure you’re able to see it that night.

This also means you don’t have to cultivate nearly as much of an audience as you do for a multi-week show. You’re only filling one date a month instead of several. You only have to worry about getting enough asses in seats for that one show each month, instead of having to find enough asses in the seats for a show… multiplied by the number of shows in a month. There’s less of a likelihood of playing several empty houses.

You probably sell more seats for several differently monthly shows on, say, a Thursday, than you do for one show playing every Thursday night in a month. Each of those shows has its own individual demand, fills its own niche, and each cast has its own potential audience to draw from. But if you do a weekly Thursday show, that single show’s people now have the pressure of finding people to fill their seats for ALL those nights. Few will come back to see the show again, and many will easily skip shows knowing there will be other shows the following weeks.

The NYC theaters have developed many, many groups and themed shows they can run monthly. It also allows its players more freedom. Instead of being tied down to a show that’s running once or many times a week for a while, they only need to perform that show once in a month, and now have the time to explore and perform in other projects (and while yes they ought to rehearse for that show between performances, they are also free to, say, take a couple weeks off and then come back to rehearse 2-3 times before the next show). Performers can now actively explore working on multiple shows without overwhelming their schedules.

You can give a single production a 3-6 month run of shows on a given day of the month, e.g. the 1st Tuesday night, the 4th Wednesday night, the 3rd Sunday at 7pm, whatever. If they love it and it’s doing well, you extend it, and if it’s not you can sunset the show with a final performance and then replace it next month with a new monthly show.

If you’re concerned about the lack of freedom to allow emerging or experimental groups/productions the chance to perform a show, you can have them open for a given show. In fact, if you want to give a group a multi week run, you can have them do a brief opening set for, say, *every* Tuesday show that month, or for several different midweek shows during the month. Even if the group’s not good, you still have the quality monthly show headlining. If they ARE good, then you can explore sunsetting one of the lesser monthly shows and moving the new group into headlining the monthly slot. This also gives them the freedom to perform as a group elsewhere in-between shows.

Now, if you have a lucrative weekend show that always fills the house, you can still run that weekly at 8pm or 10pm on Friday or Saturday. That shouldn’t change. This is about finding off-night programming that will actually, consistently fill seats.

Chicago’s improv community has enough of a demand and market to fill a house seven nights a week. Many theaters who do 7-night programming struggle to fill the house on off-nights. A NYC style monthly repertory of shows could help them do so.

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