Like most performance arts, improv suffers from an excess of interested performers and producers, but a relative dearth of available interested audience. And like most performance arts, improvisers and producers of improv tend towards a one sided view towards the challenge of finding an audience for their improv. They see it as ‘how do we sell tickets and get butts in seats?’ rather than ‘how do we form relationships with a community that will want to support us?’, not realizing that answering the 2nd question is the most effective way of answering the 1st question.
Improv theaters with training programs grow an easy audience by giving students free passes to shows. But they’re not making money at the door when those students attend. Comps fill your seats but don’t pay off your expenses. And their word of mouth doesn’t go far, since nearly all their peers are also improvisers, and in our post-modern self-absorbed society almost none will pay the word of mouth any real mind.
Big Chicago improv theaters like iO and Second City have a long-standing built in audience for its main shows. However many of their lesser shows, and most shows elsewhere, struggle to fill seats even during prime time slots. Most shows seem like a case of a show in need of an audience, or shows made primarily for the sake of those making them, rather than made for an audience in need of a show.
Some inconvenient truths about producing improv shows:
– Unfortunately, when producing a show, your goal typically is to make money, at least enough to pay off your expenses to produce the show. No one’s into making improv shows to get rich, but anyone who makes a show happen at least wants to pay back the $200-400 or so to rent the venue, plus the cost of any rehearsal space, or a board op if they needed to pay one. And of course it’s nice if they can ever pay performers a little for their trouble. Turning a profit isn’t even on the radar. It’s just about making the show worth your while.
– The bulk of most improv shows’ audiences consists of other improvisers. These peers don’t have a lot of free time or disposable income. Rarely will they pay full price to see a show. But, like theater and dance, improv doesn’t do much to engage or cultivate an audience outside of its own peers.
– Marketing efforts often amount to the same ham fisted and too often annoying methods: Flyering + postering, Facebook invites, disposable-quality YouTube videos, email lists, begging for press from publications and websites, etc.
– Unsolicited word of mouth also comes up empty. I hear a couple dozen times a week about some really awesome show someone saw or otherwise knows about. When I hear about a show, I’m respectful about the input but I’m likely not going to see it. Whether or not I have the time and money… hell, even if I am interested, I have far too much else going on. So does pretty much every other improviser, let alone anyone who is not into improv or your improv group.
– Most people’s natural introverted aversion to sales and marketing (people generally don’t like directly trying to persuade someone to do something they probably don’t want to do), combined with the comfort zone of one’s social circle, leads people to lean on Facebook and other passive marketing methods that feel productive but often don’t bring much of anyone to the theater.
– We forget that other people are just as low on disposable income as we are, and are as strapped for time as we are. Most share our same schedules. If you don’t have the time and money to see a show costing that much, at that time… they probably don’t either.
– We forget that, if we aren’t interested or willing to pay to see a show at that time, for that price, with that content, etc… others in our demographic probably aren’t either. We forget that, if the investment and effort to see a show seems like too much of a bother for us, the driven working improviser… it’s probably too much for other driven working improvisers, let alone the not-as-driven casual audience that you want to pay full price to see your show.
– The more roadblocks you place to seeing your show (like ticket prices $10 and higher, a late start time on a work night, an unfavorable venue, an uninspiring lineup of groups, spammy and annoying marketing), the easier it is for anyone, let alone an improviser, to say no-thanks. Most non-improvisers also don’t have much money, and choosing to buy a ticket to a show, even a $5-10 ticket, is often for them an important one. You face a steep uphill battle to convince them to come.
– Simply put, it takes far more interest in and empathy for a target audience, and a committed interest in that audience’s needs and lifestyles, than we want to admit. The work to engage your community is just as important, if not more important, than scheduling and staging the actual show. If you don’t cultivate an outside audience, then you may as well have never produced the show.
No one in performing arts likes confronting the reality of show marketing. We generally don’t do it well, and we rely on methods that were outdated a decade ago to reach a changed culture that doesn’t respond to those methods. Effective marketing needs to be more personal and direct, and more about building relationships with a larger community that will in turn take interest and initiative in seeing your work with minimal or no solicitation.
While I think we can do better, and find a better way to cultivate an audience community, there is also one final inconvenient truth: There are currently far more improv performers and far more shows than our culture wants or needs.
Let’s never mind that improv is still a strange unknown topic to many people, and that if people were aware they may be more interested. Jai Alai is a strange and unknown sport to people in the U.S. You think there’s a huge untapped market for that? You think all they’re missing is mere informative marketing? Highly doubtful. While improv is more applicable, sure, the ceiling for its reach may be lower than people want to believe.
I recognize that the unfortunate best answer, for both improvisers and potential audiences, may either be for the community as a whole to do fewer shows, as well as eliminate shows produced in unfriendly time slots (unless overwhelming audience demand presents itself)… or to create a more affordable and attractive way for improvisers to stage free and otherwise easily accessible shows (i.e. more shows like Shithole).
In the interim, we ought to stay optimistic and open minded, to grow our audience for paid shows while we can, and find a better way to do it.
I’m not saying I have answers. But I do see what is not working, and I do have at least a general idea of how to do things better.
It’s important that we engage an audience that may want and be more easily able to see such a show. I have some ideas in mind to find that audience, in early stages, but it’s definitely more than posters, a Metromix listing and a Facebook invite.
I’d love to talk it over with an artists or producers who also want to change the paradigm on show marketing, and help find and grow a new audience for our work.