In a recent Ask Me Anything (AMA) session, On The Stage’s founder, Hunter Arnold, shared his thoughts on the current state of theatre and what lies ahead. Arnold also founded TBD Theatricals and, through his work as a Tony and Olivier Award-winning producer, has played a pivotal role in bringing acclaimed productions to the stage, including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hadestown,” and “A Strange Loop.” 

Here are the highlights from the conversation, including Arnold’s valuable insights on trends, challenges, and strategies for the future.

Theatre in a Post-Covid World

The COVID-19 pandemic left a lasting impact on the global theatre industry, with varying degrees of recovery between the U.S. and U.K. Hunter explains that the resumption of theatre differs significantly by region and approach. “The West End in London is thriving, surpassing pre-pandemic metrics across the board,” he says. In contrast, the American touring system is about 7-10% below pre-pandemic levels. Regional theatres in the U.S. are struggling more, with audience numbers and subscriptions significantly down. 

Hunter attributes this mainly to cultural factors, noting, “In the U.K., theatre is deeply embedded in everyday life and supported by governmental programs, making it accessible and affordable. In the U.S., however, funding for the arts is being cut all over.”

Hunter highlights the importance of continuous audience engagement for quicker recovery, stating, “The less you take audience development for granted, the quicker you recover when some blip occurs.”

Balancing What You Want Versus What You Need

Programming a theatre season involves a delicate balance between audience desires and economic viability. Hunter’s strategy is straightforward: “[I create] a season that lets me give people what they want and what they need, and let’s me have a next season.” He emphasizes that ensuring that shows are economically viable is crucial to maintaining creative freedom. 

Introducing lesser-known or challenging shows can be tricky, but Hunter offers several strategies:

  • Strategic Programming: Combine popular, guaranteed-sell productions with more challenging, lesser-known works.
  • Economic Subsidization: Financially support challenging shows with profits from popular ones.
  • Value-Added Engagement: Offer additional experiences such as talkbacks, workshops, or discounted tickets to attract and retain audiences.
  • Community Building: Use comping and discount programs to introduce new audiences to your theatre.
  • Lower Barriers to Entry: Make attending theatre more accessible through pricing strategies or charitable initiatives.
  • Audience Trust: Foster trust by regularly communicating and programming shows that reflect their interests and values.
  • Follow-Up Engagement: Encourage repeat visits by offering discounts or incentives for future shows.

Reaching a Wider Audience with Advertising

Hunter believes traditional advertising often feels disingenuous to modern audiences. Instead, he advocates for leveraging genuine audience sentiment on social media. “People trust direct, validated personal endorsement and communication much more,” he explains. 

He emphasizes micro-influencers power over mainstream influencers in the theatre world, explaining, “[A] positive mention from a local blogger can drive significant ticket sales, while a celebrity endorsement mainly boosts press coverage.”

He also emphasizes the importance of getting the entire cast and crew involved in promoting the show. On the first day of rehearsals, he conducts social media training to help everyone understand how to spread the word effectively.

 

“If I only had a hundred $1,000 to spend and I was gonna spend it either on T.V. or on amplifying social media sentiment… I would choose B all day long.”

 

Using Technology to Enhance Patron Experiences

Modernizing theatre operations to match audience preferences for ease and automation is crucial. Hunter stresses the importance of digital tickets and streamlining front-of-house processes to enhance the patron experience. 

He says, “If I can get a restaurant reservation without talking to someone, I am significantly more likely to show up at that restaurant than if I have to talk to somebody to do it.” A smooth entry process not only improves perceptions of the show but also allows more time for other revenue opportunities like food, drinks, and merchandise.

Our V.P. of Customer Success, Brett Kashanitz, also emphasizes how a smooth front-of-house experience can enhance overall satisfaction. Easy entry processes improve the show’s perception and allow more time for other revenue opportunities like food, drinks, and merchandise.

Boosting Attendance and Ticket Sales

To address low ticket sales, Hunter suggests implementing patron programs like flash sales with a matching donation component and transparently communicating goals to avoid empty seats. Offering discounted or complimentary tickets to those in need can foster community engagement without causing dissatisfaction among full-price ticket buyers.

When considering ticket pricing strategies, Hunter advises against frequent price changes. Instead, he recommends adjusting prices during periods of economic stability. Dynamic pricing, where ticket prices fluctuate based on demand and timing, can optimize revenue without alienating customers. Offering a range of pricing options ensures all patrons feel welcome and valued!

Funding Options within the Local Community

Hunter encourages exploring funding opportunities through grant writers and unclaimed government arts funding. He notes, “Almost every program has unclaimed cash. Very few programs run out of budget.” 

Partnerships with larger community organizations and creative fundraising strategies like naming rights and seat plaques can also provide essential revenue.  “Once one person decides to support you, you will find that so do all of their peers,” he adds.

Non-Ticket Revenue Streams

Hunter challenges the notion that theatre is always pricey and suggests increasing perceived value through exceeding expectations and making patrons feel special. 

“I love to do surprise and delight moments in previews,” he shares. Strategies like handing out limited edition merchandise or orchestrating impromptu seat upgrades can enhance the overall experience and encourage repeat visits.

Optimizing Resources and Enhancing Overall Experiences

Streamlining the ticket-purchasing process is essential. Hunter suggests offering additional options post-purchase to enhance the experience without creating friction. Proactive communication with patrons, like offering personalized add-ons, can further improve satisfaction and optimize revenue. Drawing inspiration from Disney, he highlights the power of small gestures, such as providing “1st-time” stickers, to make patrons feel recognized and valued.

Hunter says, “Thank people and remind them that you appreciate them.” He highlights the economic benefits of local theatre and suggests simple, actionable steps for patrons to support the theatre. Tools like post-show emails and directors’ letters can help foster ongoing support and engagement.

 

“You can be a mission-driven person or organization and still allow audience development to be an important part of the mission.”

 

Engaging Younger Audiences

Engaging younger audiences early on is crucial for the future of theatre. Hunter proposes hosting free storytime sessions with actors to attract younger audiences and their families. “You have to build this stuff starting early. Pipeline does not happen fast,” he points out. Investing in youth outreach efforts builds a pipeline of future theatregoers and ensures the vitality of the arts.

Learn More

Hunter Arnold’s invaluable insights offer practical strategies for theatres navigating the evolving post-COVID landscape. From balancing programming with audience interests to exploring innovative ways to engage and retain patrons, Hunter’s expertise provides a roadmap for success.

Delve deeper into these essential topics by watching the on-demand webinar or tuning in to the audio on your next drive. Whether you’re a theatre professional or simply passionate about the arts, there’s something here to inspire and inform your journey forward!

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