I have a pet theory as to why Joe Public stays away from the live theatre: He doesn't want to be disappointed. It's not so much a pet theory as a dead horse I like to wail on from time to time. Almost as much as I like to quote Seth Godin. Speaking of which:
So who comes on opening night? No discounts, no reviews, no warning...Gotta love them "true fans." They're not your problem. Your problem is Joe Public!
The patrons come. For them, part of the attraction of art is that they don't know in advance if they're going to like it. They come for a simple reason: it feels good to support something because they can, not merely because it's a good value.
And the true fans come. They come because the artist has earned their trust. "If you made it, that's good enough for me," they say. They come because to not come is to not be a true fan, with all that entails.
Joe has no patience for crap. He's outcome oriented: "Entertain me!" he says as he plops down his greenbacks. He'll go see whatever big action movie just opened because at the very least, he'll get spectacle. Joe Public wants a good value. He wants to know in advance if he's going to like it.
And at $25 a ticket, why the hell shouldn't we give him a clear indication of whether or not he will? A clear and concise -- some may say cynical and crass -- guide to what's currently occupying our Under-99's across Los Angeles may just encourage Joe to put down the Xbox controller, cancel that pay-per-view UFC fight, or eject that Blu-ray disc and instead throw on a clean hoodie and go see a play.
You may be saying to yourself, "Do we even want that kind of patron to darken our door?" Look, just quit entertainment. There's still time to get a job in arts administration. Seriously.
So here's the proposal to bring Joe Public into our meager little black boxes. I call it ...
The Theatre Guide for People Who Hate Theatre
... and it would have the following sections:
RUN TIME Three hour plays may be incredibly gratifying to the people putting them on, but let's not kid ourselves: A three hour MOVIE damn well better have a major battle scene involving giant robots, orcs, spaceships, WWII or some combination of all four. At the very least, give Joe a heads-up. A short runtime = "At the very least, it's short." A long runtime = "There had better be swordplay and/or gratuitous nudity."
GENRE Is it a light-hearted romantic comedy or a serious psychodrama? Look, let's make it easy on Joe Public: "ROMANTIC COMEDY". Oh God, do we hate labels. "We're all iconoclasts, dammit! You can't label what we do!" Look, either you provide the label, or Joe Public will. What you're doing here is managing expectations. The choice to call it a "Romantic Comedy" instead of just "Comedy" or "Romance" will actually color the way your audience perceives the play. Make it accurate! (Don't we all just hate the romantic comedy that pitches itself as an action film?)
SYNOPSIS Logline. TV Guide synopsis. Don't write a novel, just tell Joe what it's about. You would be surprised how many show postcards omit the very simple step of TELLING THE AUDIENCE WHAT THE DAMN THING IS ABOUT. Sure, the postcard is pretty, but what's the story?
WHAT IT IS LIKE You're going to hate this one: Yes, I'm suggesting you describe the show in terms of "high concept." This guide is all about letting Joe know what he can expect, right? So tell him, in words he can instantly translate into concepts. "The guide says it's 'Donnie Darko' meets "Gosford Park.' Sweet. I'll have to check out this 'Hamlet'." (What a piece of work is a man.) And by the way, every play about a pedophile ever written is "Law & Order: SVU" meets "Stealing Home".
PRODUCTION VALUES Are there any? As I said, Joe Public is willing to pay to see spectacle, if nothing else. A set, decent costumes, more than three semi-functional fresnels -- these things matter. You don't have to belabor it (unless there's something worth noting like flying monkeys or gratuitous nudity), maybe just give it a star rating.
PARKING Will Joe Public miss the first ten minutes of the show because he's doing laps? True confession time: I've bailed on seeing a show because I couldn't find parking, and I got fed up looking. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who's done that. So break it down for Joe Public: "Meters are safe after 6pm." "Park around the corner at the Moose Lodge." Etc.
CONCESSIONS "If you can't entertain me, at least give me a snack." A genius once said this to me, and it is as true as it is pithy. We all know that alcohol is the social lubricant, and theatre is a social art, so lubricate the audience!
In closing, one of my fellow Die Grüppe castmates recently had this to say after one of our shows: "I had some audience members who were NOT friends of mine tell me they thought it was really funny." That should be what we're shooting for: entertaining complete strangers. Yes, we love the True Fans, and we are always happy to see familiar faces in the audience. The real challenge is to reach the seemingly unreachable, to push out of our circle of True Fans and create new fans. That's how you grow.