Monday, May 9, 2016

It's all a crap shoot: The art and science of programming a season

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the closing performance of The Encore Musical Theatre Company's production of "Always...Patsy Cline," which was a near-perfect, two-hour romp through approximately two dozen of the country superstar's songs. It was easy to see why most of the four-weekend run was sold out: Cline's memorable tunes and Ted Swindley's script were given life by a superb team of actors (Emmi Veinbergs and Sonja Marquis) and musicians (under the direction of Dan Mikat) whose skills and love of the material were evident from the moment the lights went up on the first number. Because they were having blast, so too was the audience - so much so that I expected the woman next to me to burst into song at any moment. (Thankfully, she didn't, but you could tell she really, really wanted to!)

But it was a conversation with development director Chuck Colby during intermission that got me thinking.

One of the toughest tasks faced by artistic directors everywhere is deciding which shows to schedule in an upcoming season. As every AD knows, it's one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck added to the mix.

In other words, despite careful planning, examining historical trends and the best of intentions, putting a season together is like a roll of the dice: Sometimes you come up with a seven, but oftentimes you don't.

In the past, conventional wisdom recommended that theaters should program two comedies, one drama and a musical in a four-play season. Others stressed the importance of mostly "name" shows each season in order to guarantee a certain level of ticket sales (which would then subsidize the one "risky" show of the season).

So how'd that work? Pretty much like you'd expect: Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In recent years, however - thanks to the long recession we've been in - so-called experts have recommended ADs schedule mostly well-known comedies, small-cast shows and as many musicals as a theater can afford. Some have even discouraged new works. ("Who's going to want to see something they've never heard of before with so much competition out there," I've heard these so-called experts say.)

So how'd this philosophical change work out? Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In other words, it appears that "conventional wisdom" gets you only so far - which brings me back to my discussion with Chuck, who noted how "Always...Patsy Cline" outsold the earlier "Sondheim on Sondheim" by quite a bit. Both of us found that to be rather interesting; "conventional wisdom" might suggest otherwise - that the "god of musical theater" would outrank a long-deceased country western singer. But that wasn't what happened.

A similar question was raised last year when The Purple Rose Theatre decided to shut down its excellent production of "2AZ." Despite great word of mouth, the slick execution of a well-thought-out marketing plan and the popularity of zombies, the early closure left many wondering why audiences failed to materialize in the numbers "conventional wisdom" may have predicted. (Some theorized that the box-office letdown was because "2AZ" was a world premiere - hence, an unknown product with no track record. But that doesn't explain the success of many other world premieres at The Purple Rose.)

There are many other examples of unexpected box-office failures, of course; "name" shows expected to sell well at the Fisher Theatre, for example, did just the opposite. And I could go on and on.

So what defies "conventional wisdom," you might be wondering? A lot, actually. And much of it comes down to what I refer to in this and many other instances as "The Infamous X-Factor." More about that in a minute or five.

Personal experience with conventional wisdom

But first, a momentary diversion.

As many readers may not know, I spent much of the 1970s through the 1990s working as an executive for various local professional theater companies that specialized in what's known as Theater for Young Audiences (meaning professional adult actors performing shows for children, teens and adults). With lofty titles that included administrative director, producer and executive director (and without the lofty pay to go with them), my responsibilities often included working with our artistic directors to plan our future seasons. Or in some cases, to plan them myself.

And so I've experienced first hand what goes into putting together a slate of shows - and then watched as "the fates" went to work proving us to be a mix of geniuses and fools.

What I learned from years of firsthand experience was this: Even the best planning can't escape The Infamous X-Factor.

Those who know me both in and out of theater can tell you that I'm a data-driven guy: Numbers and spreadsheets are my constant companions.

Because most of my theater career was spent producing shows that toured to schools, libraries, recreation centers and other such places across the state, that meant we were invited guests at these facilities - and since the managers and I couldn't attend every performance, I needed a tool that would help us determine how successful we were at providing a quality product and service to our customers.

And so I developed a brief survey form (that many of our production managers hated, by the way) that we distributed at every performance to five or 10 of "the decision makers" who brought us into their space and/or paid for our visit, such as the principal, PTA president, sponsoring teachers, etc. These were passed out prior to the performance and usually collected before we left, and from these we developed various statistics that helped us understand our company's strengths and weaknesses. (Why didn't we give surveys to the kids in the audience, you might be wondering? Because - as anyone who has ever worked in this field of entertainment can tell you - children are the most honest audience members you'll ever encounter: If they love the show, you'll know it; you'll know it even more if they hate it! Adults are not so honest - at least not to your face; they are are much more prone to be honest and critical in writing.)

The surveys, then, helped us to quickly spot problems that our sales team and production managers might not have realized. (Or that they tried to hide from management.) And they also served as a window into the country's rapidly changing culture and what adults considered "acceptable" for children's entertainment.

So after combining the survey results with actual sales data, it became pretty clear which shows were successful and which were not; which types of shows were more popular than others; which shows should be carried over into another year and which should not. And suggestions from our customers would also help shape our future.

But relying on data alone can also prove disastrous - as we learned with a show called "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose."

One of several shows we commissioned from Canadian playwright Jo Hubbard (a one-time puppeteer on the CBC-TV series "Sun Parlor Country"), "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose" was just that: a satirical retelling of classic fairy tales. We introduced it in 1980 and it sold well enough (and was popular enough) to return the next year for half a season. A few years later it was revived by popular demand, this time as a mini-musical - and once again it sold quite well and was very well received.

Therefore, based on the extremely positive feedback we received, we decided to extend the show into the next season - with the same cast, the same director, and the same music director. And when the first performance of the new season hit the road, it bombed. Horribly so.

Not with the kids, however. They loved it - hence, the reason why our production manager and cast didn't know a dangerous storm was brewing.

So imagine my surprise shortly after the first performance when - via U.S. mail - a handful of surveys arrived that deemed the show one of the most offensive productions ever presented in front of a young audience. (Yes, I'm exaggerating, but only slightly so.)

Since no one on our team could explain the differences of opinion, past experience told me to chalk it up to a bad day at the school and leave it at that. (Everyone connected to the show claimed it went well.) Bad move.

The next performance received a similar response from the adults. (Again, the kids loved it.)

So where was the disconnect?

In the script, Hubbard included an updated "bit" used for centuries to entertain kids and adults alike, one that's familiar to (and beloved by) fans of the "I Love Lucy" series. Remember the "Vitameatavegamin" episode? In "Mother Goose," it wasn't alcohol that caused the Baker to create a rather unusual cake, but some other cockamamie excuse (that I no longer remember). The result, however, was the same: His skills deteriorated - and the stage got messier - the more the Baker ingested this substance.

So why was this scene perfectly fine one year, but detested the next?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving had entered the public consciousness, effectively removing from the public square any and all such portrayals. (Remember Foster Brooks? His long-beloved character was swept into the dustbin of history at around the same time and for the same reason.)

After calling the second school and getting a blistering earful, I made the decision to cancel the rest of the tour - and to replace the bookings with a very popular (and much more expensive) show at no extra charge by mime O.J. Anderson. (Removing the offending scene would cut too much time from the show, and there was no time to create something new in its place.)

Reactions to the cancellation were interesting, however: Several of the schools I called still wanted the show, even after I read them comments from the written surveys and told them what the second school said of the production. "Trust me," I told them. "Wouldn't you rather have a guaranteed fabulous event instead of taking a risk with a show that may likely offend some people?" Ultimately, everyone agreed to make the change. And as predicted, everyone loved O.J.!

Yes, ya gotta love them Infamous X-Factors.

So what exactly is an Infamous X-Factor?

Basically, what I refer to as an "Infamous X-Factor" (from a theater perspective, at least) is anything an artistic director can't predict when planning a season - such as a blizzard on opening night; playoff games added to the schedule that now conflict with your production (and compete for limited parking) a few blocks from the stadium; your landlord shuts down your rental space; the rights to a show are pulled because a revival is opening soon on Broadway; the cast comes down with food poisoning; a nearby competitor opens a show that runs the exact dates as yours; and what was once socially acceptable no longer is.

The list goes on and on.

But of equal importance are the many decisions we humans make based on feelings that can change one moment to the next. Don't feel like catching a show tonight? Then I won't go. Not in the mood for a musical? Then I'll check out a drama. Don't like Sondheim? I'll skip the next show at my favorite theater. Get a better offer? I'll skip the theater altogether. Running low on cash? I'll go to a movie instead. Don't have someone to go with? Then I'll stay home.

This list, too, goes on and on.

So, yes: Things don't always go as planned. Some shows sell well, while others don't - and it's not always easy to figure out what happened - if at all.

The bottom line, then, is this: Planning a theater season is one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck thrown into the mix. And one can only hope that fate deals far more winning hands than losing ones.

But as any artistic director will likely tell you, it sure is a whole lot of fun planning (and then executing) a new season - as long as you keep plenty of Tums close by at all times, that is!


  1. Great article. 2AZ tanked because it did not appeal to our core audience aged 54 and over. They don't care about zombies. Nationally, the stats according to many sources , AEA, TCG Broadway Alliance, etc. tell us this demographic has the time and disposable income and are looking for interesting things to do. This is the average age of the average patron who sees one or more professional (AEA) shows a year. There is not a professional theatre in the country that can make a living marketing to 20 and 30 somethings. I don't want to get into the debate about what is a professional theatre and what isn't. In the industry, it's one with an AEA contract.

  2. Thanks, Guy! Unfortunately, you helped prove those statistics right, despite the amazing efforts your team put forth reaching out to young zombie lovers. And it's too bad, since folks of any age who chose not to attend missed one heck of an entertaining show!

    And yes, experts are now saying that theaters that chase the elusive 20 and 30 somethings are wasting time, energy and money, as they tend to be focused on finding jobs, advancing their careers, getting married, raising a family, and whatever else young adults do. When they get to their 40s and later, their focus changes.

    Also unfortunate, however, is that with the lack of arts education in grades K-12, people are not being exposed to live theater at young ages like they used to. And that means it might be tough getting them interested to attend as adults. I plan to address that here sometime soon as well.