On a dreary Saturday last November I sat in an event room at the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN. I nervously adjusted the suit I was wearing and frantically sipped a bottle of water, looking from my table out to the currently empty room of chairs, some of which would contain real actual humans soon. They were from all over the world, and they wanted to hear what I had to say about a topic that was near and dear to my heart: How on earth do you get people to show up to theatre pieces they’ve never heard of?
The issue is close to me because I run a professional musical theatre company in Madison, Wisconsin that does just that: Presents new and lesser-known pieces. Our niche is important but tough. We must convince theatergoers, who traditionally buy tickets to things they recognize, that there is a future for this art form. We as an organization tenuously balance our budget, knowing that we can’t rely on a boom of ticket sales for the work we do simply based on the titles.
I founded the company in 2005, attended the University of Hard Knocks for about eight years, and then decided to get my Masters from Drexel. Attending the residency on campus was extremely inspiring, and the coursework fed into what I believe is the most crucial part of what arts administrators do: Innovation. What we do is about so much more than balancing a budget; it’s about inspiring, thinking outside the box, and trusting our own instincts. After all, we all have a discipline, and we all got our start as artists.
I knew from day one of the residency that I wanted my thesis to be on the marketing of lesser-known theatre pieces. Shockingly, I was not able to find much on the topic at all, and had to cobble together my secondary research from many bits and pieces. My primary research was a survey that reached 150 theatergoers across the nation and tried to determine just what drives them to attend a theatre piece they’ve never heard of. I was also fortunate enough to be part of the Culture Lab Research project, which allowed me to create an online collection of articles on this topic in collaboration with Wolf Brown.
Writing the thesis changed my life and my business. The information I gleaned was invaluable to programmatic and financial planning for coming years. But what really surprised me was how many people were curious about this issue. After my first HowlRound article was published and featured on Arts Journal in May, I received e-mails from all over the country with questions. In July, on a whim, I proposed the topic to the National Arts Marketing Project. To my shock, they invited me to be part of a panel on the subject for their 2017 conference. I was joined by a marketing representative from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, the Flynn Center in Vermont, and the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. They were all asked to join me for varying perspectives, but it had been my proposal that started it. Four of us from extremely different organizations, all doing lesser-known work on purpose and all grappling with the same questions.
I could tell that for some people, presenting at this conference wasn’t that big of a deal. They’d been doing this circuit for years. But it meant so much to me. Being in Wisconsin can make branching out difficult, and I’d felt trapped with more to offer than outlets available.
People started to come into the room slowly. Then the door started to get jammed up. Then they had to bring in more chairs. Then they ran out of chairs altogether and people had to stand. It was thrilling. I shared what I’d learned, as did the others on the panel. People were lining up to the back of the room to ask questions and offer their own perspectives. We still had raised hands and people at the microphone when we were forced to end the session because they had to set up for the next one. People were more than curious…they were passionate.
I don’t claim to have all of the answers to this question of audiences for lesser-known works. I doubt I ever will. But the process of writing my thesis at Drexel helped me find some answers and opened up several doors. I ignited and am helping to continue a discussion. And knowing that others are working hard to bring unusual theatre pieces to their audiences made me tear up as I left the room that day. This is personal work, after all. And I’m grateful to be doing it with the tools I got from the extraordinary program at Drexel.
Meghan’s theatre company page
Meghan’s November HowlRound article
Meghan's Medium Article