CASE STUDY: Why I talk to my audience.

If you came to see Spring Awakening or Daddy Long Legs over the last few weeks, then you might have seen me hanging around the restrooms (as creepy as that sounds) or more likely, mixing in with the audience as they left the theater.  To be a Producer means you have to be an expert eavesdropper, listening in for not only positive or negative sentiment, but also for specifics or buzzwords that you might hear over and over.

But you can’t just listen.  You also have to talk.

I usually spot someone in the demographic I’m looking to attract (so for Spring it’d be very easy to get a positive response from younger folks, as you can probably imagine, so I focus on the traditional theatergoer – a woman in her 50s or even 60s who has come with a spouse) and ask simply . . . “Did you enjoy the show?”  And then I listen.  And listen. And listen some more.  I don’t tell them I’m the Producer.  I just act like an interested theatergoer.

I’ve done this on subway platforms and the corners of streets eight blocks away from the theater if I see someone with my Playbill.

And I learn a ton.

What I try to do is yes, gain an overall reading of whether people are enjoying themselves or not.  But again, I’m looking for similarities in their statements.  Are they all talking about the music?  If so, I might want to pump that up in the marketing.  Performers?  Same deal.  Set?  Whatever it is they are taking away that is on the “top of their mind,” I want to push in our promotion.  Careful, though.  Make sure you’re not just taking one person’s opinion.  You want to see a trend.  Which means you want to talk to lots of people.

Want a specific example?  I thought you’d never ask.  Here comes the case study party:

When I’m working on an Off Broadway show like Daddy Long Legs, I’m always more interested in how/why the audience member bought the tickets, since Off Broadway shows have much smaller budgets than Broadway shows, and are therefore in fewer places.  Why did they seek out the smaller show?  What was it that made them click “buy?”

  • The first couple I spoke to at Daddy Long Legs was from South Carolina.  Huh, I thought.  Tourists.  The gold mine of theatergoers.  Get the tourists, and you can run for years.  And here it was we had some in the first week of previews.  And when I asked them where they got their tickets?  The TKTS booth.  Whoa.  We don’t even have a billboard in Times Square and yet they bought off the title, and maybe a flyer.  “Why?” I asked.  “We remember the movie,” the South Carolinian woman responded.

Now here’s where I had shock face.

Yes, we knew there was a movie of Daddy Long Legs in 1955 that starred Fred Astaire.  But it hardly resembled the original source material.  And it was like a distant step-cousin-in-law-twice-removed of our production.  And, well, don’t tell the movie company, but we didn’t think it was very good.  And we thought if people came to see it because of the movie, they might be disappointed (because we ain’t a dance show, for sure).  So we deliberately did not push it in marketing. But here was a tourist couple who bought tickets at the booth because they knew and loved the movie . . . and they loved the show.

Ok, but that’s only one couple.

The next afternoon there was a group of two couples who walked by the theater and stopped to look at the poster.  I asked them if they had any questions.  Their first comment? “Is this based on the movie?”

Well, shoot.

Later that night after the evening performance, a group of ladies that got their tickets on TDF came out raving about the show and promising to bring more friends “because they loved the movie.”

And another, and another, and another.

So, as you can probably imagine, in all of Daddy Long Legs‘ new marketing materials you will find some kind of language that says “based on the classic novel and the 1955 film starring Fred Astaire.”

We were already getting interest from that fact, and now that we’re putting it in materials, we’ll get more.  Guaranteed.

The two big takeaways from this case study are:

  • You can’t just listen to your audience, you have to talk to them.
  • What you think about your show, may be the exact opposite of what the audience thinks.

On big, new shows, I take all of the above to a bigger and more scientific level, with all sorts of focus groups, dial testing and quantitative and qualitative analysis.  But on small shows, you can learn a lot just by hanging around restrooms and asking questions.


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.