Friday, September 11, 2009

Selling the Complex Bundle called Theatre


I ran across this article at The Artful Manager and thought it posed what is both a common and an important question for theatre producers. In true internet fashion, he is (of course) quoting someone else’s article. So in the “I am quoting he is quoting, we are quoting, quoting all together” spirit:

What, exactly, do you sell?

(From Andrew Taylor of The Artful Manager)

Doug McLennan provokes a rather central question in his Diacritical blog are arts organizations in the business of selling tickets? Says McLennan: “If you believe your business model is the classic consumer transaction (I make the performance, you buy the ticket) then you're done. Sorry. That's a Manufacturing Economy mindset, and while it worked when choices were limited, now that you're competing in the infinite marketplace.”

He goes on to suggest that arts organizations are providing a much more complex service than a play or a performance or an exhibition, and that arts consumers are seeking a complex bundle of goods in their purchase decisions.

People aren't comparing you with other orchestras or theatre or dance companies; they're measuring whether classical music or theatre or dance is something they want to choose at the moment. They're deciding whether they want an active or passive experience; they're trying to determine what level of social encounter they feel like today. They're weighing whether they want a predictable, known, comfortable quantity or whether they want to be adventurous and try something new.”

His provocation is right on the mark, and central to any thoughtful discussion of the future of arts enterprise and cultural management. But I'd suggest that it's missing an important wrinkle. The deeper challenge for arts organizations is that they DO sell a product, even as they DON'T. That is, an important segment of any arts audience doesn't recognize the complex bundle they're seeking when they buy a symphony or theater ticket. They've come to use that event as a placeholder or proxy for that bundle, without even knowing it. To this core group (often the most passionate about the art form, the most loyal buyers, the most committed donors) the bundle IS the product. And as you innovate around the delivery or context of your creative work, you challenge their passionate connection to the discipline's tradition.

by Andrew Taylor

The idea of theatre as an experience greater than the sum of visual and auditory sensations—that there is an experience of community, that it is a social gathering as well as an event—and that it is not confined to the action upon the stage is one that I’ve pondered for quite a while. If anyone else has found ways to highlight, emphasize, and promote those aspects of the theatre experience, please leave us a comment and tell us about it.

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