Back in 2005, Theatre Communications Group - a national theater advocacy group based in New York City - created what has become a very successful promotional effort at bringing new audiences into the country's not-for-profit theaters. What started as a three-city pilot program five years ago has since branched out to 120 cities in 2010 - with more than 700 theaters offering a free night of theater this month to thousands upon thousands of potential new customers.
It's a great idea - and if you've never heard of it, you're not alone.
Several times over the past few years local theater professionals have talked about getting Michigan theaters to participate, but most conversations ended with "Well, maybe NEXT year..."
Even as recently as early this past summer it looked as if Michigan was - once again - going to sit on the sidelines. That is, until Stagecrafters, one of the best known (and managed) community theaters in Southeast Michigan, decided to take it upon itself to get the process moving - knowing full well the tight time crunch would be problematic.
Their hard work obviously paid off: More than 100 non-profit theaters throughout the state (professional and non-professional alike) were contacted via e-mail in mid August, and in a relatively short time, 11 decided to participate in Michigan's first Free Night of Theater. (While that might sound a little low, it's fairly typical of a first-time effort, I was told by TCG.)
But no matter: Despite some technical glitches early on, more than 1,000 tickets were snatched up in about four days - with a few theaters giving away all their tickets within 24 hours. (A couple of theaters even added extra tickets to meet the demand.) And since the tickets disappeared thanks primarily to online promotional efforts, there was little time (or need, really) to pursue a media campaign to announce the event. (It doesn't make much sense to promote a free ticket give-away when there are no more free tickets to give away! To do so could create a PR nightmare!)
Most of the events were scheduled for Oct. 14 (the official nationwide date), although a few were held earlier this month and a handful have yet to happen. But the bottom line is this: No matter how you slice and dice it, Michigan's first Free Night of Theater has been a tremendous success - and hopefully we'll begin to see new faces in some of our theaters as a result of it.
Therefore, congratulations are in order to everyone who in some way was involved in the event: the participating theaters; Lesley Braden-Phillips of Stagecrafters who championed the cause and did a great job jumping hurdles and managing the process; the Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan (who came onboard as the managing partner when a kerfuffle among a handful of professional theaters threatened to derail the project before it was even announced); and especially the potential new theatergoers who sampled a theater (or live theater in general) for the very first time.
So what can we do to make next year's Free Night of Theater an even bigger success? (Because yes, there will BE a Free Night of Theater here in Michigan in October 2011 - which means theater executives should keep that in mind when planning their 2011-12 seasons!)
(1) For starters, we can put away - at least for one night and for one event - the age-old rivalries between the professional theaters and their non-professional cousins, as well as the disdain some community theaters have for their sister community theaters in the area. Theaters at every level are experiencing many of the same difficulties these days, and the Free Night of Theater is a GREAT WAY for every theater to come together, put on its Sunday best, open their doors on the same night and show potential customers why they deserve their support - and then let the ticket-paying public decide who best meets their entertainment needs! (It's called "competition" - and may the most creative and competitive theaters win!)
(2) We need more theaters to become risk takers - that is, to see the bigger picture that Free Night of Theater represents.
To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in how few theaters participated in this inaugural event. The reasons for not participating were many, of course, but this is what I heard most often :
- A few professional theaters wanted no part of anything run by or that included the community theaters;
- Some theaters assumed the worst and did not wish to be associated with a failure;
- With such short notice, some theaters' schedules were already set and could not be adjusted - although a handful tried and were unsuccessful;
- There wasn't enough time for theater boards to research and approve the project;
- And some simply didn't see the value in it.
Let's see how that changes with a successful event now behind us!
(3) We need theaters to be creative!
To participate costs nothing up front - and theaters are free to schedule whatever events they wish on whatever date works best for them, which means they can spend as little money or as much as they'd like to make the night a success. (And if it's possible for the artists and management involved to volunteer their time, a theater's cost could be next to nothing - but the long-term payout could be amazing!)
(4) We need more time to plan the event.
Because of the very short time between when Free Night was announced to the theaters and the event itself, there was little time for theaters to decide whether to participate or not (and then, to plan their event), or for event managers to create and implement a coordinated media splash - with ads and everything! Nor was there time and money (and sponsors) to assemble promotional materials to give out at all of the events. (In fact, there's an entire laundry list of lessons learned, which will be ironed out for next time!)
So here's what's already on tap for Free Night of Theater 2011: Planning is scheduled to begin March 1, 2011. If you'd like to help create and manage next year's event, please contact Lesley at Stagecrafters; your assistance would be greatly appreciated.
And after a very successful inaugural year, I don't think it's unreasonable for at least 25-30 theaters to participate. What do YOU think?