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« Capital Fringe Fest Happy Hour | Main | They stayed away in droves... »

Monday, 15 August 2005



I have noticed that even the critics are not attending productions. The Post reviews only NY, The Times - nothing, Metro Weekly - Nothing. City Paper does its share. Only Potomac Stages seems to be seeing theatre!

As to the patrons I think as a whole not a good enough job is done promoting, it is stagnant and there is a lot of competition for entertainment dollars. Theatres must get creative and do different things to promote themselves.

angry monkey

I've performed for full houses and next to empties both in this last year, which I have to say, is the same as when I moved here five years ago.

An odd observation, but it seems to me that the shows that do really well (at least the ones I've been a part of) are funny. The funnier the play, the better it does. It surprises me that more theaters haven't figured out this little equation. I'm not saying that serious plays can't be good, even wonderful and life changing (the really well done ones anyway), but it's a bitch to sell.

It's dreadfully somber out here in the real world lately. I like my escape to make me laugh.
Given the choice between 1) a heavy dramatic interpretaion of a classical or neo-classical remount or 2) a stupid goofy prat-fally quick paced comedy, I'm going goofy every time.


I have two words for you: "Wedding Crashers."

...just a little humor in these times of tension...

Seriously, I think dception is asking a great question--where'd all the people go? My first reaction is that summer has always been the slow season, but if it's been radically slower than usual, I'd be interested to hear some theories. And if anyone has any recommendations for what to watch besides Vince and Owen getting lucky or CGI Oompa-Loompas--bring it on!


These things run in cycles, I think. Any drop off in the last few months could well be a combination of the fact that people are less apt to choose theatre over staying home with a dvd when it's one thousand degrees outside and the fact that fewer shows are produced in the summer. The X-factor would be that there were not a bunch of red hot shows running at the same time - at any time of year, sometimes the whole scene seems dull, sometimes a number of shows worth seeing are running simultaneously. This summer, that was not a "problem."


It'd be iteresting to see if any administrative types with access to box office numbers will weigh in with, 'Yeah, it has been off lately,' and quantify it a bit. Until then, however, it might be useful to identify who does in fact does come to the theater and for what reason - as opposed to seeing a movie or hitting the couch with a DVD - and then turn around and ask them why they haven't been showing up lately. Here's my demographic and why I come (aside of being an actor): I'm 40, married and have two kids. When my wife and I go to the time and expense of a babysitter, dinner, and tickets, we have to prioritize, which is to say pick something we believe will be very provocative and really do justice to theater as a medium - shared experience, community event, all that. Woolly's 'Clean House' was our last evening out, and we enjoyed it; the last time I was able to sneak out and hit a friend's show was SHKSPR PRJCT.
TAKE ME OUT or 'Jenny Chow' have been tempting, and a lot of other plays would be perfectly great to see, but nothing at this point is overcoming the domestic barriers.
So how about another demographic type weighing in, some of you single folk or childless couples of one type or another (all of whom we envy for your powers of spontaneity): why do you go to the theater- why are you soaking up drama here on Tboy - and why haven't you parked yourself in a seat lately?


People bring up dvds and movies as possible culprits but in fact sales of both movie tickets and dvds have also been declining. Only the sales of video games are on the rise as a matter of fact.

I also have to wonder whether with the number of new spaces either opening or in the process of being built we may not in fact be watering down the audience base. Woolly needed its own space, as did Gala, but with Studio adding not one space but two and Arena and Shakespeare adding seats and theaters will this glut of seats not create the potential for lack luster houses all over town?


As an admin type, I wouldn't say that people are staying away, I just think the are being choosier about what they go see. Example. Clean House (running in the dead of summer) became out highest attended show in history. Big Death, not so much. I'm not sure its all about funny vs. serious. Grace, which we did at The Warehouse was another run away success for us. It was rather dark.

I don't know. I just think the heavy theatre users in Washington have started to become much more selective with their entertainment dollar. They are waiting for validation for a show, be it a review or word of mouth. I worry that they are not taking chances any more.

I think people are forced into choices when the costs are weighed. Tickets aren't cheap. it takes time to come into town if you live VA or MD.

I don't know. If I had the answer I would make a fortune in consulting. Personally, I think there needs to be a collective effort to encourage experimentation from audiences. How to do that...don't know.



As for the summer slump, I have one word for all of yas: it's called VACATION.

The critics are out there. I see them all the time. There just aren't a lot of productions opening as of late. Three weeks from now when the fall season starts up it will be back to the grindstone, which means more butts in seats.

After all theaterists, this is AUGUST in DC!

Like, duh.


Maybe I should clarify my question. This is not in reference to the normal summer drop off it is a problem which I have been hearing about since March. I am not so dumb that I am not aware that there is no one in town in August, I am speaking to the general problem of generally well reviewed shows getting no attendance, not the usual drop off that is experienced during the summer. And I am aware of the problem of critics not attending shows as well but let us keep focused on the audience. I know it seems like the only reason we do these shows is to get our names in the post but there is in fact an audience who also needs to show in order to surrvive in this town.


During the summer, I'd much rather go hiking or sailing instead of sit inside for a 3-hour Sunday matinee. Nonetheless, I've been to my share of 3-hour Sunday matinees. I always feel "good," like I've taken my vitamins or racked up some karma, but I'm not necessarily enjoying myself. Lately I've been overwhelmed by what I call "obligation theatre" and so I've stepped back from it. Sometimes I'll see as many as 3 shows in a week, which can be exhausting--as a writer, I can only take in so much creative stimulus at a time (same reason I rarely go see movies). Sometimes I think we all would benefit from a month or two off. Everyone needs a vacation, a way to recharge their creative batteries. If you eat ice cream all the time, it ceases being such a treat (this I know from experience).

Plus, for any show downtown, there's always the parking issue--a huge deterrent.

Plus, as a perpetually impoverished freelancer (I know, it's so cliche), $25 for a ticket v. $25 for groceries affects my decision as well.

Plus, I don't have A/C in my car, so someone's gotta flash some flesh to get me to motor on in to DC from VA. ;)

I think the Cap Fringe Fest (and no, I don't work for them, I'm just excited) is going to fill an important role in the DC theatre scene. Currently you have to file for non-profit status, select a board, join LOWT, etc., to be an "official" theatre in DC. Well, maybe you only have one or two good shows in you--the Fringe Fest will provide you that opportunity without necessitating another niche theatre starting up.

It's getting to the point where theatres are having to be so specific: "XYZ theatre's mission is to produce plays written by Archibald Macleish, featuring performers that are descentants of Joe McCarthy, for an audience of nudist-enthusiasts."

So maybe the answer to the summer theatre question is to let Cap Fringe fill the gap by presenting an annual summer "happening," while everyone takes a break. Kind of like how Source used to be the focus each summer--it was like summer drama camp for adults.


When I was performing at the Barksdale Theatre (a very well respected, over 50 year old regional theatre in Richmond, Virginia)in 1998, I happened to meet up with the Artistic Director, at the time, Muriel Macauley (R.I.P.) for dinner after a show one evening.

Her theory about audience attendance was this: BAD TITLE-LOW ATTENDANCE. GOOD TITLE-HIGH ATTENDANCE.

I always thought she was oversimplifying (of course, she was), in some respects I think she may be on to something.

If you knew nothing about two plays, which would you see? BIG DEATH or CLEAN HOUSE?

Think about it. If you want walk off the street ticket sales, you need to choose plays with "fun"/"edgy" titles...and not plays that sound like you will be depressed for 2 hours on end.

And also, cater to your public/audience..give them what they want. TAKE ME OUT is extending for the 3rd time at Studio (still playing I think!) why? Because it deals with Gay issues and features male nudity. Studio is right in the heart of the new gay neighborhood, on P and 14th. Smart move Studio, smart move.

That way, you can still produce edgy, challenging work, AND get the ticket sales.


As a patron, I cannot agree with you more! Give the public what we want, and the public will give back, mightily.

Look at those road show musicals that play out the National and the Warner. Smaller companies don't have to produce MAMMA MIA! every *&^ $$%^ season, but they COULD TAKE A HINT from those box revenues.

Give the masses what we want, and produce your little heady Stoppard here and there to mix things up a bit. Theater in Washington is a weird blend of intellect and libido. I never quite understood that.

We could use better titles, tho. THE CLEAN HOUSE is a great play. Maybe that AD was on to something after all............


Titles of plays are huge. As a marketing person I have seen the effect. We had great pre sale for Cooking With Elvis. Not the best known show. A lot of the credit goes with the title and marketing image.

Basically you need something to get people in the door. Then if the show is good, they will come.

I know that statement is nothing new or surprising, but I think the smaller companies fight an uphil battle. They also have to tell average theatre goer where they are, that its safe, and that the quality will be good. Its a hard fight and title alone won't solve the issue.

Personally, i think summers are great times to do shows right now. Not as much competition. Like I said, Clean House did great running 100% in summer.

Brian Mac Ian

Ever-climbing ticket costs (what I hear most often) restrain alot of the artsy, intellectual but broke types (we are either one or know several).

Gas prices?

Poor marketing?


Underdeveloped appreciation for the performing arts?

Internet porn?

I'd be curious to see an across-the-board study that considers:

ticket prices
noteriety of production/playwright
production values
marketing strategies
subject matter (agit-prop, issues-oriented, classical, language, sex, violence, etc.)

Of course, who do you poll? Most people who DON'T come probably won't be on any mailing lists.

angry monkey

As a sidebar, I agree that summer is a great time for smaller theaters to be producing. You're not competing with the big houses for audience and it's a great time for theater starved folks, or usual subscribers to a big theater between seasons, to get a chance to see things they wouldn't normally see.

However, can we get some freakin AIR CONDITIONING?!!!

Not to point fingers, because I love the company, the people that work with them, and most of the stuff they produce (at least what I've seen), and they're far from the only steamroom theater in town, but Rorchach please please please look into cooling down your theater. Window air units on sale at HomeDepot for $100-$400 dollars. I know I'd be more willing to see more shows there during the summer months if I wasn't afraid that I was going to lose a considerable amount of water weight. I'm sure this is true for return visitors to other sweatlodge small theaters in town as well.

DC summers are hot, please plan accordingly.


Play titles are in fact a good way to get people into the theater. I am not sure that "Big Death" would have sold better if it was entitled "There is a Giant Dog at the End." Also playwrights like Kushner, Blessing and Wright also help, because like anything, if someone is told something is good it goes a long way to making them believe it is good.

The defeatest notion however that producing comedies and musicals is the way to boost ticket sales is disheartening. I would argue that yes in times of trouble people would like to escape more than they want to be faced with the hard reality of what is actually going on in the world. Which begs the question, is bringing a laugh more artistic than bringing a tear? I don't know, but I think most plays straight or otherwise try and do both.

Regarding Air Condition and Rorschach, they have examined various solutions and no one is more aware of the problem then they are but the space they are in is over 100 years old and has ceilings over 30 feet high and no insulation. In order to make any sort of difference in that space would require more than plugging in a couple of window units. If anyone has any suggestions I am sure they would be glad for the help. But I will also point out that Rorschachs two most successful shows (Meaning Sold Out runs) "The Illusion" and "Master and Margarita", both happened during the summer and with temperatures that were far from comfortable. So while some may stay away because of the heat, others will do anything to see a show that they have heard good things about. But yeah it can get pretty damn hot.


It's definitely not due to summer vacation time. All of us regularly going to DC theatre have seen the drop off in attendance. I heard someone say just a few weeks ago that "edgy theatre" around here has become synonymous with "bad theatre." It seems to me that is true. Small, understaffed, underfunded theatres are throwing productions together and hoping folks will show up to see them. Production values at a number of these theatres have dwindled to nothing. Local high school productions have more quality and thought put into them. Two hour grim plays with no intermission. Three hour boring plays in an un-airconditioned space. I, myself, don't want to pay 20-30 bucks to be hot, uncomfortable, bored and depressed! I'll just stay at home, in airconditioning, put in some microwave popcorn and watch the freekin' news for free, for Pete's sake! A lot of folks around here, not just moi, believe that good theatre is hard to come by these days. The people who are running theatres should realize that using the excuse season after season that they have no money and no staff to do decent productions also means that they will have low attendance in this bad economy.


I dunno, I would probably flock to any theater producing a play named "There Is A Giant Dog at the End."

I've always been curious that way.


We also have to look at who drives ticket sales. Speaking strict demographics: women and gay men. Gay men, duh. We all knew that one. The purchasing power of women, on the other hand, is too often underestimated. In most households, the wife controls the purse strings. Even in unmarried couples not living together, where money is not the issue, the decision-making rests with the woman.

All the other factors that have been mentioned -- comedy v. drama, titles, marketing images --cannot be gauged based on a perception of general attractiveness but on their appeal to women and gay men. The biggest hits of the summer were undoubtedly "A Clean House" and "Take Me Out" -- one a female-centered comedy, the other, well, the other had penises.

How this relates to the drop-off in attendance over the last couple of months, I'll let others determine.

Dakota Guy

"So how about another demographic type weighing in, some of you single folk ..."

Ok, here I am. Single male, straight, affluent. I do put my "butt in a seat" for summer shows. But I realize not everyone has the money to go to 100+ shows a year like me. Why do I go? Because I enjoy good theater. What attracts me? Good productions (dramas even more so than comedies).

Financial considerations are an issue with some but many theaters offer preview discounts, pay-what-you-can performances and day-of-show discounts. Most theaters are within walking distance of Metro if gas and parking are issues.

The problem is that we are talking amongst ourselves (avid theatergoers). How do the theaters reach potential new theater-goers? Effective advertising is non-existent here. Until I discovered the Potomac Stages website, I never knew how many wonderful plays were available in the area. Surely not thru the Post (write Peter Marks in New York) and the certainly not television. Most people think only of the Kennedy Center, National, and (perhaps) the Warner, all of whom specialze in high priced non-resident productions.

I wish I knew the answer; I don't. I have sat thru some marvelous productions with 10-20 people in the audience. But the show went on. [The only theater that has ever cancelled a peformance for lack of ticket sales, in my experience, was Arena.]

Perhaps if the production is not selling, give tickets away! At least you will fill the seats and perhaps attract someone who will buy a ticket in the future. Catchy titles (a la Big Dog) won't do the trick and we need to recognize that some productions just aren't very good (that was one). Perhaps part of the problem is that many small theaters are run by very talented artists who are not-as-talented at business. No offense meant but even for non-profits you still have to put butts in seats.

Dakota Guy

As a followup the Census Burau reported today that "Single-adult households have displaced two-parent families with children as the most common kind of U.S. household." That is likley even more true in Washington.

How do theaters reach single people (gay, straight, male, female, ...)? Not by putting flyers in each others theaters! These people are already going to the theater.

Band together. An outreach program that helps one theater, helps them all. Visit large businesses; offer 2 for 1 deals for their employees. They look good to their employees, you get more seats filled. Be creative. Be proactive. Stop talking to other theater people and talk to potential audiences.

angry monkey

Sound like someone needs to tap Ian Allen and find out how he got all those punk fans to come to the musty old theater.


Couple of quick things.

Ian was a master at bringing people into the theater. The combination of intriguing titles, drag, nudity and taboos made people want to come to the theater. And Cherry Red will be missed by many of us for their bold and at times even insane take on theater. And there is without a doubt a niche that an enterprising company could fill and do well in.

I would now like to address what seems to be the dissing of small theater in DC. First off your right spending $30 to see a show that looks like crap and depresses you is off putting, but you have to look at the work on a case by case basis and not say small theater as a whole is bad.

Having worked at a number of smaller theaters and now a couple of big theaters I can tell you I know the pluses and minuses to both. The plus of working for a small theater is that you work with people who come from this area.

People complain all the time about Peter going to New York to write reviews, is that as bad as Round House, Shakespeare and Signature going to New York to cast all the time. You want their to be theater in DC well you have to grow your own and you don't do that on the big stages you do that in warehouses and church halls and arts centers and H Street.



I've seen enough small-pro productions in the area to say that some of the actors are weak. I really wonder how they get cast - good friends of the director? At times I've seen much better acting in non-paying community theatre! You want to see some damn good acting? Attend some dramas at Silver Spring Stage. Their Proof and Pavilion were terrific, honestly.

As for slowly diminishing audiences, I think it's due to oversaturation. There's been a lot of bragging about the new facilities, the new groups, and OF COURSE "it will mean more and bigger audiences for EVERYONE." I don't buy it. I find there's too much to choose from, and even if I bought discount tix only, if I saw 2-3 shows a week, it would still empty my wallet.

If the subject matter of a show interests me, and if the reviews (incl. City Paper, Potomac Stages AND community papers) are good, and if I can get some kind of discount tix, and if I can get the hubby to babysit for the night, THEN I'll see that show. That's a lot of IFS, and I'm an actor & director myself, not some guy off the street...


And once again it becomes a matter of taste. Yes I too think there are some equity and non-equity actors who are anything but to my liking. And hopefully those people are either considering a carreer change. Unfortunately I don't have the power to tell them to stop and there may well be people who actually enjoy watching them.

Face it folks there are bad actors and good actors. Making actors better requires work. I am not saying there not challenges that smaller theaters face, but there are a finite number of "good" actors in this town (sorry sas). So every now and then you need to fill a role with someone you wouldn't usually use and they don't meet everyone's standard of perfection. I return to my earlier point don't lump everything together.

Side note. By the way luckyspinter I think I coined the term obligation theater, I want my props.

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