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TBA Online: News & Features: October 2017

Triple Play: Connecting Artists, Audiences, and Theatre Producers

Wednesday, October 4, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Sam Hurwitt
Theatre people talk a lot about “premiere-itis,” the sense that theatres are interested in producing world premieres, but that it’s harder to get second and third productions of a new play, whether it’s because they’re not as marketable or not as grant eligible or just not as sexy.

Well, Theatre Development Fund (TDF) and Theatre Bay Area (TBA) found out something interesting when they were working on Triple Play, a national research project focusing on the interdependent relationship between audiences, playwrights, and theatre companies around new work.

Brad Erickson.

“What we’re finding is people like new plays,” says TBA executive director Brad Erickson. “They like the fact that it’s new, they like contemporary. They’re not as risk-averse as we might be thinking. They’re not afraid of controversial topics, they’re not really afraid of strong language, they’re not afraid of violence particularly, or nudity. The thing they’re really turned off by is the word ‘premiere.’ Not only does it not do anything for them; it actually kind of keeps them away. They tend to conflate premiere with opening sometimes and think if it’s a premiere they have to dress up. Or they might think that if it’s a premiere it’s not quite ready. ‘Maybe I want to wait for them to get it a little better and see the 2.0 version.’ New is good, ‘premiere’ not so much.”

Triple Play has been in the works for several years now. There was a first very limited round of interviews with audience members in nine cities in 2014. “It was really intriguing, but honestly we only interviewed 70 people around the whole country, so there was a sense that this does not equal enough to make any kind of assertion,” Erickson says. “So we went back and got more money to really expand the research.” A second phase in 2016 cast a wider net, conducting 289 one-on-one interviews in seven cities and gathering 7,213 online surveys from audience members of 33 theatres around the country.

In both rounds, playwrights conducted the interviews while staff members of theatre companies took notes. The focus was specifically on single ticket buyers rather than subscribers, because one of the points of the project is to learn how better to attract new patrons—and particularly how companies can nurture the triangular relationship between audience, playwright and theatre rather than inadvertently standing in the way.

At last, TDF and TBA are now ready to release their report on their findings to the field. “We’ve got enough data that we can look at what does it look like city to city in comparison, what does it look like in demographic groups, gender groups, age groups—all these different ways to see how audiences in general approach new work,” Erickson says. “What makes them interested in it or not interested in it, would they like to have more time with the playwright, what would they like to know about the playwright if anything. All that’s in the report.”

They plan to roll the report out with a discussion tour of those same seven cities where the research was conducted: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC. (The Bay Area convening will be held October 16, from 4 p.m. to 6 p. m. at the Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley. Register for the free event here.)

“We’ll convene the communities who were involved to come and discuss the findings and talk about what they think are the practical implications and steps that you could take from the research,” Erickson says. “Because really that was the point of it all along. We wanted to come out of this with some things that would help theatre companies do a better job of connecting the artist and the audience and drawing in new audiences to new work. So that’s the next phase.”

Andrew Saito.

Andrew Saito, former playwright in residence at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, was one of the playwright interviewers.

“There was a question about what is your risk tolerance in going to the theatre, or something like that,” Saito says. “This one guy that I ended up later getting a drink with thought that was an absurd question. He said, ‘Going to the theatre is not a risky endeavor at all!’ What am I going to risk, getting upset by the play, or feeling like I wasted my time? The other thing that no one cared about was world premiere status. A lot of people actually like having already been performed elsewhere so that the play would have worked out some kinks.”

Saito wasn’t interviewing audience members around his own plays but other plays that Cutting Ball was producing. “Someone I interviewed later on at TBA was the only person who really cared about world premieres and all that stuff,” he says. “She said she saw one show at Cutting Ball and she walked out at intermission, and I said, ‘Oh, well, what show was that? And she said, ‘All I know is that it had prostitutes and cadavers.’ I said, ‘I wrote that play.’’ Saito laughs. “She was so embarrassed.”

Eugenie Chan. Photo by Joe Zygaj.

San Francisco playwright Eugenie Chan was not one of the interviewing playwrights for Triple Play, but she participated in other ways with the questionnaires around a Cutting Ball production of one of her plays, and by attending a 2015 Triple Play convening in Boston discussing the findings from the first round.

Chan says she was struck by “things like, how do you make the experience of being at a play, more than just plopping people in a seat and the play runs before them. How do you create theatre that is welcoming and inviting, in a place that invites people to interact with each other? Making the experience of theatre perhaps more everyday, welcoming, inviting, inclusive, more intimate. For me that was one of the things that stood out, the principle of bringing the walls down.”

Another important finding was that single-ticket buyers “also want to know what the show is about,” Erickson says. “We’re often too coy with how we talk about the work. The more we can give them a sense of what they’re about to see and then deliver on that, the more likely they are to come. Just to say that it’s a ‘charming romantic comedy’ or a ‘provocative new drama’ tells them really nothing. What’s it really about? Then they feel like they can make their own minds up. They want to get a capsule of what the plot’s about. You can still have spoiler alerts, but producers sometimes hold the cards too closely to their chests, and it doesn’t give people enough to make their minds up about whether it’s worth their time to go or not. Everybody knows the basic story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; it doesn’t keep them from coming.”

Overall, Erickson says, “It was really wonderfully encouraging to hear that people are really interested in the theatre. Even people who didn’t go very often, it means a lot to them. It’s a big deal in their lives to go. And they do really like new work. We just need to do a better job of giving them the tools to make up their own minds about whether to go to a particular piece of new work or not.”

Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area freelance arts journalist and occasional playwright. You can follow him at


Laura '. Sottile says...
Posted Thursday, October 5, 2017
Thank you for doing all this research. It is so wonderful to hear people STILL LOVE THEATRE! That makes my heart sing. I agree with making the theatre experience welcoming and inviting is a very important point. A point I have had for many years, also because my writing is mainly about how we "still" connect or don't. Thanks again, Laura Sottile