14 August 2014 // Thoughts

Learning Through Side Doors: The Intersection of Design and Theatre

Blogger-in-Chief Clara here. Welcome to our brand new blog series, Learning Through Side Doors, where we explore other industries that, while on the surface may seem unrelated to themed entertainment or experiential design, really aren’t that different after all.

At JRA, we say that “the attraction is the stage, the master plan the script and story, and the guests the audience.” Many of our team members, including yours truly, came to themed entertainment from the theatre. Through my role as NextGen Chair of the Themed Entertainment Association, I have enjoyed speaking to theatre students about how their skills (collaboration, designing with a limited budget, creating a guest experience) are easily transferable to a themed entertainment career.

To test my theory that theatre and themed entertainment are two parts of an experiential design whole, I interviewed my good friend and former grad school classmate, Josh Borenstein, who is currently the Managing Director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

In our industry, the process often begins with a feasibility study – determining if a park or museum is in the right place for the right audience. How do you determine that a play is “right” for your theatre?

First, full disclosure – I don’t pick the plays! My artistic partner, Gordon Edelstein, makes the decisions on which plays to produce, although we certainly talk about it together. In thinking about whether a play is “right” for us, Gordon contemplates what it means to be alive at this particular moment in time. He reflects on what is happening in the world, in New Haven – you know, that sort of thing. He then develops a list of about 15 – 20 plays which we might produce, and we talk about it together. In offering my feedback to Gordon, I try to look at each play through the following lenses: whether our production will have some kind of national impact on the field (for example, a world premiere of a play), whether the play can be leveraged for community engagement or educational impact, and whether the play can make money (we have to sell tickets, after all, to stay in business). If a particular play can meet two of these three criteria, then I feel it is worth producing.

Museum exhibits often deal with controversial themes. If you know that you are producing a play that is going to ruffle some feathers, how do you prepare your audience for that?

Communication is key, of course. When we think that one of our plays will be controversial, we often reach out to our subscribers. Usually, this outreach takes the form of a letter from Gordon talking about the play, why we chose it, and why we hope the audience will be excited about it. This letter provides the context about the potentially controversial production, so audience members become more receptive to seeing it. The few people who feel that they be offended have the opportunity to exchange their tickets.

We also facilitate post-show discussions after nearly every performance of each play, and we find that these conversations help our audience process controversial material.

In themed entertainment, we say that the guest experience starts the moment they enter the doors, or in this century, the moment they go online to purchase a ticket. What are some of the ways that your theaters create a quality guest experience before guests even enter the theater, and what are some ways you incentivize them to return?

We do a few small things, but we think that they have important impact. Each Monday, we send out an email reminder to all of our subscribers that they are supposed to attend an upcoming performance this week. This message has two benefits. First, subscribers see it as nice customer service gesture. Second, and maybe more importantly, it reminds subscribers to exchange their tickets if they can’t attend. Our “no-show” rate has dropped by 50% since we started these emails.

We send out surveys to all ticket buyers (subscribers and single ticket buyers) asking them what they thought of the show. They appreciate this solicitation of their opinions. We also use this information so that, if we see that a show was particularly successful, we can send them future emails which suggest similar offerings (e.g., “If you liked Guys and Dolls, then you’ll love Carousel!”).

Josh, you recently completed a large capital project. What were some of the experiential components your team considered during the renovation?

A few things – one of which you might find hilarious. First, we added different kinds of projections to the lobby. My favorite is the simplest: quotes related to the current play projected on to a carpeted wall. The video just adds a cool, modern look to the space and provides some good background information about the plays.

One the major changes is that we added more leg room to the seating in the theatre. Our seating was so cramped that some people stopped coming because it was too uncomfortable.

Finally, and perhaps the most positively commented on, was the expansion of the women’s restrooms. Theatres have notoriously long lines for the bathroom, and Long Wharf was no exception. It is a particularly big problem when 70% of our ticket buyers are female. We doubled the size of our women’s restroom, and patrons still thank me. It is easy to forget that these kinds of facilities are important experiential components to many people.

Obviously, budgets are a huge issue.
– Can you talk a little bit about your budgeting process and the steps you take to ensure that it doesn’t impact the quality of the product onstage?

This is one of the great issues which we struggle with. More and more, we have partnerships in order to create work of a demanding scale. For example, we co-produce about once a year with other theatre companies so that we can share rehearsal and building costs. We also have more partnerships with commercial producers to develop new plays, especially new plays of a large scale. We try to get as many of these partnerships in place as early as possible so that they inform our budgeting process.

  – Many museums nowadays are coming up with innovative ways of monetizing some of their ancillary activities to raise revenue or sharing resources to reduce expenses. Have either of your theaters attempted to generate revenue or reduce expenses through unconventional means?

We have been able to raise revenues and reduce expenses, but not through anything revolutionary. On the revenue side of the equation, we have been booking in additional programming during the summer, when we are not producing. We have also been gradually building our endowment, which now generates about 10% of our total operating revenue. On the expense side, we have been sharing costs whenever we can, especially through co-productions, as I mentioned earlier.

Technology is rapidly changing the game for museums and theme parks, and we find we often need to strike a balance between flashy, cutting edge effects and good storytelling. To what extent has technology enhanced or changed what you put on the stage? How do you ensure that the technology doesn’t overpower the storytelling? How do you see theatre’s storytelling role evolving over time, particularly in this increasingly digitized world?

You know, the funny thing about Long Wharf is that we do not use a ton of technology in our productions. We have occasional automation and projections on stage, but ultimately we have stayed true to the theatre’s original form. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people come to our theatre – to experience a story without technology. If they want to go see something with lots of special effects, they are much better off going to the movies.

My sense is that people will continue to want to see live performances, despite the increased use of technology. Or maybe because of it. I see a trend where people are starting to set parameters for screens. For example, some of my fellow parents ban phones and screens from the dinner table or from the bedrooms. Some people enact a “technology Sabbath” where they don’t check email for 24 hours. I happen do this. Theatre may become a place where people can take a break from the constant hum of technology. We’ll see!

A focus on guest experience. Tight budgets. Sensitive audiences. Tough artistic choices.  Sound familiar?

I hope you enjoyed Learning Through Side Doors, and we look forward to more discoverines in the months to come!  If you have an idea for a future segment, please let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

– Clara