By Alona Bach
Originally published on upnextbayarea.blogspot.com on 4/10/12
Yesterday, I saw a show. And yes, this is no different than normal: I see shows all the time. So why was last night different from all other nights?*
*Besides the fact that it was, in fact, Passover.
Well, I'll set the stage a bit first. Usually, my reason for seeing a show is one (or more) of the following:
- I know someone involved in the show (actor, director, designer, playwright, etc.)
- I like the theater's work in general
- I've read good things about it (e.g. reviews or Facebook stati)
...and any combination of these will put a show on my radar, if not my calendar.
But last night, I was in Minnesota instead of my Bay Area home (What to do on a night off in a new city? See theater! Of course.), and I went to see a show at a small theater company that I'd never heard of (I discovered it the night before while – gulp – surfing the web). I didn't know anyone in the show or working on the show or even talking about the show. Heck, I barely even knew what the show was about beyond the small blurb on the website. And I realized something scary: I would feel just as happy about going to the show as not going to the show.
And then I realized that this is how most teens feel. This is where most teens stand in relation to the shows that the theater community embraces and praises and remembers fondly – in the Land of Ambivalence. Because, sure, intellectually, I knew I'd probably enjoy it; enjoying theater in general is the reason I've developed a theater-going habit. But emotionally – meh. I was detached. There was nothing specific drawing me to the theater instead of staying at home on the computer, and I was missing the buy-in.
But...what's a buy-in?
A buy-in is probably exactly what you think it is, and basically just what it sounds like. It can be anything that hooks in the potential audience member (henceforth referred to as P.A.M., or PAM) and piques their interest. It's what can give the PAM ownership (or at least imagined ownership) over some part of the show; it's the commitment and the basis for the want to go to the theater. Most importantly, a buy-in is what lets the PAM know what they're missing if they don't come see the show.
Here are some examples. (You know these already, I guarantee you, but they're here in a list for good measure -- and because sometimes teen audience members need to say these things themselves.)
Super good press photos. Pak Han's work is a great example. Take one look at any of his photos and you want to see more. Why did this moment happen? What frozen moment in the story is this, and why is that lady wearing that? The photo below is of "Beardo" at Shotgun Players; and is possibly one of my favorite Pak Han photos ever. I mean, give it even just a cursory glance and I dare you to say you're not dying to see that show. (Fun Fact: the show was as good as the picture suggests.)
Backstage tidbits. It sounds silly, but few things are more enticing than being in on a secret, and backstage stories and jokes are inherently mysterious. Write a short blog post about rehearsal antics. Take a photo of the prop table and post it to Facebook. Examples? Check out Marin Theatre Company's Production Gnome or our favorite new thespian (who recently made his debut at Impact and will return soon for his second show), Tamaaron Ishida-White.
An easily-navigable website. All the information (dates, times, locations, artists, etc.) should be able to be reached easily through one page. Marin Theatre Company does this really well. So does Impact Theatre, SF Playhouse, and Woolly Mammoth. These theaters present an easy-to-read overview of general information, while still allowing you to explore the show further without putting in too much effort. (N.B. Teens want things fast. [Older audience members probably do too. We'll keep you posted when we grow up.]) With all the information in one place, even just clicking on "Learn More" can give a PAM ownership of their mini-"research" process, and boom! Buy-in.
Relatability. Does the show have a conflict or theme that people can relate to? Let them know and invite them to think about it. Ask about the moment your PAMs first realized Santa wasn't real. Or how they dealt with loss of a loved one. Or the the terribly embarrassing accident they had. If a PAM sees him- or herself in a character in the show, buy-in is infinitely easier.
Trailers. Are awesome. Period. Live footage is great when you can get it, but still photos are also interesting. Other fun things to include: someone talking about the show or characters in an exciting new way, the actors' or designers' perspective, the reasons for special choices you made in your production. Even just listening to the background music can be informative -- it reflects the tone of the show. (Two favorite trailers that you should take a look at? God's Plot and God's Ear at Shotgun Players. I still watch them. They're great.)
There are so many ways to create buy-in, but in the end, buy-ins are a two way street: half of the buy-in has to come from the PAM. You, as the theater, can cast as many lines into the river as you want, but it's still the PAM who has to want to take the bait. (And all those PAMs not necessarily wanting to take the bait is a whole conversation about current cultural practices that I'm positive someone has written a fantastic article about already and I would certainly link to it if I had the link.)
So yes. I came into my show, Where We're Born at 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities, blind and emotionally detached, and this was mostly my fault. I didn't take the time to look for my buy-in (even though I'm easy as PAMs go and it doesn't take much to pique my interest). But here's the bad part. Without this buy-in, I allowed the specifics of seeing the show to worry me...and even make me reconsider going (N.B. for any box office people out there clucking at the possibility of me being a no-show, don't worry: I hadn't reserved a ticket yet). And there were a lot of specifics that worried me. I didn't know where the theater was; Minneapolis isn't a place I'm really familiar with. The synopsis of the play that I found on the website wasn't really vague, but it was open-ended and I couldn't really tell anything about the tone or language of the piece -- so how did I know if it would be something I'd like? Or worse, since I knew nothing about any of the artists or the theater company, how could I tell whether the show would be just plain bad? I didn't have the energy to google reviews or photos of past productions, or even click through the links on the website for their history (I know, I know...). And the website, while not messy, didn't immediately shout out to me: "Hey, this company's cool!". It's silly and sad and kind of embarrassing, but we children of the technological age subconsciously have learned whether or not to trust organizations based on the quality of their website. (We're working on it.)
I was stuck. To go or not to go? It was a toss-up. At that moment, I didn't care, and that scared me.
So what happened? In the end, I went because
a) I knew I wanted to see some theater, and
b) since it was a pay-what-you-can night (!), I wouldn't feel bad about spending, say, $25 on a show I might (gasp) hate.
I paid $10 for me and my brother at the door, and we went in with no expectations whatsoever for the content or quality of the show. When the house lights came up at the end, my brother and I let out our breath -- that second act was IN-TENSE. And the show was so good! Not exactly what I'd been expecting from the blurb, but funny and upsetting and passionate and strong. The lead female was engaging and we found ourselves studying the program for the actors' names and upcoming projects, despite the fact that we'd be out of town. Ironically, the venue and atmosphere reminded us of San Francisco (I'm not sure if that's a testament to the universality of theater/theater spaces or just us being weird). I was glad I went and hadn't let my reluctance pull me away, and I found myself wishing that there was a Universal Personalize Gauge for Theatrical Awesomeness (which would rate every show for you personally before you buy a ticket to see it, obviously) -- or something of the sort so that I wouldn't make the mistake I almost made last night again. But alas. There isn't. That initial buy-in is all we have (right now, at least).
So! We teens challenge you theaters to continue to think up ways to create buy-in for a broadening audience. And as Up Next, an initiative working every day to bring more teens to theater, we're looking for ways to create buy-in for every show at all of our 8Rate theaters -- about 5-8 at once. A daunting task, but we're up for it.
Now 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities has my buy-in -- and I'll be back in the audience for the reading tonight.
Alona Bach is a Bay Area actress, teaching artist and member of that younger generation everyone worries about. She sees more theater than she can probably afford to and is the founder of Up Next, the Bay Area Teen Theater-Going Initiative.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.