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Photo: Penn Arts Initiative

Image: Penn senior thesis production of The Playboy of the Western World / Photo: Penn Arts Initiative

On stage in the Annenberg Center’s Bruce Montgomery Theatre, surrounded by sets for an upcoming student production of In the Next Room, several of the theatre world’s key players came together on Homecoming weekend to discuss the art form’s present and future. Here’s what we learned from them:

1. Competition for audiences is tight. Though the event was officially titled “Life in the World of Theatre Today,” Jed Bernstein C’77, an accomplished Broadway producer and Lincoln Center’s new president-elect, spoke first about the industry’s past. He said that in the mid-1990s, many Broadway theatres were “dark” — that is, without productions. About 8 million people went to see shows each year back then, but “Broadway’s central position as an important symbol of New York and its tourist economy hadn’t quite happened yet,” he added. “Audiences had fewer choices. There seemed to be less competition.” Compare that to today’s numerous blockbusters and the 13 million Broadway-goers each year, and you’ll find an interesting shift, he said: Most people will only buy tickets to their top-choice show. If it’s sold out, they’ll wait, rather than seeing something else.

2. Interactivity is key, both on and off the stage. Bernstein has noticed other changes, too — chief among them the rise of interactive, participatory theater. “People want experiences,” he said, citing Sleep No More and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. He later added that the interactive aspect “isn’t always [limited to] what happens in the four walls of what used to be called ‘the theatre.’”

Indeed, Transport Group Theatre Company’s executive director Lori Fineman C’92 said that many theatres are “exposing more of our process” than ever before. While the public traditionally knew nothing about a show until its opening night, nearly every theatre is now sharing photos and blog entries and videos from early into the rehearsal process onward. “That’s a way to hopefully cast a wider net among people who might be interested in seeing our shows,” Fineman added. “They get interested in the process and the people working on the show from the moment we announce casting, and hopefully that will lead to ticket sales.”

3. Marketing approaches are shifting. While Bernstein described his industry as “woefully behind in the use of technology for marketing,” some theaters are making strides in that direction. Todd Haimes C’78, artistic director of Roundabout Theatre Company since 1990, said that when it came to selling a show, his theatre used to “just plunk an ad in the New York Times.” Today, “at least 50 percent of our marketing efforts, if not more, are spent on social media, on data collection, on targeting specific households for specific things,” he said. “Everything is trying to go in that direction…and away from print advertising and direct mail.”

4. Boards and donors are more important than ever. Even with the new marketing approaches and advance behind-the-scenes glimpses, ticket sales are an ongoing source of concern. Haimes said that many people have stopped buying subscriptions and instead are purchasing only single tickets. That phenomenon, coupled with the fact that many foundations, corporations and government institutions have stopped supporting not-for-profit theatre in recent years, has greatly raised the importance of a theatre’s board of directors, he said.

5. There are still plenty of jobs in theatre — you just need to look in the right places. When the session’s attendees specifically asked to hear happier news during the Q&A portion, Vicki Reiss C’77, executive director of The Shubert Foundation, said that it’s still “extremely viable” to work in not-for-profit arts administration. “If you speak the language of a particular art form and you’re not in a position to become a performing artist, an absolutely fantastic way to channel that interest into a gratifying career is to get involved in the not-for-profit arts world,” she added. “There is absolutely opportunity for good and smart people.”

—Molly Petrilla C’06

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