21 January 2011


I was talking to a friend and colleague today about local arts organizations - what makes venues good/bad, what shows they choose to bring/produce, how their people or policies affect event experiences - and I realized that, as has been reported recently, cultural organizations take quite a bit for granted. From how ticket sales are run (my colleague pointed out that a certain local organization with several theaters and one 1000-plus-seat venue uses an online ticketing system that is designed for small, one-time nonprofit events) to the ease of getting someone on the phone (or via e-mail or Twitter) to answer ticket buyers' questions, many factors play into the bottom line items of audience size and ticket sales. 

So for the first part what is likely to be a several-part series, I look at one item that affects audiences more than arts organizations generally credit: selecting seats. An organization to which I have regularly subscribed in the past has proven relatively bad at choosing the seats it gives me for each show in my subscription, and this caused me to choose not to subscribe this past year. This sounds a bit extreme, and I readily admit that I'm a seat snob, but my reasoning was simple: A major Broadway show was coming this year, I was bringing family and friends to the show who had never seen it before, and I wanted them to have a specific experience. The particular theater which was hosting this show has aural dead zones in the Orchestra, has certain areas with bad sight lines at every level, and, as I said, has a history of giving me odd seats for a subscriber. I wanted to choose my own seats for this important show, so I opted not to subscribe and instead buy tickets piecemeal. This is my own experience only, but it makes me wonder how many others made the same choice.

Select your own seat options have been shown to be widely used by buyers and to result in purchases of better (read: more expensive) seats. It gives buyers a sense of agency over their theatrical experience, and that can't be overvalued in our area of intensive customization and desire for unique individual experiences. Offering ticket buyers a view from their potential seats is also increasingly popular. I remember the first time I ever used this option, at Madison Square Garden,and their system is still the model for the technology. However, smaller theaters can do this much more simply, such as this example by a local organization (choose any event to view). This Chicago theater company's website was recently highlighted by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout as a great example of a well-organized and complete arts organization site, and - surprise, surprise - they let you choose your seat location, even in a 140-seat venue. I'd be interested to hear from other organizations who studied or chose to institute this option to find out how it has impacted their ticket buying stats, but I suspect it's usually a net positive.

The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a StageWhile considering other issues that may unexpectedly affect audiences, I'm looking forward to digging through my current stack of 16 library books (guess I know what I'll be doing this weekend!) to take another look at The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, a book whose lessons apply far beyond the arts world. Nothing about the arts-going experience should be taken for granted, and being allowed to choose one's own view of the show is no exception. One caveat, though: if a map is presented, it should be accurate. I once selected seats to a local production of one of my favorite musicals in the middle of the last row of a  small (300-seat) theater that appeared to offer a prime view (and was not marked as partial view or offered at any type of discount). When I arrived, the tech table was poised in the last row, and my seats butted up against it. In a normal seated position, 80% of my sight line was obscured by the table. I spent the entire show alternating between kneeling on my seat and balancing on the top edge of the folded seat, and even in these uncomfortable positions, I was still privy to the stage manager calling the entire show into his headset (I knew about the gunshots five seconds before everyone else!) and the bright light of his computer screen distracting my peripheral vision. As much as I support this theater group, I am unfortunately much more tentative about attending performances there after that particular evening. Experience is everything!