How to prep your audience for a preview.

The theater is a peculiar bird.  Shows learn to fly in front of a paying audience, instead of just by themselves, under the wing of their protective mamas.

These days, new plays and musicals put themselves out there in front of everyone.  And when I say everyone, I mean everyone . . . . in the whole wide web.  And that’s scary for first-time flyers.

So who goes to see preview performances, and what are their expectations?  Of course, the theater has its early-adopters just like any other industry (how many of you had to have the first iPhone), but what do you do with those that aren’t early-adopters, that find themselves going to the show in previews, expecting to see a finished, polished product?  If you don’t manage their expectations, their word-of-mouth is going to reek like old onions.

The ambitious new musical, Tales of The City, which is premiering right now at ACT, decided to get out in front of what their preview process was about–just what audiences should expect, and how they should participate.  ACT sent out an email to the people who purchased tickets to a preview which included a note from their dramaturg and an actress in the show.  I got ahold of an email (thanks to a reader out there), and I’ve posted it below.  Here it goes:

Welcome to the world premiere musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City!

Producing a musical is like producing a straight play, only with a thousand more moving parts, all of which have to mesh in perfect balance. We’ve just finished four weeks of studio rehearsal and a technical process in which an evocative set, lights, an orchestra, and more than 200 costumes were added to the mix—more moving parts! It’s been an incredible ride so far, but the real excitement is about to begin.

We’re at the point where we need you, our enthusiastic preview audiences: the show is so big and so intricate, so intimate and so explosive, that the more opportunities we have to test the mix, the better the show will be. Where you laugh or applaud, where your attention is rapt, where we sense that maybe we’ve lost you for a moment—all of this provides us with the most crucial information we need to continue fine-tuning the production. With this in mind, we’ve added several previews beyond our usual five, and we’re delighted that you’ll become our new creative partners on the next leg of this exciting journey. After all, the aim of all these months of effort has been to make a show for you.

So welcome to A.C.T. We hope you’ll enjoy the show!

Michael Paller
Dramaturg

***

Dear Friend of A.C.T.,

In the process of rehearsing Tales of the City, I have done some pretty insane things:

1) Bared my breasts. Twice. (Once when I was asked to and once ’cause I just felt like it.)

2) Helped Wesley Taylor (the actor playing “Mouse,” wearing nothing but Superman briefs) soar through the air to cross from upstage right to downstage left.

3) Cried my guts out while singing a beautiful but emotionally wrenching duet with Tony Award winner Judy Kaye. (It was a particularly hormonal day for me.)

4) Cried my guts out some more in the halls of A.C.T. as our beautiful, brilliant Betsy Wolfe (who plays Mary Ann Singleton) just hugged me ’til I stopped, no questions asked.

5) Narrowly escaped a tragic yet humiliating end (death by disco ball—DON’T ASK).

6) Nodded my head in absolute seriousness when the stage manager said, “Okay, actors, let’s take it from ‘Crotch,’ and after lunch we’ll pick it up from ‘Go **** yourself.'”

And that’s just in the last six weeks.

My journey through Armistead Maupin’s brilliantly crafted San Francisco tales started long before we set foot in the hallowed halls of the American Conservatory Theater. I got a call about three years ago in New York City while I was doing Hairspray on Broadway (playing Velma Von Tussle). I was exhausted—the call came on my only day off. The casting director (a genius of a man named David Caparelliotis) asked if I’d be willing to show up on my next day off to do a cold reading of Tales of the City at Jason Moore’s house.

And believe it or not, I was stupid enough and ignorant enough to say “no”—not once, but twice. It wasn’t stupidity so much as it was the old “eight-shows-a-week-and-not-getting-any-younger” exhaustion. I am so NOT a morning person, and getting up on a Monday morning (my one day off) to go do even MORE theater on the one day I was permitted to NOT do theater just seemed plain CRAZY—especially when my voice was already tired and everyone was getting sick.

God bless David C., and Armistead Maupin, too. David tried one more time, and he said that Armistead had seen me perform and that he heartily approved of me doing Mona in that initial little cold reading at Jason Moore’s house.

“Really??? What did he see me in?”

“I showed him the YouTube video you posted.”

I’ve been known to post silly videos on YouTube from time to time as my alter-ego, the “99 Cent Whore.” She’s a cross between Loretta Lynn, Jack Black, and an assistant night manager at a 99 Cent Store in West Covina who likes to sing and plays the guitar REALLY badly.

Before I knew it I was in Jason’s beautiful home bright and early on a Monday morning. As I walked in the door, a handsome gentleman I’d never met before (who looked more like a naughty, sexy Santa Claus than a celebrated author) approached me. Armistead had an ACTUAL twinkle in his eye, and he smiled as he walked toward me singing, “Come on, come on, be a big slutty broke-ass whore, shop at the 99 Cent Sto-or-ore!” Then he laughed. That did it. I was in. I was a goner. I loved this man. I would beg, borrow, or steal to play the part of Mona Ramsey.

Once I read Jeff Whitty’s awesome script, read aloud by the actors they’d assembled that day, and heard those gorgeous songs (which the composers had to play on a boom box), I could think of nothing I’d rather do more than Tales of the City. And in three years, that feeling has only intensified. I am humbled on a daily basis by the talent surrounding me. The production team, the creative team, the cast, the A.C.T. folks—it’s all brilliant and it’s all FUN.

There have been several incarnations of this show, from a cold reading at an apartment in NYC three years ago, to a workshop in a barn in Connecticut, to a staged reading in NYC, to another one-month workshop here at A.C.T. last year, and I am lucky enough to still be a part of it. In an age that’s chock full of reality TV and people who are “eliminated” after every commercial break, I don’t take my continued involvement in this show lightly. I will gladly get up at any hour of the day they tell me to. This show is gorgeous to look at, to listen to, and to be a part of. It’s hilariously silly at times, deeply important, and always riveting.

And if none of that appeals to you, well . . . I do show my tits. So, you know . . . there’s that.

Mary Birdsong
Tales of the City cast member

People are forgiving.  As long as you’re truthful.  And I find the more you explain, in a positive and participatory way, the more enthusiastic audiences will be about your work (the key is the “positive” part – don’t whine about how you had no money and only 29 hours, blah, blah, bs).  ACT has embraced the era of transparency in the theater, and in addition, emails like the above . . . well, they just make me want to buy a ticket.

What do you think of the above?

(Got a comment?  I love ’em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here, then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)

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Comments
  • jeremy wein says:

    love it, hope to see this make it to nyc, dying to see mary in this!

  • Jeremy Bennington says:

    I really wish we would go back to the days of discounted seats during previews. Even if it is just a few bucks, it is a subtle way of letting the audience know they are seeing a “not quite finished product.”

  • Jeremy — Not sure if you were just making a general comment, but as an FYI the preview performances for Tales of the City were slightly discounted, as all preview performances at A.C.T. are.

  • Ed from Connecticut says:

    Very clever!
    Kudos to whoever devised the idea of this email as it builds interest and excitement while still managing to temper expectations during the preview period.
    And, yes, I also agree with Jeremy B- tix to previews should be discounted.

  • Wendy Caster says:

    That note from ATC is flat-out brilliant. Setting expectations is always a good idea, and the email invites the audience in as a partner, with respect. Previews can feel like a rip-off; ATC makes them sound like a special occasion.

  • Laura Manske says:

    This is so wonderful and fresh and open. Love it! Thanks for posting, Ken.

  • Dave Charest says:

    Love that email from ACT.
    It should be noted that this type of communication also works for a show that isn’t in previews.
    It’s always better to create situations where the audience feels they are collaborators and they get to have some ownership of the show.
    And yes, as you mention emails like the above make you want to see the show so much more. 🙂

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    An excellent approach. There is nothing an audience loves more than feeling like they are part of the process. But nothing excuses charging full prices for previews.

  • Getpublished says:

    Here’s the problem. Other interviews the director gave made it sound like the show was in terrific shape– like they didn’t expect to add, subtract or change any songs.
    I loved the email. And I was rooting for Mary Birdsong.
    The cast to this show is amazing. But the show misses by a lot, particularly in the first act. The four people sitting next to me walked out. I thought about doing the same, as I live ninety miles from the theater.
    I’m glad I stayed. The second act, though it needed a lot of work, made it seem like it was a fixable musical.
    The first act though, was full of general scenes showing off San Francisco in the 70s, showing a particular fascination with gay San Francisco, instead of showing specifics about the characters–
    The second act got much more personal. So it worked better– and pointed to something much more fixable, because you can’t fix something that’s completely general.
    The big things that bugged me, aside from the above–
    *the show adheres to closely to the book (or at least the PBS version) and it’s desire to be egalitarian to all the characters. It leads off with MaryAnn and ends with MaryAnn– but the real lead character with the best story arc is Mrs. Madrigal– played by Judy Kaye– On some level, they know this, as she is the last one to come out at the curtain call.
    *There are four or five scenes where the wrong character sings. The character who sings in a scene needs to be the one the audience expects and wants to sing. Either the book needs to change (easy in this type of situation) or the song needs to change. In one case, the song that is sung would work if there were a new song added in front of it.
    *A lot of the songs came off as having an unclear structure.
    San Francisco is in love with Tales of the City in its various incarnations, from running column in the Chronicle, to the books, to the PBS series. I attended a discussion with the director and an ACT dramaturge before the show– and it was clear there were many people who were in love with the original property.

  • Katherine says:

    Yep, yep, yep! Audiences LOVE feeling like they’re part of the team, that their opinion matters, that they’re on the inside track. ACT found a simply brilliant way to market the previews!
    And doncha think preview tickets should always cost less than the post-opening price? Even a small discount adds to people feeling that they are indeed on that inside track.

  • CR says:

    Brilliant. We all know people invest in what they create. Truth in advertising with that special “insider” invitation to participate in something exciting. And Mary knows how to write AND a sing her tits off!

  • Dewey evans says:

    I do not have a website
    I have a true story
    is one of a kind
    my heritage is gypsy
    you’ll never hear another story like
    I need some producer or writer to read it

  • Fascinating insights, Ken, which clearly provoked a response from your readers.
    I love Mary Birdsong’s open, honest, humble and brilliant e-mail… Had I read it, and been in SF in 2011 I’d surely have bought a ticket based on her email alone!
    I do hope this show is still being workshopped. As an actor/singer in NYC originally from SF (and LOVED Maupin’s books as a teen) I would really love to be involved with this show in some capacity.

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Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

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