CASE STUDY: Why I talk to my audience.

If you came to see Spring Awakening or Daddy Long Legs over the last few weeks, then you might have seen me hanging around the restrooms (as creepy as that sounds) or more likely, mixing in with the audience as they left the theater.  To be a Producer means you have to be an expert eavesdropper, listening in for not only positive or negative sentiment, but also for specifics or buzzwords that you might hear over and over.

But you can’t just listen.  You also have to talk.

I usually spot someone in the demographic I’m looking to attract (so for Spring it’d be very easy to get a positive response from younger folks, as you can probably imagine, so I focus on the traditional theatergoer – a woman in her 50s or even 60s who has come with a spouse) and ask simply . . . “Did you enjoy the show?”  And then I listen.  And listen. And listen some more.  I don’t tell them I’m the Producer.  I just act like an interested theatergoer.

I’ve done this on subway platforms and the corners of streets eight blocks away from the theater if I see someone with my Playbill.

And I learn a ton.

What I try to do is yes, gain an overall reading of whether people are enjoying themselves or not.  But again, I’m looking for similarities in their statements.  Are they all talking about the music?  If so, I might want to pump that up in the marketing.  Performers?  Same deal.  Set?  Whatever it is they are taking away that is on the “top of their mind,” I want to push in our promotion.  Careful, though.  Make sure you’re not just taking one person’s opinion.  You want to see a trend.  Which means you want to talk to lots of people.

Want a specific example?  I thought you’d never ask.  Here comes the case study party:

When I’m working on an Off Broadway show like Daddy Long Legs, I’m always more interested in how/why the audience member bought the tickets, since Off Broadway shows have much smaller budgets than Broadway shows, and are therefore in fewer places.  Why did they seek out the smaller show?  What was it that made them click “buy?”

  • The first couple I spoke to at Daddy Long Legs was from South Carolina.  Huh, I thought.  Tourists.  The gold mine of theatergoers.  Get the tourists, and you can run for years.  And here it was we had some in the first week of previews.  And when I asked them where they got their tickets?  The TKTS booth.  Whoa.  We don’t even have a billboard in Times Square and yet they bought off the title, and maybe a flyer.  “Why?” I asked.  “We remember the movie,” the South Carolinian woman responded.

Now here’s where I had shock face.

Yes, we knew there was a movie of Daddy Long Legs in 1955 that starred Fred Astaire.  But it hardly resembled the original source material.  And it was like a distant step-cousin-in-law-twice-removed of our production.  And, well, don’t tell the movie company, but we didn’t think it was very good.  And we thought if people came to see it because of the movie, they might be disappointed (because we ain’t a dance show, for sure).  So we deliberately did not push it in marketing. But here was a tourist couple who bought tickets at the booth because they knew and loved the movie . . . and they loved the show.

Ok, but that’s only one couple.

The next afternoon there was a group of two couples who walked by the theater and stopped to look at the poster.  I asked them if they had any questions.  Their first comment? “Is this based on the movie?”

Well, shoot.

Later that night after the evening performance, a group of ladies that got their tickets on TDF came out raving about the show and promising to bring more friends “because they loved the movie.”

And another, and another, and another.

So, as you can probably imagine, in all of Daddy Long Legs‘ new marketing materials you will find some kind of language that says “based on the classic novel and the 1955 film starring Fred Astaire.”

We were already getting interest from that fact, and now that we’re putting it in materials, we’ll get more.  Guaranteed.

The two big takeaways from this case study are:

  • You can’t just listen to your audience, you have to talk to them.
  • What you think about your show, may be the exact opposite of what the audience thinks.

On big, new shows, I take all of the above to a bigger and more scientific level, with all sorts of focus groups, dial testing and quantitative and qualitative analysis.  But on small shows, you can learn a lot just by hanging around restrooms and asking questions.


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  • John Linscott says:

    I caught CBS news coverage of Spring Awakening last evening. It was about the playwright. An amazing woman.

  • Catherine Gropper says:

    I’m relieved you are mentioning the film with Astaire snd Caron .
    The two leads in this production have many of the particular qualities of the film’s stars . He is debonair and sophisticated with a yearning he is not aware of while she is innocent ( like Caron ) with a yearning she is aware of . The essence of their story is the same . I enjoyed the play more and I love the film . How many stories make us cry or get chills or get lost into the players voices ( and here they are amazing vocalists. I’d recommend even using faces from the film unless there is a copyright infringement .
    I can’t wait for the recording !

  • Lyndsay Austin says:

    Look for me at Spring Awakening on Sunday matinee. 56 yes old. Coming with 65 year old husband and 18 yr old daughter at her urging. Terrified that I will not understand show not because of the ASL element, but because unsure about the plot. Did not see the original. Have heard soundtrack and do enjoy. Will give you honest feedback.

  • I’d be interested in seeing a follow-up blog on the effects of adding the movie info to your advertising. I loved that movie as a kid. (It seemed much older than from 1955, or maybe we only had a black and white TV back then.) I’d also suggest adding Leslie Caron to the advertising. Someone else mentioned her and she’s who I remember from the movie.

  • Art Fidler says:

    When I first read about the show, I was assuming that it was connected to the movie, but then later, reading more, I thought it wasn’t, and had vague lingering questions about why it had the same title.
    Now the veil has fallen. I think that it is good that you are now linking them. My generation remembers that so-vivid title and Astaire and Caron in the film, and would immediately make the assumption that the film and the musical are connected.

  • john costa says:

    this is a very interesting post. I went to see Daddy Long Legs while it was in previews….(I loved it by the way). I went not as a movie buff, but as a guy who likes new and exciting theatre and thought it was a great idea for a musical. I hadn’t even heard of the movie to be honest. When I started raving about it back home in MA, I was surprised by how many people said, ” Oh, like the movie?” or “I remember that with Fred Astaire” …. I guess you never know who you’re going to connect with.
    P.S. Having to be totally honest, as an actor I love to find new pieces to hopefully mount in the future too bad I’m neither young or tall or I’d love to take on this interesting and challenging role sometime in the future….ah well, maybe I’ll get to direct it someday when it’s available…. hint, hint…

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    Were the rights to the screenplay purchased? If not, how can you claim the show is partly based on that?

  • Ed Katz says:

    Fascinating what you learned about the “long legs” of the movie.
    Still, I have to ask you: If you will be incorporating the movie- with Fred Astaire- into your marketing, yet you say “we ain’t a dance show, for sure” then are you concerned about setting up a disconnect with your ticket buyers?
    They might come to the conclusion that, if the show is based on a movie with Fred Astaire, that it will be “a dance show.”
    And then, if the show doesn’t meet their expectations because of that, you could have problems with bad word of mouth.
    My only knock on the current revival of ‘An American in Paris’ is I expected more- or some- tap dancing because those scenes were some (most) of the best parts of the movie with Gene Kelly. And this version has almost no tap dancing.
    Now, in fairness to the team behind the current Broadway revival, they don’t market it with “based on the classic movie starring Gene Kelly”- but tap dancing was my expectation simply because it was so prevalent in the movie.

  • Katherine says:

    Hi Ken,
    Two other moms and I brought our 5 daughters to see Daddy Long Legs on 9/19/2015. It was great, and I’m writing to specifically tell you that we came because we have a mother-daughter book club based on a series of contemporary books by Heather Vogel Frederick called The Mother-Daughter Book Club, with each book themed around a “classic girls’ book.” The third book of the series is called “Dear Pen Pal” and is themed around Daddy Long Legs, which was the specific reason we came to see your show. I have no idea whether there are other mother-daughter (or parent-kid) book clubs in NYC and vicinity, or how well known this book series might be, but it’s a possible tie-in for you. The mothers and daughters had a great time (although the math-professor mom wished that Jerusha hadn’t flunked math). The girls didn’t know about the Fred Astaire movie, but several friends of mine did ask if the show was based on the movie when I told them I was bringing my daughter to it. Good luck! -Katherine

  • Sue Cohen says:

    Ken, your restroom research may be giving you only the male perspective. If you need someone to hang around the ladies’ rooms of your shows during intermission and get feedback, I’m your volunteer!

    Also, not sure what you mean by “… a woman in her 50s or even 60s” — is that a gasp I hear between the lines? Please drop the ageism!

  • Swiss movie theaters have set additional screens in bathrooms in 2019. It was a way to communicate with the audience all the time. From the start of the play to its end.

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