Did the fat lady sing for New York City Opera? And is this an operatic omen?

In a dramatic move that deserves its own aria, New York City Opera, the very first tenant of the center known as Lincoln, announced that it was up and moving.

Where?

No one, including NYCO, knows.

The question on everybody’s mind . . . is this the end of New York City Opera?  And, gulp, is this the beginning of the end for opera???

It’s a challenged art form, no doubt.  As less and and less people are brought up on it, less and less people are supporting it (either through ticket sales or donations).

Unfortunately, I think that in 10 years, the end of NYCO’s reign at Lincoln Center will be remembered as the closing that was heard around the world.  More closings will follow.  The audiences are shrinking, which means the business model will have to correct itself by decreasing supply.  Ironically, competitors, like The Met (who has done a kick ass job of making opera relevant), will benefit.

What does this mean for our closely-related industry?

We’ve seen our audience contract in recent years.  We’ve seen our ticket prices increase in recent years.  And we’ve seen a billion other entertainment options pop up in your pocket!

It’s essential that we get out ahead of the opera so we’re not faced with a similar breaking news item in 10 years.

But I’m not sure we can.

In fact, I’ll predict right now that one of the major non-profit theaters in this city will go out of business in the next decade.  Which one?  Simple – whichever company chooses to produce shows that no longer feel relevant to today’s theatergoer.

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How to drive your non-profit into the ground.

I got into a discussion with a board member of a fiscally challenged non-profit theater over the weekend. (Is there any other kind lately?) I asked her what she thought were the biggest traps that non-profs could fall into, and what were the most important elements to a successful non-commercial theater.

After talking about donor bases and subscription models and audience developement, she and I pretty much came to the same conclusion that the most important asset a non-profit could have was an Artistic Director with the right attitude.

She and I have both seen quite a few theaters led by Artistic Directors who chose to use the theater as their own personal “play”-ground.  Rather than blending the mission statement with what the audience wanted, the ADs chose selfish seasons, satsifying their own desires rather than their audiences.

And that’s a quick way to drive away a consituency . . . and in today’s world of high ticket prices and oodles of other forms of entertainment, it’s five times as hard to get them back if they bolt.

It’s a challenge for ADs, because their job is to serve a mission, challenge an audience, stretch, push, educate, etc . . . but they must remember that if the audience doesn’t enjoy what they are seeing, they’ll go somewhere else.  Period.

In fact, I’d say ADs are like politicians.  We hire them to be smarter than we are . . . to take us into a new day . . . to have our best interests at heart (even when we might not realize it’s in our best interests).

But disappoint us?  And we’ll try the new guy faster than you can say “bankruptcy.”

My two tips to ADs out there?

– Find out exactly what your audience wants using surveys, focus groups, or even an online contest to pick your season.

– Find a way to give them what they want while stretching them at the same time. (Just because they want a musical, doesn’t mean you have to give them No, No, Nanette.)

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Institutions can have personalities, too.

I recently got an email from a non-profit here in the city asking me for money.  The message said, “Please give me money.  Signed, Institution.”

Then I got an email from the Scott Elliot, the Artistic Director of the outstanding New Group, asking me to subscribe.  In addition to a much more personal letter (it was signed simply, “Scott”), the email also featured a nice photo of Scott.

Obviously, you know which one I was more inclined to support.

But it goes beyond that.

In addition to this appeal being much more likely to succeed because of the personal nature of the communication, the strategy of attaching a person (with a face) to a institution has many more long term benefits.

Subscribers, donors, etc. are much more likely to support people . . . not buildings and not companies.  That’s why it’s essential for every non-profit, every building, and every company to have a face, or a personality, that represents the human component of what they do.

When I was in London recently, I went to see Deathtrap at the Noel Coward Theatre. When I opened my program, guess who greeted me with a letter?  Cameron Mackintosh! (Cameron owns the Noel Coward).  And the letter wasn’t just a “welcome to my theater” letter, but rather a letter that talked about the show, the actors, and more.

There are many companies around the country and in this city that are already using this strategy, but there is more that we can all do . . . and more rewards to reap from it.

Think you’ve got this covered?  Try my test to see if your company is successfully using personalization properly:  Ask 10 people who are casual visitors to your space what name comes to mind when you say the name of your venue. If they all don’t say the name of your Artistic Director, CEO, or whomever you want them to say within 3 seconds, you fail.  🙂

If you failed, or if you haven’t started yet, here are five things that person can do to expand his or her presence:

1.  BLOG IT UP!

I think every Artistic Director should blog, and it should be available right on the home page. Describe your daily successes as well as the challenges you face.  Give insider scoop on upcoming shows (photos and more), etc.  In blog form, these entries might seem more journal-like, and less solicitation-like, and you might find yourself raising money passively throughout the year.

2.  SIGNED, YOU.

Every letter, ticket confirmation, and donation request should come from one voice . . . yours.  And include photos.

3.  GREET THE PEEPS.

As often as you can, park yourself in front of the ticket takers and shake hands, get recognized, and meet as many of your customers as possible.  And don’t just talk to the Richie Riches.  Today’s single ticket buyer could be tomorrow’s subscriber.

And if you can be there at the end of the show to listen to people’s thoughts, complaints, feedback, etc., even better.

4.  SHOW FACE.

Take advice from Scott and insert your photos into your correspondence. I’d also put photos of you and your team by the box office, and other key places.  You want people to recognize you when you’re at the Duane Reade.

5.  ANSWER EVERY EMAIL

Your email should be plastered all over your site.  Let your subscribers, patrons, and more have direct access to you.  And respond. It’ll mean a lot to them . . . which will no doubt mean a lot to you.

Are these things that difficult to do?  No.  Do these things take time?  Yes.

But I have a feeling you think your institution or your company is worth it.

Someone that you don’t know may want to give you money for your project.

One of the most FAQ I get is “How do I raise money for my show?”

While raising money seems like one of the greatest challenges you will face, it’s not.  Creating a great show is a lot harder than raising money for it (and if you do the creation right, the raising part will be easier than passing Obama’s Health Care plan if Scott Brown wasn’t in office).

Raising money takes creativity, like our ladies involved in the “Producer Off” (who, by the way, lost a pair of oven mitts last week . . . it’s getting steamy over there).

There are people out there that will fund anything.  Think about it.  Imagine the worst show, the worst art exhibit, the worst book, restaurant, movie, product, etc. that you have ever paid for.  Someone invested in it or donated to make it happen.  And if those crap-tastic things can find funding, certainly you can, too!

I call this The Moose Murders Factor.  And I remind myself of this mantra whenever I start searching for the right people to invest in my shows.

They’re out there . . . you just have to find them.

Here’s a website that’s trying to help folks like you find funders.

It’s called Kickstarter.com and it’s a self-proclaimed “funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers . . . ”

Here’s how it works:

You post a project with a fundraising goal.  People see it (and you push people to it). People fund it, sometimes a dollar at a time.  You reach your goal, you get the cash.  You don’t reach your goal, you get zilch (this more or less guarantees the funders that your project will be completed).

Pretty simple, right? (You can read more about it here.)

The biggest catch is that Kickstarter isn’t open to everyone yet.  Projects are accepted by invitation only.  But, it was founded by a guy in Brooklyn, so I figure if we can’t find some invites, we can all just go bang on his door until he spreads some love to Producer’s Perspective readers.

My only other annoyance?  Theater isn’t a category/tag.  While you can post a project about anything (and there are a few theater projects on the site), you can’t filter by it.  Once again . . . dude, you live in Brooklyn, there are a zillion theater peeps living seven to a room just a few blocks from you.  Help ’em out!

And if we can’t get some assistance from KS, maybe one of you entrepreneurial web geniuses out there will start your own version just for the non-profit performing arts.

Because Moose Murders got money.  So can you.

Need more tips on how to raise money for your project?  Click here to read all my best practices.

Desperately seeking: Devoted and Disgruntled in New York

I’d bet my original Carrie playbill that if you’re reading this blog, then there is something about the theater industry that frustrates the f*** out of you.

I’d also bet that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in voicing your opinion, getting your hands dirty, and doing something about it.

This weekend, you have your chance.  And you won’t be alone.

On Saturday and Sunday, The Under The Radar Festival is sponsoring the first ever D&D in the U.S.

No, D&D isn’t an 80s role playing game (and yes, I was a Dungeon Master).  It stands for ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ and it’s a town hall-ish type event where you can express your frustration, and then you can come up with a way to do something about it.  And you’ll have other D&Ders to help, because I’d bet if something is frustrating you, it’s frustrating someone else, too.

It’s like a theatrical activist dating service.  And I think it sounds pretty awesome.

It’s been done in London for five years to great success and thankfully, it’s coming here.

While I’m sure it will be heavy on non-profits and up-and-coming theater companies, it doesn’t have to be.  The founder of the event is Phelim McDermott, a director and designer who dances in both the non-profit and profit halls.  In fact, he’s got a teensy-tiny show coming up this Spring known as The Addams Family.

For more information on the event, click here.

I’ll see you there.

No 20-sided die required.

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