We do theater wrong

It took a pandemic shutting down every major live performance venue to realize our mistake.

Theatermakers (directors, actors, costumers, stage builders, lighting and sound designers) feel like amputees while they can’t do the work they were born to create. They plead desperately on Facebook and Twitter for theaters to reopen next month, or maybe by Thanksgiving, at least early next year, maybe it won’t be till next summer?

Our focus in the theater has been egocentric. What shows do we want to do? What shows do we want our audience to see? What shows do we think will sell tickets? It’s been about us and what we want.

Even during mandatory social distancing – making in-person performance dangerously unwise – we create live theater online, streaming to dozens of laptops across America in an effort to replicate normalcy. We accomplish amazing technical feats to perform the shows we want to do. The rallying cry from Broadway to small town community theater is “We were born to perform and nothing will stop us!”

Until this moment I never really understood that live theater is not about the performance. It’s about the audience.

Was Hamilton on Disney+ thrilling? Yes. Was it the same as seeing it in person. Definitely not. Why? It wasn’t a shared experience. We didn’t see that show with thousands of others in the same building.

Researchers discovered that audience members sync heartbeats while watching a show. (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/pals/news/2017/nov/audience-members-hearts-beat-together-theatre) Everyone’s heart in a theater falls into the same rhythm. All of us in the audience are the show’s percussion section and we’re beating in unison.

Actors often talk about an audience being ‘hot’ or ‘dead.’ We feel the audience emotions on the stage. The reactions of the audience influence our performances to emphasize jokes, talk faster or drag out dramatic moments.

Yet we plan and perform live theater without including our audience. If the purpose of theater was only to entertain or educate, people would have abandoned stage shows with the advent of movies and TV. The purpose of live theater is for people gathering together to share a bonding experience that assures them they are not alone.

Artistic Directors may scoff at my suggestion they aren’t including the audience in decision making. Of course they are. They are thinking about what they want to show their audience but not what their audience needs. What is their audience missing in their lives? What is their audience hungry to digest that can’t be found anywhere else?

Some theaters partner with organizations to bring attention to social justice issues in the community. This noble effort may promote awareness to your existing audience about something they never experienced first hand. They will probably feel like they “did something” by attending. (Very rarely do people served by the organization see the show.) As good as this feels to tackle important issues, it doesn’t give the audience what they need. If you feel it’s urgent your community learn about something, there are lots of documentaries on every topic.

Theater producers in non-tourism markets complain about low ticket sales. They blame competition from other theaters and sporting events that ‘keep their audience away.’ They blame the local newspaper that refuses to publicize the event because the theater didn’t purchase advertising. They blame actors who don’t invite enough friends. But producers don’t blame themselves for ignoring the audience.

When live theater returns, and individuals feel they can safely gather in groups, the audience is going to be starving for human connection. They will be desperate to overcome isolation. They will even take calculated health risks to belong again to a group of people who feel the same.

As theatermakers we talk about our role in society to support the arts and educate civilization. We don’t understand why only 13% of Americans (according to the National Endowment for the Arts) have attended a live performance. How do we reach the rest of the population?

Maybe the answer is that we aren’t filling the audience’s emotional void. We aren’t asking ourselves what is missing from our daily life.

What can we do differently?


  • Get to know people who are currently attending your shows. Share a meal together. Ask how they’re feeling about life. Give them a chance to talk. Listen to what worries them. I’m not talking about season ticket holders, donors or board members – they aren’t the majority of your potential audience. Listen to random single ticket holders. Then consider what show or what kind of shows would positively improve that person’s life.
  • A talk-back after the show gives a few audience members the opportunity to feel recognized while leaving the silent majority outside the conversation. Instead of staging a discussion, host a reception after every performance and play party games. (Not theater games; many people in your audience don’t want to be on stage.) In the program invite everyone to join you in the lobby, in the parking lot, or even (God forbid) on the stage for a no-host show-post happy hour.
  • Encourage audience engagement during the performance. Don’t ask everyone to laugh boisterously to encourage your actors. Do print a bold notice in your program: THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY. It’s an indirect way to tell your audience they don’t have to be quiet. It will take time to change your audience behavior to interact with the performers more vocally. Yiddish Theater and African American Theater already have a culture of audience involvement. The American ‘mainstream’ theater community is stymied by Puritanical traditions that relegate your audience to watch but not belong. This also excludes people from cultures that normally do interact with live theater. If you state your goal is to perform for ‘a diverse audience’ then everyone must be comfortable being themselves in your theater. If you don’t want audience interaction then make movies.
  • People who never attended theater before are intimidated to walk in the building. They feel they don’t belong. They think it is an elitist experience and they will embarrass themselves unknowingly. They don’t want to be the guy who claps between orchestral movements. Shift the theater experience by positioning volunteer greeters at the door. Not ticket takers or people handing out programs. Greeters. Like they experience at church. Greeters with name tags who introduce themselves, shake hands and say “I’m so glad you’re here!” The uncomfortable new patrons may disclose this is their first time or that they don’t know what to do. The greeter is there to assure them “Everyone is very friendly here and anyone will be happy to answer any questions you have.” (The greeter is referring to other audience members – not your staff.) You are putting trust in your audience to look after each other, to form a community.
  • Don’t thank the audience for attending. That’s another way of separating them from belonging, reinforcing that they are your guests in your space. It’s better to tell the audience how glad you are to see them, how excited you are to spend the evening together, how much you look forward to talking with them later after the show.
  • Word-of-mouth is your best publicity. Create a team of ambassadors who attend the free preview night of every production. Within this group designate social leaders who befriend and talk with every ambassador. You create a community with this group encouraging every ambassador to attend each production and to tell everybody they know about the show. You want ambassadors who love to socialize. Depending on your population your best ambassadors are beauticians, or religious leaders, or city leaders and business leaders, or people who spend a lot of time on social media. After the show strikes follow-up with each of your ambassadors asking what people thought of the show. (They heard plenty of comments from their friends.) This information will help you understand what your audience needs as you plan future productions.

Seats sell-out when we are actually filling a need.

Theater wasn’t resurrected in the European Middle Ages to give monks and priests a chance to sing and dance. They  created plays to educate and comfort villagers in a grisly world. Even our revered Shakespeare filled his plays with gratuitous sexual innuendo to give his boisterous audience what they needed (escapism) – not a haughty afternoon of culture associated with the Bard today.

We will get the opportunity to perform again. Let’s do it for the right reasons this time.