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Local theaters are getting more creative all the time in their quest to build — and maintain — their audience.

Audience Matters

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What do you do when your audience is dying? This has been a question on the minds of theater professionals across the country for a long time. Randy Strawderman, artistic director for the Barksdale Theatre, might as well be speaking for arts administrators everywhere when he says, "We love the audience that has supported us so far but we can't deny that [our] audience is getting older. We have to invest in new people, younger people. Our survival depends on it."

Upper middle-age, upper middle-class and white is the traditional demographic of theater patrons. But as the number of entertainment options proliferates and ticket prices climb, the business side of theater becomes increasingly important. Given the various new tactics being considered by local theaters this fall, it's clear that in the upcoming season, the action behind the box-office window will be just as important as what's happening onstage.

"Decades ago, subscriptions revolutionized marketing for the performing arts," Strawderman declared in a May presentation to his Board of Trustees. "Now, it is time for a new marketing revolution." The revolution arrives at the Barksdale this season in a deceivingly simple form. While continuing to offer subscriptions — package deals where theatergoers buy seats for a whole season of plays at a significantly lower price — the theater will also offer memberships. For $25 a year, a member will be able to attend any performance at the Barksdale for half price. But here is the real kicker: For some groups (students, for instance), the membership fee will be waived. That's right — half-price at no cost.

"We see this as a way to introduce people to the theater," Strawderman explains. "It's an incentive to walk in the door and see what's going on." For the past couple of years, the Barksdale has added a wide variety of live entertainment to its main-stage theater productions: Tuesday night comedy, poetry slams, jazz music and late-night alternative shows such as "Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop."

"We were doing all these things," Strawderman says, "and we were asking ourselves, 'why aren't our doors being banged down?' … We have to give you some extra reasons to come here. Memberships will do that."

The Barksdale hit upon the membership idea after studying the program phased in by the Lincoln Center in New York 15 years ago. "We're in two totally different worlds," Strawderman concedes. "[The Lincoln Center] is the largest non-profit theater in the world. But there are a lot of similarities." The chief similarity Strawderman cites is a commitment to attracting a broader and more diverse audience.

The Barksdale Theatre has an annual budget of around $850,000 and is supported by 1,200 subscribers — theatergoers Strawderman is committed to keeping. But the membership program should allow that budget to grow closer to $1 million. "When you have a subscription base, unless you are daring or crazy, you have to cater to that," Strawderman says. "But we take risks all the time. We have been able to get away with some things because we've always been eclectic."

No other theater is pushing the envelope as far as the Barksdale, but the Swift Creek Mill Theatre and Restaurant has been working on a quiet revolution of its own. The Mill has a budget comparable to the Barksdale's: around $890,000 last year. But, while the Barksdale is hoping to draw more people by appealing to their checkbooks, the Mill is appealing to their stomachs. Last fall, chef Andy Howell, formerly of the celebrated Portabello restaurant in Petersburg, took over the Mill's newly renovated kitchen. So now, instead of a moderately palatable buffet available only on show nights, Mill patrons have a full range of choices including top-notch a la carte fare, served every night of the week with or without theater.

"We didn't advertise the opening of the new restaurant," says Chip McCoull, owner of the Mill, "because we were interested in a transitional period where we wouldn't scare off the theater crowd. But we've gotten both the restaurant and the buffet worked out now and we feel like, from a marketing standpoint, they can only support each other."

This season, the Mill will also begin experimenting with second-stage productions, to be performed in the restaurant as "dinner club" shows. "Lies and Legends: The Songs of Harry Chapin" will be the trial balloon. The musical revue, featuring songs by the writer most famous for "Cat's in the Cradle," will play Sundays through Tuesdays starting in January while main-stage productions run the rest of the week. Off-night programming has already proved a boon for the Mill: the gospel-infused musical "Livin' in the Light," was a rousing success this past spring.

"What we try to do with these [off-night] shows is position them in our season so that, if people love them, we can extend them," McCoull explains. "'Lies and Legends' could be extended indefinitely." As a commercial theater, the Mill cannot depend on corporate support or other donations the way non-profit theaters can. This makes the flexibility of a second stage especially attractive to McCoull. "We have to stay flexible because, frankly, we're always scrambling," he explains.

Though hardly scrambling, TheatreVirginia also is feeling some financial pressure these days. Its budget is by far the biggest of all the theaters in town, more than $2 million, but looming in 2003 is the expiration of the company's lease at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Consultants are helping the theater determine its best course for the future, but most scenarios involve a significant capital outlay, either for the building of a new space or the leasing of an old one.

For the time being, TVa seems content to stay the course instead of trying any new initiatives. "Our attendance traditionally runs 80 percent of capacity and above, so really, we're running pretty much full," claims TVa General Manager Don Bachmann. "For next season, we'll be trying to work on our group sales and on getting out into the community more. People don't realize how much TVa does." Bachmann says plans are under way for additional educational programs and an expanded New Voices of the Theater program for next summer.

On the other end of the economic scale, the planners behind the Richmond Triangle Players (RTP) are also maintaining their strategy of the past couple of years. This fringe troupe concentrates on shows with gay themes, producing four or five shows a year with an average $3,500 budget per show. Michael Gooding, the troupe's board president, says RTP has built its audience by doing new shows that are more daring than other theaters are willing to do. He asserts that good economic sense keeps RTP afloat: "We all love the theater, but we have a lot of business-related people on our board and we run this like a

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