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On with the show

posted by Robert Sweibel on Fri, Sep 26, 2008
in At the theatre

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You may have already noticed that we've extended our run of Yellowjackets by a week. In response to extremely powerful buzz (sorry) and -- more to the point -- strong demand for tickets, the show will now play through October 19. Woo-hoo! Sounds like butts in seats and money in the bank, right? Well, that's not necessarily the case at all. The decision to extend a popular show is complex.

Before we can consider an extension, we have to clear our first hurdle: cast and crew availability. With a cast of 11, we have to clear 11 schedules with upward of 11 agents. With this show, we see that Lance Gardner, who plays Rashid and James, is unavailable for our typical 2pm Sunday matinee curtain. He's already working with another theatre – go Lance! So any matinee we schedule has to begin at 3pm, enabling Lance to get to the theatre… with minutes to spare. And a 3pm matinee start time means we have to put off our typical Sunday 7pm curtain until 7:30pm. That's what's reflected on our calendar for closing day, Sunday, October 19. Finding everyone else ready, willing, and able, we're good to go…

Provided we have time for load-out and load-in. After the show closes, the stage crew has to dismantle the set, sometimes storing it in case we decide to tour the show, or loan or rent the set to another theatre wanting to produce the play. If we're not storing it, we're recycling and re-using as much of the material as possible. Then we have to load in and build the set for the next show, in this case Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, which begins previews November 14. Usually the crew rebuilds the stage from the bottom, creating a new floor for every show. Thankfully, our production department managed to rejigger their schedule to make this happen. They're all about flexibility. (We even have a Berkeley Rep "flexibility embrace," but that's another blog post entirely.)

The second hurdle we have to clear is the cost of running the show. And with 11 actors and a multi-person run crew, Yellowjackets is pretty pricey. Plus there are costs for an additional week of marketing, upward of $10,000. And front of house costs for the house manager and concessionaires. And air conditioning! Do we have enough performance programs or do we have to reprint? We think we have enough. (We invite our patrons to take their programs home, and we urge those who don't wish to keep them to turn them in for re-use.)

Anyway, as a nonprofit, we're not driven by the need to produce surpluses. But neither do we subscribe to the old nonprofit adage, "You’ve got to spend money to lose money." Minimally, we want to break even. You may ask, why go through all the trouble of extending the show -- the time, the energy, the risk -- just to break even? Easy. Sharing the experience of live theatre is what we're about. If we can attract enough guests into the theatre to cover our extension costs, we go for it, even if we risk playing to smaller houses. Because a "dark" theatre night makes us sad.

So, can we attract enough people into the theatre to cover our costs? That's the third and final hurdle, and it's my job (I'm the director of marketing & communications) to bring others on staff to a well-informed decision. Of course, we give consideration to the response of the professional critics -- we like to say that every variation in the posture of the Chronicle’s Little Man has a $25,000 impact on the box office -- but thankfully, the true test is audience response and demand for tickets.

It’s all about you. A critic can't save a show that people dislike. (In other words, nothing ruins a bad product faster than good marketing.) And a critic can't close a show that people love. And audiences love Yellowjackets. We know from sales. We know from the positive response of our guests, many of whom are on their feet at final curtain. We know from the Yellowjackets buzz (sorry again) we overhear as guests leave the theatre. We know from incoming letters and emails. So that makes an extension a good break-even-or-better bet, right? Not yet.

There are no season subscribers to "pre-load" the house for extension performances, so there needs to be substantial demand from the general public. We look closely at rate of sale. How many tickets are selling each week? Are we trending upward or downward, or are we flat? With Yellowjackets, we’re continue to trend upward. We look at the average price paid per ticket. With this show, the number is low, because so many young people are attending, and if you're under 30, tickets to Berkeley Rep are half price. So we take all this data -- rate of sale, sales trends, average price paid per ticket, and other variables -- and we project forward.

So, bottom line. Are we going to populate our extension with enough guests to cover our "nut"? (That’s theatre talk for the cost of operation.) And will we achieve the critical mass to create a galvanizing experience for audiences and artists alike? After all, most people prefer to see plays in a packed house. Because theatre is an experience of communion.

And in the end, yes, we believe we can create that experience with a Yellowjackets extension. A profit-driven company might not take those odds. But at Berkeley Rep, we live by them. On with the show!


The Yellowjackets is very interesting one.I wanted to be part of the show but I missed it.

handyzubehor | Fri, Oct 9, 2009

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