Any salesperson knows that the best product is one that sells itself. It’s this kind of seller’s good fortune with which Robert Schlosser, audience development director for Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group (which includes the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson at the Doolittle), is well acquainted. If the recent bevy of successful productions at both the Taper (from Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) and the Doolittle (Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers) had anything in common, it was their built-in attractions–from Angels’ “event” status to Simon’s playwright-as-star durability.
But Schlosser also knows how foolhardy it is for theatre people to think they are above selling their product–namely, plays, which must compete with home video, prime-time TV and the movies for the ever-crimped entertainment dollar. “I operate by the philosophy that there’s no excuse not to come to the theatre,” says Schlosser, “and part of my job is to remove as many impediments as possible that people put between themselves and entering the theatre.”
Name your strategy
As the Taper’s point man for coordinating ad campaigns, bringing in new audiences and hatching inventive schemes to make theatregoing as affordable as possible, Schlosser is in that rare position–perhaps only matched on the Taper’s staff by artistic director Gordon Davidson himself–of keeping one foot in the artistic realm and the other in business reality.
He has been able to witness virtually the entire history of the development of American nonprofit theatre, beginning in the early ’60s with the famed San Francisco’s Actors’ Workshop as subscription and box-office manager. When Actors’ Workshop co-directors Herbert Blau and Jules Irving took over Lincoln Center’s Repertory Theatre in 1965, Schlosser followed them east and became their audience development director.
In his 20 years at the Taper, one would assume that Schlosser has used every strategy to lure crowds to the Ahmanson at the Doolittle and the Taper’s “ivory palace” at the Music Center on downtown Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill. But with Anna Deavere Smith’s solo new work, Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Los Angeles, 1992, opening June 3, the selling of a Taper show presents Schlosser with new challenges–and opportunities.
As he tells it, the development of an audience for Twilight involves a creative approach that goes far beyond that used for many recent productions–for Angels in America, Schlosser’s sales plan included papering gay bars with flyers for the play. “We’re building on what we learned from the past, attracting diverse audiences for everything from Zoot Suit at the Taper to Sarafina! at the Doolittle.”
Dry run for Smith
Indeed, the 1991 Sarafina! project was in some ways a dry run for Smith’s show. The South African musical moved into the Doolittle shortly after Davidson had assumed directorship of the Hollywood-based theatre, which has been serving as the home for plays intended for the Ahmanson (booked for over four years with the long-running Phantom of the Opera). But while the Ahmanson subscription base is one of the country’s largest (over 44,000 this year), its mostly Anglo makeup made it a difficult match with the Third World rhythms of Sarafina!.
“Traditionally, the Ahmanson crowd was drawn by the star name. Gordon wanted to develop a broader audience while keeping the Ahmanson’s more commercial side. Sarafina! had a big rep with the theatre community, but not with the general public. We got the word out through churches, and places in the African-American community where people came together. The show’s box office started quietly, but by the end, with a larger African-American audience, the grosses were very high.”
To ensure that this diverse audience would return for such productions as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Schlosser asked Chay Wafer, his community liaison at the time, for ideas. Schlosser instituted Wafer’s suggestion: pay-what-you-can and public rush ($10 a ticket, purchased minutes before curtain). “Every resident theatre offers subscription, perhaps a pass or coupon offer, and group sales. But there was great resistance to pay-what-you-can and public rush among theatre business managers, who think that such offers take away from single, full-priced ticket sales. We’ve disproved that. A couple last year told me that they had $80 budgeted for theatre-going, which at the Doolittle would mean one show, $40 apiece. With public rush, they can come to four shows, and more important, they get into the habit of going to the theatre.”
Ticket deals, though, aren’t enough. Outreach into the city’s widespread communities, says Schlosser, is absolutely crucial. “We’ve come to see it as our responsibility to put a lot of effort into engaging the people who are being dramatized on stage”–much as Smith has been doing, he notes, in the process of creating Twilight’s Last Gleaming. Employing the same process she used in her acclaimed Fires in the Mirror, Smith has interviewed scores of residents from diverse Los Angeles communities since August for the material from which she builds her text. The long list of contacts even created a “community task force” with broad ethnic representation to organize a word-of-mouth campaign for the show. “It wasn’t true a few months ago, but now, if you ask people in South-Central or Koreatown who Anna Deavere Smith is, they know her. She’s been with them,” Schlosser points out.
The challenges of luring people away from the safety of the living room and the tube never cease, however. The Taper’s subscriber base has dropped to 24,000 this year from 27,000 three years ago, a trend Schlosser calls “concerning.”
“That’s a significant drop-off,” he suggests. “We’re doing everything we can to build it back up again. But everyone is hurting in this recession.” Besides, Schlosser knows that there is nothing like a play by Neil Simon–Jake’s Women playing at the Doolittle/Ahmanson this spring–to make up for bad times.