Killing It on the Boards

Heading north on I-95, look to your right as New Haven harbor comes into view. Through a break in the line of tractor-trailers, you’ll be able to spot a 166-year-old lighthouse, Five Mile Point Light, named for its distance from the New Haven Green.

The following instructions are for passengers only: Crack the window, take a breath of salt air, and mentally transport yourself to that distant spit.   

Here we are, then, at Lighthouse Point Park. Stand on the slippery, snail-studded rocks and look back at the skyline. The kids love riding the restored carousel (seasonal, but, what the heck, this is all in your mind). Hearing an announcement to assemble on the beach, we dismount and make our way over.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and children of all ages…it is my thrill and pleasure to present to you…New Haven’s own…Long Wharf Theatre Surf Team!” [Applause, whistling.]

Six mostly well-muscled men and women stand before us in their colorful boardshorts, with one exception, and bikini tops, where applicable. Each holds a longboard (Hawaiian: papa he’e nalu) imprinted with the Long Wharf logo. Their teeth and bodies, thinly coated with seawater, seem to glisten. As the names are read off, the applause fades and resurges:

“First up, at left, The Underpants.” What Steve Martin would look like if he were younger and a woman. “So good to see you here today,” she says, with a European accent.

“To the right of The Underpants, Fences.” An African American man in old-fashioned trunks. He briefly waves.   

The Consultant.” A youngish white woman, neatly turned out and energetic. Nudges the guy to her left.

4000 Miles.” Young, tanned, vegetarian-looking. Half a smile.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird.” A little boy, some kind of prodigy. Another surprise when he opens his mouth: “I’m quite chuffed to be here an’ all!”

“And, at far right, The Last Five Years.” White, about 30, with a grin. He begins to sing “Under the Boardwalk,” gestures to the crowd, and those of us old enough to know the words join in.

Okay, fun’s over, everybody back in the car. There is no Long Wharf Theatre Surf Team. There aren’t even any waves to speak of at Lighthouse Point. (The theatre itself is located back near where you were driving. What’s left of the historic Long Wharf is buried in landfill under the highway.) These imaginary surfers are unauthorized personifications of the six plays that make up Long Wharf’s 2013-14 season:

  1. A German comedy of 1911, Die Hose, adapted by Steve Martin.
  2. A Pulitzer Prize-winning play from August Wilson’s American Century Cycle about an African American family in Pittsburgh, directed by Phylicia Rashad.
  3. The world premiere of a play about a young woman consultant and a middle-aged adman.
  4. A Pulitzer finalist about a young man who bicycles from California to Greenwich Village to visit his left-wing grandmother.
  5. The world premiere of a grandfather-grandson play by 81-year-old South African playwright Athol Fugard, starring Fugard.
  6. A Drama Desk Award-winning musical about “the joys and heartbreak of relationships in the Big City.”

In last week’s post, “Act 1: Autumn in the Country,” I lobbied for the revival of the full-season subscription model—left behind in a forest of Pick 4s—in keeping with the 80/20 rule of thumb, that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. Here are the slightly rounded-off Long Wharf numbers:

  • Four of the shows will have 30 performances in the 400-seat (actually 408, reduced from 486 during a recent renovation) main theatre = 48,000 seats.
  • Two of the shows (Nos. 3 and 5, the world premieres) will have 40 performances in a 200-seat space = 16,000 seats.
  • 80% of the total inventory of 64,000 seats = 51,200 seats.
  • 51,200 seats divided by 6 = 8,533 seats per show.

It follows that for subscription sales to account for 80% of inventory, Long Wharf would need to secure 8,500 six-play subscribers, give or take. Assuming that most subscriptions are for two people, the goal would be roughly 4,250 subscriber units.

(How realistic is this? I don’t know, but I think I hear Long Wharf staffers, whom I have not consulted, scoffing. Since my speculations aren’t based on actual sales data, I’m treading somewhat blindly here, hoping to make a few strategic points in a memorable and constructively provocative way. Corrections, revisions, and opposing points of view will be shared.)

What does it take to convince 4,250 couples to spend $700, say, for a pair of season tickets to events that take place not on a field but on a stage?

A Saturday-night subscription in a center-section seat at Long Wharf goes for $369, or $61.50 per ticket. Single center-section tickets to a show in the main theatre are $79.50, so the subscriber discount is close to 25%. This means that subscribers are, in effect, getting one and a half plays for free.

In addition, per the website: “With a subscription to Long Wharf Theatre you get access to the best seats in the house, free and easy ticket exchanges, and discounts at area restaurants with our Subscriber Benefits Card.” The approach I’m suggesting calls for more—and more compelling—benefits. What would truly set subscribers apart as VIPs? Behind-the-scenes events, receptions with the artists, travel opportunities, a gorgeous magazine, birthday cards—I’d pour it on.

Then there’s the appeal of the season as a whole. I like the idea of getting one and a half shows for free. It gives me license to experiment. And if I decide to skip one entirely, no problem. But my inner New Yorker disagrees:

Steve Martin, you know that’s gotta be funny. Fences? Good writing, good acting. I saw it on Broadway with James Earl Jones, whenever that was. The office play, I can take or leave. Same for the grandma play. Fugard, now him I wouldn’t miss. But the musical, who needs it?

So he just talked me out of a subscription, even a Pick 4. And it’s not that it’s not an impressive line-up. But it’s a line-up, like the LWT Surf Team, without a through-line.

To return to the ‘surfer publicity’ concept of two posts ago [“Vevo-va-voom!”]: When a surfer—a play, in this case—catches a green wave, he or she rides most of the way, ideally 80%, on subscription sales. The remaining 20%, minus any group sales, is the single-ticket sales opportunity, separating the hellmen from the crumbeaters (and house-paperers). This is where publicity, including social media, comes in. (We’ll get to advertising, too, someday.)

In the Long Wharf example, there are 12,800 seats left to sell. That’s 2,133 single seats per show, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100 pairs of tickets.

As a publicist, now, instead of a subscription marketer, what am I thinking? I’m thinking STEVE MARTIN (and why in the world he would adapt this play, long-forgotten and in German). I’m thinking PHYLICIA RASHAD (and Tony Awards in 1987—the Yale Rep production—and 2010). I’m thinking The Office and Mad Men. I’m thinking emerging women playwrights (The Consultant and 4000 Miles). I’m thinking old lefties and their grandchildren. I’m thinking ATHOL FUGARD (a name to conjure with, with earlier premieres at Long Wharf). And I’m thinking a new generation of Broadway composers and lyricists.

But none of the six shows is topical in the sense of linking to a current event, trend, or controversy. So our surf team may find it tough going. We’ll look in on them, and check out the line-up of another Connecticut theater, the Hartford Stage Company, in a future post.    

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