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Among his influences is researcher Alan Brown, who has defined audiences along a continuum, from the disinclined (those openly uninterested in the arts) to the dedicated. Says McFarland, "Each of those groups requires different strategies and tactics — the most dedicated will find a play regardless of marketing efforts. You could hide, and they're going to track you down.
"We still see theaters whose idea of marketing is to send out e-blasts to everyone in their social networks and offer half-price tickets because their show isn't selling well. Why discount your dedicated audience? We want to know who those patrons are, or maybe such a program can turn a moderately interested patron into a dedicated one. Arts Census should identify clusters of how the audiences are engaged. Identify clusters and build programs for those clusters."
Among the false assumptions McFarland aims to rectify? All audiences are the same, and all of L.A.'s 99-seat theaters are run the same way.
With this kind of data, theater companies will be in a stronger position to propose policies that can help fill the 25-seat experimental theater in an alley behind Western Avenue, as well as the Ahmanson. Because "What about the audience?" is really the wrong question. LASA is asking, "What about the audiences? And where might they overlap?"
In the attempt to help direct audiences to the theaters they're most interested in, McFarland says, he's licensed the rights to access research from the California Cultural Data Project (supported by the Getty, the James Irvine and the William and Flora Hewlitt foundations, California Arts Council and L.A. County Arts Commission) in order to create a report in the fall on what various business models exist in our 99-seat theaters. Because how a theater functions has a direct relationship to what kind of audience it will attract. Is there a full-time, paid staff person? Is this a dues-paying company? Which business models exist?
"What will the next chapter look like?" McFarland asks. "How do we support the [local theater] community?
"When a company comes in from Chicago and we get the phone call that they want to start a theater, we want to be able to show five models of 99-seat theaters," he adds.
Bending away from the Broadway model of theater, McFarland and LASA ask, "What is the greater mission of creativity in a society?"
"We're always forced to make the economic arguments, but what about the guy who wants to take a dance course, or a painting class? What about happiness? Does it fall to a service organization to say, 'Oh, what about the communities where there are no arts organizations — the amateur choir, the creative writing program?' " he asks.
How can the arts be part of the quality of our life? This is a question that's far more profound than filling theater seats or arguing that if it's good enough for the Pantages, it's good enough.
The quality of our future lies, as always, in how we address that question.