Houdini, The Master Marketer

‘If I can’t bring the folks to the theatre, I’ll bring the theatre to the folks’. In the recent TV mini-series Houdini, the legendary escape artist and illusionist himself utters these words when faced with declining ticket sales. This line was chosen for a bit of movie magic representing that moment where the protagonist gets some resolve to change their ways, there is no record of Houdini ever saying this phrase. But what if we thought like this in real life?


The idea of theatre has changed dramatically over time. Take Melbourne for example. It was the responsibility of the rich upper class to promenade up and down the ‘Paris End’ of Collins Street. Shopping in the exclusive boutiques. Eating at the fancy cafés. And taking part in the ceremony of being seen at the theatre. It was all about prestige.

Same can be said of the Globe in London with the rabble confined to the lower levels and the upper classes sitting in the balconies. Every theatre has some prestigious past associated with it, and that was the main motivation for attending.

I used the term was very deliberately in that sentence because the main motivation of theatre attendees is no longer prestige, it is entertainment. And that is the main reason why theatre is having issues attracting younger crowds . . . the idea of entertainment is remarkably different and the historical prestige associated with theatres doesn’t reflect this modern idea of entertainment but rather prestige.

So how does this relate to Houdini?

This statement makes you ask the question ‘Why aren’t the folks coming to the theatre anymore?’. It isn’t often because they have fallen out of love with the form of entertainment itself, but maybe they have fallen out of love with the prestige (and the accompanying ticket price). So they have found a better option. Something which allows them to combine more of the valued entertaining elements together.

This can be seen in the music industry. Audiences no longer want to sit passively and watch a concert. Why? Because there are other options that allow them to add more entertaining elements. Big arena concerts allow audiences to applaud and cheer whenever they want. Other live performance opportunities have dance floors where you can dance with friends. Bars where you can partake in the entertaining past-time of drinking while listening to music. Or even the ability to socialise while watching a performance rather than sitting in silence in a dark room appreciating the performance.

It is no different for any other entertainment medium.

So rather than expecting your audiences to come to the theatre on your terms, sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone and take the theatre to them. Imagine a production of Once performed in an actual bar (where the show is already set). People could drink, talk to their friends and be immersed in the experience rather than pure observers. What about Anything Goes done on a retired cruise liner-turned-restaurant where diners can get extra entertainment from eating and drinking throughout the show? The possibilities are endless!

Houdini didn’t wait for the crowds to come to him, he took his show to the crowds where potential audiences couldn’t help but get caught up in the performance. Why not try the same thing with the theatre?