What Do Audiences Want?

Is there a formula for which shows work and which shows don’t? This is the magic key that every producer across the world is desperate to discover. It would decrease the risk. Enhance audience experience. And, ultimately, earn lots of money. Unfortunately there isn’t a foolproof method for determining success or failure when it comes to entertainment, but there is one major trend it would be foolish to ignore.

War Horse

I recently listened to an interview with Meredith Blair, one of the powerhouse booking agents behind organising the tours of musicals and plays across America. And she was asked a very pointed question. ‘Can plays tour?’

Plays very rarely work the touring circuit in America and Meredith’s immediate answer to this question was ‘No’. Somewhere along the way, she surmised, regional theatres decided that their audiences didn’t want to see plays and that they weren’t a profitable investment. But then she named a couple of exceptions. In the last few years, those exceptions were War Horse and the upcoming tour of Broadway smash-hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

What is different about these two shows? They don’t contain any big chorus numbers . . . or actually any singing at all. Yet War Horse was enormously popular on the road and there is very little doubt that Curious Incident won’t follow in its successful hoof prints.

These two plays both contain something which many others do not. The Theatrical Experience.

It is a simple fact that today’s audiences have much higher expectations of their entertainment. The big sellers at the cinema box office are increasingly leaning towards the larger-than-life blockbusters. YouTube viewers are searching out 360 degrees, immersive experiences. And, if theatre is going to compete, then it needs to match this entertainment value and then add some more.

Both of these landmark plays are able to stand their ground against these other competitors. War Horse was an enormous spectacular using life-sized puppetry, engulfing sound and lighting designs, and huge scale performances in addition to a meaningful and moving story. Curious Incident has blown Broadway audiences away with its visual spectacular incorporating immersive digital and lighting elements never-before-seen in plays. Both of these shows are spectacles. They may not have singing but in every other element of production value, they can compete with their bigger musical siblings and stand their ground against other entertainment competitors in a way which small, intimate plays cannot.

So while you can’t guarantee that a show is going to be a hit, you can certainly take on board the one feature that an audience is looking for . . . spectacle. Is it more important than your story? Depending on your audience, in some cases it won’t be. But then Cirque du Soleil manages to fill huge theatres every night and nobody can work out what their show’s stories are. It depends on your audience where the importance of spectacle ranks, but it is nonetheless important for every show if it wants to compete in the big leagues and convey its moving message to a broad audience.