“Festival mind,” says actress-comedian Brooke Tansley. “It’s the attitude people get into at film festivals and theater festivals. It’s an attitude of, I guess, a kind of grateful expectation, of excitement and anticipation, where everyone knows that the more movies you see, or the more plays you see, or the more comedy acts you see, the better your chances are of seeing something that’s really, really great.”
I’ve been thinking about Tansley’s remarks over the last few days, as I’ve attended events at the Mill Valley Film Festival, in Marin County, California. Now in its 38th year, the MVFF has fine-tuned the art of creating “festival mind,” effectively building —and keeping—an audience of filmgoers who are willing to set aside the usual moviegoing or theater-going mindset of cautious skepticism and prove-it-to-me reluctance, entering instead into a kind of gleefully gluttonous, bring-it-on, all-you-can-eat, happy-to-be-here, more-is-more optimism in which a disappointing show or two actually enhances the fun instead of killing it dead in its tracks. Which is what every theater company I know of is deathly afraid of: screwing up, killing their
audience’s interest, accidentally staging a show that, for one reason or another, underperforms, and as a result loses that company any momentum they might have started with their previous show, which was very possibly a hit.
And you know what?
Theaters should be afraid of that.
Because—with one or two exceptions—most theaters in the Bay Area (other places, too), have been inadvertently cultivating an audience imbued with the exact opposite of “festival mind.” Call it Creeping Pyrophobia Mind: a crippling fear of getting burned.
It’s Creeping Pyrophobia Mind that makes theatergoers tread cautiously when choosing A. which season announcement brochures to get excited about, B. which theater companies to become subscribers to, and C. which never-heard-of-it-before shows to take a chance on.
In future columns, I might tackle the subject of how local theater companies arrived here, how they were their own worst enemies in creating a situation in which Creeping Pyrophobia Mind (lets just call it CPM) is A. causing slowly (but measurably) shrinking audiences, B. reducing the advance revenue that companies once depended on from subscriptions, C. snapping shut the private and foundational wallets that were once wide open to non-profit arts organizations, D. threatening the jobs of various Executive Directors and Artistic Directors, E. forcing companies to raise their ticket prices, F. forcing them to take fewer chances, and G. lowering the overall quality of the theater in the region resulting in more A., B., C., D., E., and F..
That will be an interesting column.
But what I want to talk about in this column is what theater companies can do to reverse the trajectory of CPM, and replace it with a great big dose of Festival Mind.
And I think one way to start, is to take a look at what lessons and tricks can be learned from the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the San Francisco Fringe
Festival—and let’s definitely include the aforementioned Brooke Tansley’s upcoming Sonoma Laughfest comedy festival (which definitely has the right idea).
And no—sorry, you Boards of Directors, you actors, you directors, you hardcore fans of local theater—it’s not the audience’s responsibility to catch the Festival Mind fever. And it’s not the responsibility of the press to pump up expectations, especially if the quality isn’t there to match it.
Nothing contributes to CPM more than overpraising a show (“It’s as good as anything you’ll see on Broadway!”), filling your seats with expectant people happy to have paid premium dollar for something they have been told is awesome, only to realize they were duped.
But that’s yet another column.
The point is, it’s not the audience’s job to acquire a dose of Festival Mind, and it’s not the press’s job to Spread Festival Mind. Creating a culture of Festival Mind is your job. Let’s face it, what happens in a single year of North Bay theater is no different (in certain key elements) from what events like the Mill Valley Film Festival have to offer over the course ofa single weekend, or eleven days, or three-weeks. But in a theater season, it just takes place slowly, over eight or nine months. So you have to be clever, and take the responsibility to create an atmosphere where Festival Mind can flourish, and you have to eliminate whatever you’ve been doing that has contributed to the spread of Creeping Pyrophobia Mind.
So, what then, can theater companies do to create an attitude of “festival mind”?
Lots of things. Price is a major factor. Sorry about that. It is.
Would you go to Denny’s for a plate of macaroni and cheese and think it’s fair if they charged you the same amount K&L Bistro, in Sebastopol, charges for macaroni and cheese? (It’s delicious, you should go!) Sorry. K&L’s is better. Deal with it. Either make yours taste better or charge less for it, but by pricing a play you know to be a solid community theater show at the same price as Marin Theater Company, you are inviting people to feel burned. And you will lose them as an audience member. It’s not the average theatergoer’s cross to bear that you have a high mortgage. That’s what your donors and corporate sponsors are for. The average theatergoer doesn’t see going to a show as an act of charity. They see it as buying a product, and it’s not enough to tell them you are a charity.
Tell that to someone with millions of dollars. Most people are choosing their one or two entertainment events of the month. If you make them pay premium, they will expect premium.
The same way you would.
Because of this, most festivals have creative pricing, where you get discounts for buying more tickets, and the more tickets you buy the more perks you get: VIP seating or early entrance so you get the best pick of seats; discounts on merchandise and invitations to special events; hand-written thank you notes and early notification of upcoming seasons and
events; automatic entry into raffles and giveaways; free peanuts. Whatever. Giving your audience a sense of value-for-their-dollar is huge, and that can be done by making the prices appropriate to what they are getting, or by adding extra stuff. One of the things that makes the San Francisco Fringe Festival work (from an audience point of view) is that the prices are low enough that people can afford to see two or three shows, and if some shows aren’t up to snuff, it’s no big deal. Their “Frequent Fringer” card is a great innovation. Buyers can purchase a card that gets them into any three shows, for a discount, or any six shows, for a larger discount. It’s not that different from a season Subscription, but it sounds more fun.
Well, when you attend a festival, there are parties.
Yes, you have to pay for them. But they are worth it.
One price gets you music, food, free drinks (usually, but not always), a chance to hobnob with celebrities, and a place to talk with people about what you’ve seen or plan to see. These often
happen in opening and closing night of the festival, but Berkeley Rep, in Berkeley, has done a great job of turning the act of attending a show into a party-level event. They’ve added a bar where people can gather before and after a show for a drink, and can even pre-order a drink for intermission, and find it waiting for them, fresh and ready, on a table with their name. People gather at intermission to buzz and babble about the show. And they feel special because they are doing it in the Berkeley Rep bar, which has flat screens showing previews for upcoming shows, and often has cast member from past and future shows hanging out chatting with people. There’s a gift shop at Berkeley Rep too, staffed by volunteers, which (believe it or not), does add a sense of coolness and class to the whole theater. Probably not a huge money-maker, but the point is creating a festival vibe. The money comes from people buying a ticket for the next show so they can experience more of that vibe.
And how about this?
Why not try to turn the whole North Bay theater scene into a year-long “festival-vibe” event? That too ambitious? How about working with the other theaters in your county, your town, your particular stretch of 101? You just found out that your production of ‘Dracula’ is running at the same time that another company in the area is staging ‘The Creature,’ and other companies are doing ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ‘The War of the Worlds,’ ‘Blithe Spirit,’ and ‘Into the Woods’? Why not work together? How about a single post card going out to the entire combined mailing list of all theaters, with a title along the lines of “Monsters! Aliens! Witches! and Ghosts!” and some sort of “frequent fright” discout for seeing at least three of the shows.
Will that mean working together with companies that you are “competing” with?
Is it way out side your comfort zone?
Is it a whole lot of trouble?
Sure it is.
But if done right, with an attitude of fun and excitement, it will, in time, create a sense of Festival Mind throughout the North Bay, a sense that something kind of special is going on—and everyone want to be a part of something special.
That’s enough for now.
Just at a close look at the thriving festivals you admire, see what they are doing that works, and imagine ways to adapt it to what your are doing. There are many, many ways to bring a bit of Festival Mind to the North Bay Theater scene, and it’s up to the theaters, together and apart, to figure out the ones that work for them. Or not. If CPM is allowed to continue its
spread, then it might not be necessary to take such measures. Yes, creating a sense of Festival Mind will take time and energy and commitment and perhaps a complete change in attitude. And who has the time?
You’re all busy keeping your theaters open, I get it. Of course, you’ll have plenty of time when theater Creeping Pyrophobia Mind take its toll and you have to shut your theater down. Even then, it won’t be all bad, right?
You’ll finally be able to go see shows at those theaters that were actually willing to make a change.