Where have all the audiences gone?

Right now, us folks at Mortar Theatre have a critically acclaimed show running. We couldn’t be happier with the reaction and we’re really proud of the show. But we’ve also got a bit of a head scratcher on our hands. Why aren’t more people coming to our show?

It’s a question a lot of storefront theatre companies struggle with in Chicago. Should we have put more into marketing? Should we pass out more postcards? Is supply just exceeding demand when it comes to theatre in Chicago? Does anyone go to shows when the weather’s nice? Why did we do a show in the middle of street festival season?!

Maybe it’s the state of theatre in Chicago. Maybe we’re a young company still building our audiences. Whatever it is, we felt like we should be honest and open up the conversation to you guys. What do you think? Does our show not interest you? Did you just not know about it? Is $20 too much for a ticket? Are you just busy watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix Instant?

Please take this chance to share your opinions. In the form of a blog comment, a Facebook share, a Tweet…or how about you buy a ticket?

In order to fill our seats and pay our bills, we’re offering tickets to our final performances for only $10Bombs, Babes and Bingo will only run through this Sunday, June 17th.

Final Performances:
June 12-16: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30pm. Tuesday is a special off-night performance, with live music afterwards.
June 17: Sunday at 3pm.

If you are able to support us, please use the code BLACKOUT online or at the door to get $10 tickets for any of the performances above.

P.S. And if you were one of the wonderful people that did purchase full price tickets to our show earlier in the run and you’re a little ticked about this price drop, no biggie. Just shoot us an email at tickets@mortartheatrecompany.org. We’ll give you a credit on a ticket purchase to a future performance. Because that $20 you gave us will ensure that there are future shows and we couldn’t be more grateful.

P.P.S. If you’re one of the wonderful people that doesn’t live in Chicago, but believes in what we’re trying to do, we happily accept donations of any size. We’re a non-profit. So it’s tax deductible for you and a happy day for us. If you do read this and make a donation as a result, shoot us a note at contact@mortartheatrecompany.org and we’ll credit that donation toward a future ticket purchase in case you do make it to Chicago.

What the critics are saying about Bombs, Babes and Bingo:

“4 STAR! Critics Pick”

“It’s a clever storytelling device that’s more than just a gimmick. The random structure of Merri Biechler’s new play reflects the fragmented memory of her central character, a bomb builder recovering after being caught in an explosion.”

“The added element of chance gives the production the energy of an improv show, and the initial surprise of the bingo number propels each scene.”

“Highly Recommended”

“Impressively infused with energy, the cast does a fantastic job of adapting to the mood of the scene required seconds after it’s announced.”


“[Director Rachel Edwards] Harvith pumps it full of spontaneity and delightful, controlled chaos.”

“Highly Recommended”
“Must-See Show”

“Mortar Theatre’s wild, winning production at Luna Central is a fittingly explosive affair.”


“I’ve never seen anything quite like Bombs, Babes and Bingo, and the boundary-pushing Mortar continues to demonstrate why they are a force to be reckoned with in the Chicago theatre scene.”

“Highly Recommended.”

“Beyond brava”

“My friend thanked me for the gift of accompanying me to see Bombs, Babes and Bingo. Indeed, BBB is a gift. More please, and can we get an extended run?”

22 Responses to “Where have all the audiences gone?”

  1. ann carter says:

    Hey Mortar,
    in the spirit of honesty, I’d have to say my initial turn off was the title of the piece. The title of the piece mentioned three things I have little to no interest in. The alliteration may have thought to be clever but a bit misleading. The advertisement portrayed a sketch comedy feel and I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I do love what you all have done in the past and I’m looking forward to attending in the future…maybe the nice weather in June does play a part as well.

    God bless


  2. nancy cassidy says:

    #1 – competition… there are SO many things to do in Chicago, and so much theater, that those of us who love it have to make difficult choices.

    #2 – can I be frank? … when I got the postcard for this show, I was actually turned off to it because the photographs used are absolutely NOT an actor in the moment of a character or a scene, but rather a model striking a pose. The model Might be an actor, but I can’t tell from the picture, and the photos are absolutely not compelling.Too posed, too artificial, and just not compelling. I don’t mind head shots of actors but if you are going to use images that represent the play, they better REALLY represent . In this case, I thought they DID represent the play, and I was not impressed enough to buy a ticket.

    so yeah, having to do effective marketing sucks and is hard, but it is extremely important, or all your work is for naught.

  3. David Weiss says:

    I suppose my reluctance to attend was due in large part to the fact that the marketing, while VERY professional looking, seemed to scream, “This thing’s gonna be kooky and crazy! It’s gonna be a zany madcap roller coaster of wacky comedy!” And “kooky comedy” can often become “grating, wanna kill myself comedy” very quickly. I’ve heard from some reviews that the show does indeed have more substance than that, but the marketing imagery didn’t speak to that, and so the initial impression of the show really turned me off.

    Hope that’s constructive and useful.

  4. Eddie Carmel says:

    I have to second what Ann said: the title made me think this was one of Gorilla Tango’s burlesque shows. The publicity materials made it seem too jokey and self-consciously “goofy” for me, though I admit I don’t see as much theatre as I should…because of that, I only want to see shows that promise me something that’s bold, powerful, interesting, provocative. The fact that the title is so silly and the publicity pictures so cartoonish made me think, like Ann, that this was sketch comedy and I didn’t bother to read the reviews, etc. Unfair? Sure, and I apologize…but I worry that my reaction is perhaps more indicative of the casual theatre-goer that I would like.

  5. This is awesome feedback, guys! Keep it coming. So perhaps in trying to emphasize the comedy in our new show, we alienated some of those core fans who have been with us through our past really dramatic shows? We hear it from both sides of the spectrum, so it’s certainly hard to please everyone. But there’s a lot of drama/power/provocative stuff in Bombs that maybe we didn’t communicate to everyone through the marketing? That’s food for thought.

    Overall though, we really appreciate your openness to this process and would love to hear more. Feel free to email me if you aren’t comfortable sharing in this public forum: michelle (at) mortartheatrecompany (dot) org

  6. Hey Gang!

    I’m glad you’re asking. Not enough companies do. Personally, I’ve been so busy with my own show that I haven’t been able to get out and see much as of late. And to be really honest, I haven’t been keeping up with reviews over the last couple of months either. I’m just too deep into my own project. But I’ve got a few points here…

    1) The Right Brain Project has always had decent luck with summer shows, because for a while, it seemed like there was less competition. But that doesn’t seem to be the case this summer. At least not yet. So over-saturation may be part of it.

    2) Following that train of thought, I think if one is going to produce in the summer, it needs to be extra-special and extra-compelling to compete with so many other summer options available in the city. To be brutally honest, the promo pix, and the title of the show doesn’t scream out something I’m interested in seeing. Judging by the show’s title and the pictures alone, I’ve got to agree with what has already been said. It reminds me of the countless late-night, BYOB shows that are minimally rehearsed, over-priced, and not nearly as fun as they like to think they are. That being said, I’m always amazed at how well-attended those types of shows are, but I know I’m not their demographic. Hell, I’m always tempted to start producing shows of that nature just to make a buck and keep the company alive. “Pop-Culture: The Low-Budget/Low-Talent Late-Night Musical” seems to bring in bigger audiences than most everything we produce, so why not? But regardless, theatre like that is not something that interests me very often, and the title/publicity seems to elicit that type of theatre for me, hence it’s easy to disregard – at least for me.

    3) And that leads me to the harsh truth of the small, young company. Unless your name is “Steppenwolf” or “The Hypocrites” or a few others, chances are your seats are being filled with 75%+ industry professionals. Unless a company is either very wealthy and/or has a product that will truly sell to the masses (Like Jersey Shore: The Musical), or one of the few darlings whom the Chicago publications inexplicably fawn over constantly (regardless of the quality of their product), we’re producing for other theatre professionals and our friends. And when their time is stretched, and there is so much to see, storefront audiences disappear.

    3) But the truth is that I have no idea. I’ve been producing for nearly eight years, and we’re seeing smaller audiences now than we did for our first three years. I hear all the time how much people appreciate the work we do, but we cancel shows due to empty houses. Currently, with Marat/Sade, we’re doing better than we have in ages (though it’s still extremely early in the run). But we have a large cast, and they have lots of friends, and it makes spreading the word easier. But I know of another company who just produced a critically-acclaimed show AND they have a secure audience base. But people just didn’t come out to see it this time around. It was disappointing, as it was a very good show. I know many people believe $20 is too much for a show that isn’t produced by a name like “Steppenwolf” or “Goodman” but they have no idea how much theatre costs to produce. And those same individuals (who always claim to be “starving artists”) will quickly drop their money on a movie and a few drinks after.

    I wish I had the answers, but I’m just as baffled as you. I imagine that it’s a mixture of all of these things, but I’m always thinking there is a secret formula. I wish I knew it.

    Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect to the companies I may have name-dropped in this diatribe. I wish success for all companies, because the more popular theatre becomes, the better the chances of people taking a chance on my work, and your work. All companies mentioned have certainly done wonderful, audience-worthy shows.

  7. Brad says:

    I can tell you…its not ticket prices. We too have seen a drop off the past couple months (with 100% free) even with good reviews and press. Honestly I think we are all cannibalizing the same audience, over and over. Id love for the League and the Mayors office to get together and discuss how to cultivate new theatre patrons in Chicago, how do we get people to come in from the burbs? How do we get those 1000′s of ‘ex-theatre’ people that live in the burbs to come back and support? How to get the tourists off Broadway in Chicago and into the storefont and small theatre scene (I think BinChi could loose some audience to us and be ok). The League should have a booth at every street festival and every DCASE event, with postcards of all the shows people can go to that night, around the location of the event. Lets do a Theatre street festival, Lets have a Year of free theatre (hell – even just one night of each run at each theatre in Chicago), instead of a month of it, Lets do season tickets together (one show from each theatre) We need to all work together to develop *new Theatre Go-ers*. (We have, hands down, the best 3D entertainment platform in the world – Lets start selling it that way) I feel our advocates are using so much time defending what we already are and what we already contribute, that resources aren’t being put into the devlopment of the next generation of Theatre goers in Chicago. We CANNOT keep doing the same things and expect a different result.

  8. Eli says:

    I’m a bit different than everybody else who has commented here (all of which seem very constructive and supportive), as I live some 2+ hours from the city. Between the distance and the fact that I am a current grad student, I was just unable to afford the trip to Chicago, regardless of the price of the ticket (which, in my opinion, is reasonable). I am very upset by this, as Merri Biechler is a friend and former teacher of mine, and I know first-hand that she is a major playwriting talent.

    It seems that a lot of people were affected by the marketing campaign, which I will agree told me about the comedy, but not necessarily about what was “beneath the surface,” as it were. However, the issue that most jumps out at me is the fact that it’s done in the summer. Now, I have never lived in Chicago, but I do have a comprehension of the sheer volume of things that go on there during the summer. Summer theatre is always difficult to sell, especially in a major city like Chicago. It seems like, unless you’re a Shakespeare festival or are doing street/outdoor performance, it’s going to be damn tough to be seen by the non-industry audience (or “civilians” as I call them).

  9. Edwin says:

    Hey folks,

    It appears to be an epidemic. Currently, I’m involved in a show at Side Project in Rogers Park and we’ve been going through the same struggle. We’ve had to cancel several shows and most of our performances have been for 5 or less people. Other shows in our rep series (three in total) have also been suffering low attendance and cancelled shows. I originally thought the marketing needed improvement, but to hear the same issues about your show (which I’ve seen promoted in several different mediums) leads me to believe there’s another issue.

    In the world of Chicago theatre, where new companies pop up every day, it’s important to make a name for yourself quickly in order to avoid being lost in the sea of storefronts. If you’re doing the classics, they’ve got to be done in such an intriguing manner that we can’t help but want to see them. When it comes to new works, you get into some dangerous territory. Without a dedicated membership/subscriber base, new works will always be hit or miss. Even well known theatres that have been around for years still have trouble garnering interest in a new work.

    Is it better to play it safe? If so, a lot of great theatre wouldn’t be done. We’d see a million different versions of Miller, O’Neill, Parks, Shakespeare, etc.

    There is a solution. Or, rather, solutions. Companies need to make theatre an experience again. One company that I know is very successful with this concept is Red Tape. From the moment you walk into the space, you’re in the world of the play. Sets are often built to completely surround the audience. Theatre-goers get the feeling that they’re witnessing something unique and new. It’s almost magical. This method works for the classics as well as new works, as witnessed by Red Tape’s past seasons.

    Of course, not everyone can do this kind of theatre. It would get pretty monotonous if they did. There are other ways. The right scripts exist for the the companies willing to do them. Commedia Beauregard made an entire season out of Shakespeare-ified cult classic movies (Bard Fiction and Corleone), not to mention their annual Klingon Christmas Carol. They key is to find a niche that isn’t being utilized yet and fill it.

    One suggestion I would make is to build a solid subscriber base. Not only that, but why not team up with a group of theatres and have joint subscribers? It’s hard to go it alone, which is why the League of Chicago Theatres was created to begin with. If joint memberships existed, you could schedule plays accordingly, allowing your patrons to see a different show with a different company at a different venue every weekend. Wouldn’t it be grand?

    Anyway, that still doesn’t completely answer why a great show can’t get a decent audience. I don’t know, but that’s just another reason why I prefer to be on stage, and not in the Producer’s chair.

  10. Lynn says:

    Agree completely with those who say that the title and marketing (wild! kooky! crazy!) does not accurately represent the actual tone of the show. Try to get someone from the Chicago Park District’s Theater on the Lake out there to see it…It’s the kind of thing they might be interested in re-mounting next summer.

  11. Don Gecewicz says:

    Several factors: The first is that you are doing new work, which is always riskier. The difficulty is that most “storefront” theaters rely on reviews to get the word out. Yet the kind of press needed for a new playwright is more of a process piece or profile–the kind of piece that the local reviewers don’t want to (don’t know how to) do. Some people above didn’t know what the play was about–which would have been addressed by articles about the playwright and theater. Easier said than done: Trying to get a feature article written takes planning by the theater. Also, not having your own space is a slight problem. People forget who the peripatetic theaters are. I’m aware that I have to track your show to a new space–but some audience members don’t care to, don’t want to. June seems to be especially tricky social and culturally–and I say this as someone who has three graduations on tap for this June, as well as a bat mitzvah. Finally, a believe more in postcards these days than I do in e-mail blasts and Facebook mentions. I consider FB a place to have my memory jogged (or to get an offer of an industry ticket). But Facebook isn’t good for advertising culture. So there is the final problem of how to approach the audience–mailings? electronic? word of mouth? No one has an answer to that age-old question, and electronic has only made things messier. DJG.

  12. Rose says:

    I agree with the comments that say that most of our theatre audiences (when there is not a strong subscriber base) are industry professionals and friends/family of the cast and crew. So when there is a lot of competition in the nice weather and other seasonal choices, for the same dollars and time, it is very difficult to choose amongst so much competition –leaving a situation where there is higher output than demand.

    I do think that the solution lies in expanding the potential customer base. Perhaps several theatres can come together to find ways to cultivate a new theatre audience. Or, the League may be compelled to fund research on how we can expand our base beyond the industry and those once removed. To that end, I think that Brad’s suggestions on how to get people in the seats may be a good place start. A bigger potential base allows for the opportunity to turn those audience members into repeat customers.

    Additionally, when I was thinking how to spend my time and money, I was also confused about what experience I would be getting at the show. The marketing materials do suggest wild zany and wacky. I had a difficult time trying to figure out what I would get out of the show if I was not looking for a zany show.

  13. Allison says:

    Totally agree with so much here! My husband and I love theatre and hardly ever patronize smaller companies – usually only when a friend is involved. For me, I am SO overwhelmed in life being pulled I all directions that shopping around for a company to support or even a show to attend is hard. I love the idea above of a season ticket where I see one show from each of several companies; then at the end, ENCOURAGE me to choose a sampler for next season or a season package at one of the companies. I feel pathetic saying “make it easy for me” but, well, there it is.

    I think trying to advertise outside B in Chicago performances is great – how many people think only musicals when they think theater? As to getting a wider theater-going crowd, wow. Good goal that I’m not sure anyone has the answers to.

  14. Eileen says:

    Good golly, I miss living and working in Chicago.

    My two cents, even though I couldn’t have seen the show from California and the marketing stuff has already been combed through: In all the Facebook blasts and emails, I (at a glance) assumed this was a fundraising event. Obviously, because of it’s unique title, that won’t be the case with every play you produce, but I was surprised to learn, just a week or so ago, that this was a production, not a fun, sexy Bingo fundraising party. Which would be cool in its own right! Anyway, glad you’re providing this forum, keep on rolling.

  15. Ali says:

    How about having some earlier shows? For me, a 6pm show would make a world of difference. It would mean I am walking home from the train station at 8pm instead of 10pm, and when you live way out in the suburbs with a half hour walk home that is a huge consideration.

  16. Adam says:

    Howdy Mortar Theate Peeps. Let me suggest that you have the answer and walked right by it. At the end of your post, you said this:

    P.S. And if you were one of the wonderful people that did purchase full price tickets

    Wait. Someone purchased full price tickets? Who are these wonderful people? Where did they come from? How did they find out about the show?

    Those are the people I would worry about. I wouldn’t worry about those who, for whatever reason, decided not to come.

    Every arts org lives or dies on the back of the committed audience members. Not the ones who come and go. The committed ones. Those are the people who will ultimately convince their friends and neighbors to come see your work.

    Your job is not to “market” your work to an “audience”. Your job is to figure out the people that love you and give them the tools to tell their friends about the work. That’s how a young storefront theatre can last long enough to become an old established one . . . assuming that is your goal.

    Your committed audience may be small. In fact, I’m almost certain it is. But I think you’ll have much more success organizing and mobilizing this group versus investing a ton of effort trying to find “new audience”.

    Hope that helps.


  17. David C. says:

    So frustrating…..unless it has 4 stars from Chris Jones people are afraid to take a chance. Other critics don;t really have a lot of weight in Chicago.

    We have a following and we STILL struggle with new material. Yes, Chicago has a vast amount of of theater which is both a blessing- and a curse. Take advantage of as many free resources to plug the show as possible. Good luck. BTW, I think your artwork looks fantastic (if it’s the photos displayed on top of the website).

  18. I started to respond, and then it got too long for your comment box, so I’ve posted my analysis on our blog, http://www.theaterwit.org/blog

    I also quoted you, Alison, as I think you have the most germane point. let me know what you think

  19. Jan says:

    If you want a really big list of shows you can join a group of ushers called Saints. It might cost about $70 for a years subscription. Hundreds of shows
    Volunteer or just use their site to stay in touch with theater.

  20. Evan says:

    Take a look at the copy you have written to describe the play. The first three sentences are choppy and confusing and the final three are redundant. Writing good promo material for a play is hard and can make a person go crazy (especially with the convoluted plots contemporary plays tend to have) but bad copy has a huge effect on my expectations.

  21. Thanks for continuing the conversation, guys! I was out of reach of email for over a week and it looks like the blog wasn’t set to auto-approve. So now I’ve pushed through all the comments that were left hanging while I was out. My apologies!

  22. [...] June 26th, 2012 in Chicago Theatre, Season 3 Share After we posted a few honest questions on our blog a couple weeks back, we got a lot of great feedback—comments, emails, messages, notes, tweets. So [...]

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