I’ve worked with many performing arts organizations over the years and have helped them build their audiences through the strategic use of opening night, not as a money maker, but as an investment. This applies to those organizations who are running a show over at least a few weeks, as it will help build the audience of that run, and hopefully build your reputation within your greater community.
First, considering that opening night is when the critics are invited to attend, you want as many people in that audience as possible, and especially people who love your organization, who understand the niche and style of your work, and will be boisterous in their enjoyment of the show.
Second, for opening night you want a crowd that will enjoy the performance to such a degree that they will talk about it, to everyone they know, all over town.
Third, it’s great to utilize the exciting nature of opening night, when the audience tends to dress up, enjoy the show as part of a larger evening, indulge in wine, bring flowers and more, to also invite influencers to join in the festivities. The mayor, business leaders in the area, other arts organizations leaders, key donors and others. This is the night to make them feel special and to expose them to the most exciting evening at the theatre.
All these things point to the key aspect… Give them all a personal invitation, and tickets for FREE. Play up the excitement and exclusivity of this event and in receiving an invitation. Hone your opening night invitation list before each show. This is a powerful tool for developing your audience and your organization within your community. It builds your brand and creates buzz. Change up the list regularly. You don’t want the receiving of an invitation to become old hat to anyone either. Keep all those people on your marketing list, but any who have not attended after receiving 2 or more invitations should be removed from the invite list, and others should be rotated or giving individual consideration. If someone does attend, and always is an advocate for you, then by all means keep inviting them!
Some organizations use the Arts People promo pass system to build their invite list, then send out an email en masse communicating their personal invitation and unique code that is valid for 2 tickets to opening night. Seating is first come, first served. The recipient then can follow a link in the email to that specific performance, select their seats and during checkout enter their special code to bring their total due to $0. They then finish off their order and print their tickets, making the RSVP process simple!
Whether you use this type of method or go for a more formal invitation process with phone RSVP, you want to make the guests feel very special, using your invite list as a very strategic tool. Some companies will include all actors they have cast for the season as a way of honoring their work with you. Pad your list with more people than the venue can hold, knowing that many on the list will not attend. You really want every seat filled for opening night. This is what will help create the energy needed to propel your show forward with strong buzz in the community.
Obviously, make sure your show is of the highest quality. Preview performances can happen before opening night (no critics until opening!) often at a discounted price, in order to help the cast and director polish the show and make any adjustments so that on opening you have a show that is outstanding. Prepare a press packet for any critics that will be attending, with press release, playbill, high quality photos for their use, bios of the actors, even background on the creator of the play or featured material, etc. Be as professional as possible in every aspect of the production, performance and presentation of the evening. The board should be in attendance, dressed formally, with name tags, ready to schmooze the guests. Staff should also be dressed and facilitating an exceptional evening at the theatre. Put your best foot forward in all aspects so that those attending experience a truly exceptional evening and performance.
Opening night is about a grand presentation of the new show to your audience and to your community. Use that opportunity to wow the movers and shakers of your area and send them out to spread the word far and wide. It will benefit you in added sales for that show, as well as build your audiences over time.
Patrick Spike – Marketing Director – Arts People
Board Member of PATA (Portland Area Theatre Alliance)
Former Audience Development Director and Board Member of Bag&Baggage Productions, among others.