A re-occuring topic of conversation between myself and others involved in producing or presenting contemporary theatre: Why is it so hard to get audiences excited about coming to see fresh, new works of theatre? This is a topic that producers are dealing with on all levels from Broadway to the smallest of regional theaters.

It would seem that theatre-goers want to go to the theatre and attend shows they have already seen before. A production of “Hello, Dolly” will most often sell more tickets than to say “She Loves Me.” Likewise, tickets to “The Rocky Horror Show” will sell better than those to “Zombie Prom.” I drew the above parallels due to the type of show. Like “Hello, Dolly,” “She Loves Me” is a wonderful classic book musical written by some of the best writers of the American Musical Theatre. However, the show is not as well known. It’s just as strong of a romantic comic musical, but for some reason never took off in the same way. Likewise, both “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Zombie Prom” are campy, off-Broadway horror musicals both with mediocre scripts and scores, but one is a cult classic and the other is relatively obscure.

The thing is that the audience for “Hello, Dolly” would love “She Loves Me” if they were to give it a chance and likewise for the other two titles. So the obvious answer is… well, no one knows “She Loves Me” and “Zombie Prom” that’s why they won’t sell. Thus I pose this argument in regards to ticket sales and attendance. If movie theatres only ran films that were previous box office successes and older films that were classics and included no new films, how long do you think they could stay open? The movie-going public is a much larger percentage of society than theatre-goers. To look to them as a model, they demand new content when they go to their local cineplex. They don’t want to see the same flick they saw last year. Why is then that theatre audiences seem to demand to see the same shows they saw a couple years ago rather than seeing something new?

By all means, this is a topic that could fill a book rather a weekly blog. However, I’ll tackle a few of the things we know. First of all, a movie ticket is most often cheaper than a theatre ticket. There is less risk involved. If you see a movie and hate it, you haven’t wasted as much cash. Also, the movie studios have a few things at their disposal that those of us in the theatre don’t such as huge marketing budgets, star power, internationally regarded and known directors/writers and sequels. While Broadway has tried cashing in on several of these items with varying degrees of success, in the regional theatre we don’t have most of these resources at our disposal.

Basically, Hollywood can succeed in constantly marketing new material due to the “familiarity quotient.” I love Julianne Moore as an actress. I’ll see anything she does on screen with little knowledge of what the film is about or how it faired amongst critics. That kind of selling power can be difficult to harness on a local level.

Thus in theatre to use the familiarity quotient to much success most theatres have felt the need to keep remounting the same shows that audiences have seen over and over again. This seems to work most of the time. Theatre audiences seem ready to shell out their money to see a show they know no matter the quality of the production due to the fact they know they like the show itself. Also keep in mind, while you can pick up your favorite movie and watch it on video any time you choose in the comfort of your own home, you have to catch your favorite play or musical while someone is producing it in a theatre.

We also see this familiarity quotient reflected in the current Broadway shows being produced which are often based on films or other familiar sources: The Addams Family, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Wicked, Shrek, Green Day’s American Idiot, Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Elf, Leap of Faith, Catch Me If You Can and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark just to name a few.

And here’s my conjecture: I feel that most people who would be willing to go to the theatre do not necessarily educate themselves or even know how to educate themselves on what theatre they would most enjoy, so they default to the familiar. This isn’t a knock on the more regular theatre-going public. I truly believe that there are many more people out there that would be willing to go to the theatre, but they don’t know how to pick the shows that they would most enjoy, so they tend to go to the ones they have heard of before regardless of whether that show fits their specific tastes. Then if they aren’t too excited by these shows, they assume all theatre is like this and quit going.

I frequently talk to people who are going to be traveling to New York and would like to see some theatre while they are visiting. They ask me what they should see. Usually the first thing I ask people is to tell me about some shows they have recently seen elsewhere that they really liked. Then I can make some better recommendations to their tastes. I’ve been known to recommend people to see shows I hated, because I knew the shows might be their cup of tea even though they weren’t mine.

I am baffled when speaking to non-theatre-going friends and family who have never been to New York when they say they want to go to New York to see “Phantom of the Opera.” When I ask them questions to better determine their film or music tastes, I can’t figure out why they would want to see this show. I would think there would be a much longer list of titles that would better fit their style. But they insist they want to see “Phantom,” I think, because they’ve heard of it. This is not a good reason to plop down over $100 see a show.

In order to succeed at producing contemporary theatre on a regional level, it begs the question do you strive to present the best quality plays and musicals you can get your hands on or do you find the show with the strongest ‘familiarity quotient’?

Like our locally shot film “Winter’s Bone,” an unknown piece with no stars (and thus no familiarity quotient) can defy the odds and be a success, but how often does it happen?