It is commonly held that one of the reasons audiences attend the theatre is to escape from the everyday and to experience the excitement, glamour and magic promised by a night at the theatre.
So if theatre managements accept that this is a central reason for attendance, and that the audience experience is important to encouraging repeat attendance, it’s critical to consider managing this experience from the moment an audience member (or potential audience member) spots the theatre building itself. The images in this post show a range of different theatre exteriors. You should be able to pick which are the most inspirational and which need a bit of work…
There’s a long history of theatre buildings projecting themselves as ‘magical’ or ‘palatial’. The exterior of the theatre building has frequently been used as an opportunity to impress the visitor with a spectacular marquee, lighting display or with architecture that draws the eye and quickens the pulse. From Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in LA to the Sydney Opera House, theatres and cinemas have historically sought to attract attention and create a sense of occasion for audiences by paying close attention to their entrances and building facades. Yet looking at some theatres, you’d be forgiven for thinking that in many cases the managements have forgotten how it’s done – or more worryingly, why it’s done.
It’s extremely important for theatres to consider how best to use their street frontage regardless of whether they are a major civic theatre or a small fringe venue. It’s critical to set the standard for your audience’s experience from the moment they set eyes on your theatre. If they can’t distinguish you from the buildings next door, or they are greeted by blown bulbs and dirty or non-existent signage – or even worse, the dreaded ‘conference’ look favoured by local authorities – you’re going to struggle to win them back.
You don’t need a lot of money to transform your building’s exterior. There’s an interesting post here about work undertaken a few years back at The Maltings Theatre in Berwick-upon-Tweed to transform the tired exterior into a more exciting and stimulating main entrance.
Here’s a brief checklist of the most important components to creating a brilliant first impression at the entrance to your theatre:
1. Make sure the name of your theatre is clearly visible and lit at night.
2. Ensure that your marquee lighting has no dead bulbs and is functioning. If you don’t have marquee lighting, consider getting some. Renewing your street frontage is a great, simple, high-impact project to put to funders.
3. If you’re a presenting theatre with a lot of one night stands, consider a blackboard clearly indicating what tonight’s show is – or what the next show is. People read blackboards.
4. Have some good poster display sites at the entrance, well lit and clean.
5. If you’re a presenting theatre or multi-use venue, have a calendar of forthcoming events up in a prominent location so audience members can get a taste of what’s coming up.
6. Be extremely careful about advertising events that are not taking place at your theatre. It’s confusing and sends an incoherent message.
7. Put your opening hours up. You’d be amazed how many theatres don’t do this.
8. Have some seats outside if at all possible. Your audience will frequently arrange to meet others at the theatre or have to wait for taxis etc. Help them.
9. Display some historical information about the theatre. It attracts audiences and people find it fascinating.
10. It is of the utmost importance to have a large picture of the interior of the theatre on display outside the building. This is your principal selling point – the excitement of the auditorium. Make sure it’s a brilliant image that sells the excitement of the space.
11. Press quotes. For presenting or producing houses with longer runs, it’s a no brainer to have press quotes and reviews outside the theatre. But for presenting or receiving houses with one night stands, there’s no reason why you can’t print off an A4 with press quotes or reviews for upcoming shows. Failing this, why not have a press quote about the theatre itself up in lights outside?
12. If you have a bar or cafe open outside show times – or open to the public during show times – it’s incredibly important to advertise this, including the opening times. If you don’t have a bar or cafe open outside show times – then why don’t you? The bar and/or cafe is the lifeblood of an indispensible theatre.
13. If you’re open, the doors should be open. If it’s cold, too bad. Shut doors indicate a closed theatre. It’s bad for your image and bad for business. If they absolutely must be shut, then put signs on them saying you’re open and to come on in.
14. Ensure your box office number and web address are clearly displayed.
15. Avoid notices that prohibit things. Try to be positive in your signage. Rather than ‘no smoking’, try ‘Please use our smoking area located to the left’. You need the audience to come and support you. They’re not interested in attending a place that tells them off all the time. If you must have negative signage, make sure it says ‘please’.
Here are some other bits to consider:
– The main entrance should reflect the vision and historic fabric of the theatre. To a certain extent, you should be able to judge the book by its cover.
– The key ingredients are the name of your building and what you do there. So if you’re called The Civic, for example, and you’re a presenting theatre, it’s not a bad idea to put the word ‘theatre’ in somewhere. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many places assume that their audiences know what they do. Assume nothing.
– Make a statement. In a historic building ensure that existing or historic fittings are working or sympathetically replaced. Repair any existing signage. Remember that most historic theatre buildings were designed to be illuminated in some way. The architects who designed them in the first place weren’t fools, and will have made provision for the exterior to be well-lit by night. If you’re not sure how to proceed, or there isn’t consensus, call in consultants, by all means. If you can’t afford them, seek funding or ask them to do the work pro bono.
– Marquee lighting or illuminations of some sort remain the traditional route to sending a clear signal to your audience about what you do. Consider carefully both the down-lighting at the entrance to the building and the architectural lighting of the exterior. In my opinion, you can’t over-light the entrance to a theatre.
– If in doubt, steal other theatre’s ideas. There’s a pretty well-recognised language of external theatre lighting, and your technical team should be able to advise you on what you can achieve on a shoestring, if that’s all you have.
Above all, make the effort to stand out, send a clear message, and put some magic into your frontage. First impressions are the most important, after all…