How to Sell Out every single show: Daithí Ramsay

I was working in our box office one evening when the visiting show’s stage manager approached.
How are tickets for tonight? he said.
Pretty good, about 270 now. I said.
Really? We’d a full house in Monaghan last night, he said.
What do they hold though? 200?
Yes about that, but we sold out.
Well we’ve sold more seats than that.
We sold out in Leitrim the night before as well.
What have they, about 120?
Yes, but we sold out.

We work in a sector where people are often very emotionally attached to how their work is received. Many of us are like that too: we work in the Arts because we love the Arts, we are passionate about the Arts. We must be, we’re clearly not here to get rich.

The Sold Out Show, along with the Standing Ovation, is the measure by which many judge how well their show is doing. The people have spoken and they think you’re great: there has been so much demand that we couldn’t accommodate them all. It’s a tough stand in the Arts these days and we have to take our victories where we get them. Companies are happy, programmers, administrators and marketeers can relax, it’s a job done well. We can’t do any more than fill every available seat.

There’s a problem with that that’s been nagging me for a while now though. The Sold out show is an emotional measure not a financial or numerical, it takes no account of varying capacities or competing realities and there is a clear presumption in it that there was a huge throng clamouring for tickets who have now had to go home disappointed that they didn’t get in to see the show. This is rarely the case, very rarely.

A photo of A Sold Out Show for the DMEP at An Grianán Theatre
A Sold Out Show for the DMEP at An Grianán Theatre, photo courtesy of the DMEP

Rather than celebrating what we are achieving we are too often snatching defeats from the jaws of victory. If it doesn’t sell out and the audience don’t leap to their feet then we haven’t done our job right: we aren’t a success. That’s clearly nonsense. A show should be judged on its own merits be it artistic or entertainment levels, is it a good show should be a judgement of just that: is it a good show?

The programming and marketing of it should be judged on whether or not the maximum number of people attended who could reasonably be expected based on realistic targets taking in many factors including previous sales of this type of show, day of the week, month of the year, competing attractions etc. We all have the data now, the only targets we should project or accept are those based on a clear analysis of the data. My greatest marketing triumph in a year may be getting 30% into a show that was only realistically expected to get 15% but who is going to recognise that apart from me? I could tell you but I doubt you’d be that impressed, but you know, a Sold Out Show …

I’m here to tell you though that it’s okay I’ve come up with a fool proof plan for everyone working in the Arts to be happy all the time: it’s clear what we need to do is take out seats so that we’ve less to sell. Less seats equals more sold out shows, and sold out shows is what makes everyone happy. Until that is they look at the bottom line of the financial spreadsheets, but sure how many do that?

I’m reminded of the theatre that told me that they had done away with postering as they felt it was no longer of benefit, except for one poster that they’d put up in the pub the actors drink. It’s lovely for actors to get full houses and standing ovations but it’s important to remember it’s an emotional measure and should have no place in judging how well we professionals have done our job. We have data for that.

The Henry girls playing to a Sold Out House at An Grianán Theatre. Photo by Living Witness Photography.
The Henry girls playing to a Sold Out House at An Grianán Theatre. Photo by Living Witness Photography.

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