Get targeted audiences and boost ticket sales.
Identify social groups and natural organizers, invite them to be social captains; seat groups together in the front rows and give them free beer.
Energetic front two rows lift up the whole house.
Runs the risk of being insidery.
Tracking statistics and expanded concierge services.
Before writing the sentence you are currently reading, I decided to check my e-mail, a common procrastination tactic of writers ’round the world. Once logged in, I was tickled to spot my sixth invitation to see a Clubbed Thumb show this year.
This wasn’t e-harassment, because the e-mail wasn’t from Clubbed Thumb, the 18-year-old New York City–based company that specializes in funny, strange and provocative new plays—it was from my friend, playwright and actor Kate Benson. “Come see this play with me on Friday night, 6/27. That way, we can see each other and the play AT THE SAME TIME. If that isn’t enough of a treat: you’ll get a free beer before the show,” Benson wrote to her bcc’ed list with signature directness.
As the e-mail explained, Benson was acting as a social captain, inviting a big group of people to come see Peggy Stafford’s 16 Words or Less on a Friday, the last production in Clubbed Thumb’s SummerWorks. (This year’s three-play season ran May 30–July 5.) Though no discount code is offered, there is “added value,” with a built-in chance to see a play you might like, catch up with old pals before the show, then sit with them and nurse a free, cold beer.
“The year after the old Ohio closed we switched theatres and had especially low attendance,” says artistic director Maria Striar, whose curly hair matches her quick wit. “I was shocked! So we looked harder at who was coming. Our audiences are dominated by people in the theatre field and friends and families of the artists. So we tried to seize that as a positive instead of negative. We figured if that’s the lion’s share of our base, then let’s make damn sure these people come and have a good time.”
The social captain idea works like “a manual version of a social platform,” says Striar. “The institutional voice on Facebook and Twitter is sort of horrifying, because it has to stick within clean and clinical rules.” The social captain idea, however, avoids tonal pitfalls, because the invitation to see a play comes from an individual.
Consider the distinctiveness of playwright/salon aficionado/ellipses lover Frank Boudreaux:
I’m captaining a group at this Wednesday night’s show, June 18th (see below) …and, unofficially, a salon afterward where we all get to passionately debate the play’s triumphs!, and, er, near misses? quirks?…around the corner. They save our seats together and everything, if you buy ahead of time. So…
Once a play is selected, Striar, Clubbed Thumb’s associate producer Michael Bulger and managing director Nora DeVeau-Rosen think about pre-existing social groups and artists to whom a particular play would appeal. “I then sit face-to-face with the writer and director and brainstorm affiliations—clubs they belong to and other theatres they have worked at,” says Bulger, who helms the social-captain front.
For example, for Jenny Schwartz’s 41-derful, whichopened the season, the team capitalized on the fact that Schwartz has been produced at the Vineyard Theatre and New Georges and that she runs the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. For Ariel Stess, whose I’m Pretty Fucked Up ran next, a special Brooklyn College evening was arranged. (Stess is an MFA alum.) “From there we generate target groups and think about who in that group is a social motivator,” says Bulger. “Who is a natural organizer? Who will get people to actually click through and buy a ticket?”
I love this play and you are on this e-mail list because I think you would love it too and I would love to see you. Click through the special link and get your tickets! writes playwright Erin Courtney with characteristic enthusiasm.
Once a potential social captain is identified, Bulger reaches out and introduces himself five weeks before the start of a production. “It’s a tightknit community of artists, so it’s not out of the blue,” he says. “I try to frame this as, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun! We know you’re coming to this show, so wouldn’t it be nice to get people to come with you so we can save you seats and give you free beers,’” Bulger explains. “The idea is that it’s encouraging, as opposed to it all coming from the voice of the institution,” Striar adds.
If you haven’t bought tickets yet, know that the show is close to being sold out. Do not hesitate. Beer. Collective play watching. A sweaty night in June in a place with kick-ass air conditioning. Won’t you come? urges playwright and performer Paul Ketchum, with dependable deadpan.
Once a leader is wooed, they choose a date to see the show. “Then I send them a social-captain kit with artwork, language they can use and show copy,” says Bulger, who includes a special ticket-buying link so he can track who’s with which group.
So far the system has worked well. In its first year, 75 percent of the shows had a social captain. In the second year, when Bulger became a full-time employee, 85 percent of the performances had a social captain. Typically Bulger urges captains to gather 10 friends, and usually a total of seven come, though some social captains have had larger impacts. “I guess no one ever sees director Ken Rus Schmoll, because he had nearly 30 people on his night for Schwartz’s play,” Striar quips.
Statistics aside, friend groups spark an unquantifiable shift in energy. “Filling those front two rows with super-friendly people who are excited, and maybe have a bit of alcohol in them, and know someone in the show, makes a huge difference,” says Bulger. “They make the whole atmosphere a bit more social. Even five rows behind a group, they can lift the spirit of the whole evening and send energy through the house.” The Wild Project, where Clubbed Thumb currently performs its season, is pint-sized at 89 seats, but the energy is palpable. Lagunitas, a West Coast brewery keen on growing its East Coast brand awareness, generously donates the beer.
Striar admits that delegating social captains to friends of the artistic team is potentially insidery and solipsistic. “Do I only want an audience of artists? Of course not!” she says. “But I am interested in paving the way for slightly more experimental, formally alternative work to happen in other places. If you see it in a smaller venue with people who are more responsive, it can help contextualize a work. This is about getting a friendly audience.”
In that way, Clubbed Thumb gives its playwrights an ideal audience and its patrons a warm theatregoing experience—one that is easily repeatable and adaptable for other small and nimble companies. In the future, Bulger envisions offering other amenities to groups, such as dinner reservations at local restaurants.
Anyone want to grab dinner on Friday?