Front of House: Take Care of Your Audience No Matter the Space

by Jenny Lavery

in Audience & Community Engagement,National Conference

Post image for Front of House: Take Care of Your Audience No Matter the Space

(This post is a part of the Audience Engagement blog salon curated by David J. Loehr for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Theatre en Bloc is a new company dedicated to telling stories and creating events that key into what it means to be alive in America today. Whether a shadow puppet musical about dogs, a pedestrian ballet about growth and urban gentrification, or a dramatic celebration of a current successful human rights activist, we produce work for the people of our community that says “Wake up! Look at what is happening around you! This life can be made better!”

Our audience is the most important part of our work. They are our focus: the final and most vital piece to any theatrical endeavor. Not only does our art have to be relevant to our audience, the whole evening must be crafted around their best interest. Making great experiences for patrons is what inevitably will help retain audiences for years to come.

Theatre is not unlike dating. The first impression sets the tone of the whole night, and that first impression does not come from the art performed that evening.   Our front of house theatre spaces are the first places our patrons visit. These preliminary interactions contribute to how the art will be received. We believe that fifty percent of the producing company’s focus should be on the creation of the art itself, with the other half poured into ensuring the same high quality art standards are applied to all patron-related areas, making them feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated.

With our latest venture, AUSTIN IS A PLACE (You Are Here), we converted an 8,000 sq. ft. raw warehouse space into a theatre. When we procured the warehouse space (next door to a Bingo Hall), there was a small existing, yet run down 8 x 8 foot foyer, with doors on either side. Through the door to the left was the bingo smoking room. Through the doors to the right was the warehouse, where we delineated a lobby from the performance area with a simple black curtain.

Once we separated the space, we decided on an appropriate palette that fit our Austin audience. AUSTIN IS A PLACE (You Are Here) had a set that consisted of a concrete floor, 4 tons of dirt, 15 ladders, 4 wheelbarrows, 3 shovels, 50 clip lights, a bicycle generator and 300 pairs of shoes…that drop from the ceiling. This was a raw, ever-changing, messy show. We knew that our lobby should not be formal, but it needed a coat of paint that covered up the deterioration of the unfinished sheetrock. We wanted to make the foyer and lobby elegant enough that it made the performance space with all of its exposed wires, dangling water pipes, and unfinished walls a purposeful aesthetic choice. Instead of a formal black paint, we chose a less dramatic dark charcoal. The room accents were the black curtain separating the performance and lobby spaces, three kinds of mismatched, untreated wood tables/chairs/palettes, cinderblocks, red chairs, red pushpins and string, handmade mason jar lights, and mason jars on the tables filled with baby’s breath. The foyer area eases us from the outside world into lobby, and therefore we wanted the room to be a lighter shade of gray.  Once we knew our primary colors, we created an informal DIY feel by using chalkboard paint on three palettes for our Box Office/Concession signs, the signs for the sidewalk and the foyer.

Making a clear path from the outside of the theatre to inside the performance space starts with clear signage. From the parking lot, patrons could see the address on the building beside the door. We also hung a large banner over the doors that read: “THEATRE en BLOC, Creative Laboratory”. On the sidewalk a chalkboard palette announced the name of the show and where the bathrooms were located.
In the foyer, the early evening sun streamed through the glass doors making it hot and bright. We knew that this room could not be a place where we expected patrons to linger.  We painted a large black silhouette of Texas on the wall directly opposite the doors that you could see from the parking lot. We used red and blue string to make a visual art piece representing an inbound / outbound Austin migration map. To the side, leaned another chalkboard painted palette. Here we placed a key with the two colored strings and the words, “People Come” next to the red string, and “People Go” next to the blue string. Beneath this was written our Twitter handle and how to reach us on Facebook. We had one other problem to work around: the adjacent bingo smoking room. In the foyer, the distinct and offensive smell of cigarette smoke-stained walls permeated the air. Rather than fighting the smell with air fresheners, we decided to combat the smell with a fun work-around: a popcorn machine. Popcorn will mask anything, and makes an affordable concession that one associates with entertainment, but not usually live theatre. Next to the popcorn machine, lay two small stacks of handbills for patrons to take on their way out. Having print materials laying out in the foyer, near a guest book and on the bar allow a patrons to take these materials at their leisure.

The lobby. When planning a lobby area, the layout is key. Keep it simple. The flow of traffic should be priority number one. The layout should clearly communicate what you expect of your patrons. Generally, we expect that patrons will come to the box office to pick up their tickets and stay there to get concessions before looking around the lobby or taking a seat to wait for the show. The box office/concessions area should be the obvious when the patron walks through the doors.

The lobby should also have plenty of seating options arranged around the outskirts of the room. Rather than arranging chairs along the walls like a doctor’s office, gather several types of chairs and a variety of tables that aesthetically go with the show and have fun arranging them in pairs or groups of threes. This allows patrons to sit with their party and have a more intimate/private conversation in this ultra public setting. We chose red painted wood Ikea folding chairs and handmade upright, stained chairs that could be arranged as a bench or regular chairs. The pop of red color in an otherwise subdued gray/black/wood palette gave the room an air of whimsy.  Proper furniture arrangement can make the room feel cozy and inviting making it a place where patrons want to hang out before the show, during intermission, and once the show is over.

Other than the arrangement of furniture, the little touches should all feed into the aesthetics of the room and work together to create a warm, welcoming, and safe space. We chose to keep things basic. We built chandeliers out of mason jars and hung them in a straight line from the doors to the bar/ticket booth. We wired them to a dimmer so that we controlled the ambiance. In the air hung the homey scent of popcorn. At a low volume, the music of the classic Austinite, Mr. Willie Nelson set the laid back, relaxed tone of the room. The various mason jars filled with baby’s breath added a live and fragile element amidst the hard concrete and solid wood furniture.  The room felt comfortable.

The walls of the lobby should be used to display content related to the performance using a variety of media: visual art, photography, news clippings, found relics, etc. We hung wooden structures and palettes that served as fancier corkboards for us to display historical and culturally relevant photos of Austin. The display provided information that enriched the performance and sparked conversation between patrons. Our sound designer made two handmade cigar box guitars that he and an actor played live during the performance. Before the show, we left the guitars in the lobby for audience members to view and touch.  This multimedia and tactile approach not only adds to the experience, but can encourage reluctant patrons who came along with a friend.

Staying with the natural and simple vibe, our concessions were water, natural sodas, beer, red and white wine. We offered popcorn, an assortment of candy and some locally sourced gourmet desserts – again, in mason jars. At the counter, we processed purchases with an iPad outfitted with Square, handed out programs which doubled as tickets, surveys and pens all in one area. With our box office & concessions at the same bar, we used one box office person, allowing a second person to float through the lobby, engage with patrons, direct traffic, talk about the photos or help at the bar.

Ultimately, by creating a warm lobby environment, we cultivated a positive first impression. We immediately showed our patrons that we care about them. We wanted them to have a great night with us. Creating a welcoming and warm front of house experience can be done in any space, on any budget. It takes a detailed plan that speaks to your audience, your space, and the piece of art. Using the same high quality art standards on all patron-related areas, makes patrons feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated.

This blog salon is curated by David J. Loehr, the editor and artistic director of 2amt. For more posts and conversations surrounding audience & community engagement, and other ways of “thinking outside the black box”, visit the 2amt website, or engage on Twitter at #2amt and @2amt.

Jenny's HeadshotJenny Lavery is the Co-Artistic Director of Theatre en Bloc, a creative laboratory in Austin, Texas that believe great art inspires great communities.  Jenny is a director, actress, lighting designer, and producer.  With Theatre en Bloc, she has performed and lighting designed the B Iden Payne nominated AMERICAN BEAR: A PLAY ABOUT HOME; produced and designed the Austin Critics Table & B Iden Payne nominated JUST OUTSIDE REDEMPTION; developed, directed, and puppeteered the award winning ‘Best of Frontera Festival’ piece titled VIOLET CROWN: DOG’s TOWN; and collaboratively devised and performed in the Austin Critics Table nominated AUSTIN IS A PLACE (You Are Here).  After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Jenny worked in PA, Brazil, and NY as a downtown director, designer, and actress before relocating to the blue dot in the red state where she continues to freelance as an actor, director, and lighting designer. In her free time (ha!), she also works for Theatre en Bloc’s sister company, Sustainable Theatre Project devoted to developing a truly sustainable theatre in order to greater benefit the community.