New Opportunities for Surprise

by Steve Moore

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for New Opportunities for Surprise

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

Within the last year, we’ve been able to double the attendance at our live theater events – as an unintended consequence of an absurd experiment with technology…

In an effort to push the limits of the kinds of stories we can tell and the ways that we can tell them, we’ve been creating plays to be delivered exclusively via text messages. No set, no lights, no venue to go to. Just the individual audience member and his or her phone.

The first of these was “Computer Simulation of the Ocean” –  a romantic, supernatural, psychological thriller told over the course of six months from April to October 2014. We sent messages about four or five times each week from three different characters:







If we’d known in advance what was going to be involved in terms of technology, infrastructure, and even writing, I’m not sure we would have attempted it, but the idea kept seeming fun and we kept trying despite many setbacks and blind alleys. In the end, we made it work – artistically, technologically, and even financially…

Because we had hours of volunteer help from a very bright computer programmer and because each text message we sent cost us just a cent, we were able to make the “show” available for free – and not just to those in Austin but to people across the country. After a small marketing campaign over social media and email, we had over 1,100 people subscribed. Most of them were in Texas, but in the end we had subscribers in 45 states, Washington DC, Canada, and Puerto Rico:

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The story took six months to tell, in part because its events happened in real time and in part because we wanted it to feel like a set of real text-message conversations, which for most of us play out over long stretches of time. To foster that feeling of immersion, the messages themselves arrived at random times throughout the day, and they were addressed directly to the receiver. On the face, they were indistinguishable from any other text the person might receive.

What could easily have seemed cheesy, tedious, or robotic, instead felt personal. Yet, because the show was free, because we made it easy to unsubscribe, and because we sent only a handful of texts each week, the commitment we asked from the audience was gentle and slight. We wanted the story and the storytelling to feel intimate and surprising, but never invasive or demanding. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea (and some people simply unsubscribed), but for the rest, it built a genuine connection.

[ If you’re curious at all about how it feels to receive one of these stories, we’d love to have you join us. We launch the next one - called “Dreams of Riley’s Friends” - on April 7th as part of the Fusebox Festival:  ]

I mention all of that background in the context of encouraging audience attendance at live events because the connections we made to our text story audience have allowed us to send follow-up texts (judiciously and infrequently) to those same people to let them know about our live events. The first time we did so, we didn’t know what to expect. We thought we might lose big swaths of the audience if we used their numbers to send a notice for something else – and I think we would have if we hadn’t earned their trust over the course of those six months. Instead, they’ve given us the benefit of the doubt and shown up in large numbers to the live shows. I think as long as we continue to earn that trust by delivering good and intimate work and demanding little in return, they’ll stay with us and will look forward to more – whether on their phones or on stage.

Obviously creating free text-message stories isn’t right for every theater company, but for us, exploring this new territory has inspired some helpful questions:

  • How can we make a connection to a potential audience member using the art itself rather than talk or advertising about the art?
  • How can we lower costs in order to be more generous?
  • How can we make something that’s easy to enter and easy to exit, which nevertheless strives for intimacy?
  • How can what we make spend at least part of its life in the real world rather than in the theater? And related questions: What are the new opportunities for duration? What are the new opportunities for surprise? What are the new opportunities for a light touch?

Steve Moore co-founded Physical Plant Theater in 1994 and has since written or had a hand in writing nineteen of its twenty-two shows. He is a two-time recipient of the David Mark Cohen New Play Award, and holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin. His most recent play was “Computer Simulation of the Ocean”, a text-message only thriller.

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • hollystarbright

    I will not comment on audience building strategies and this idea’s worth in that realm, but I will say that, as a theater professional, I don’t find any value in encouraging audience use of electronic devices anywhere near the live theater experience. (Note eejit w/cell phone charger in hand) There is already too much in our culture that devalues using only the five senses to take in an experience.

    I am also concerned with the use of actors for this. I want to know if Mr. Moore’s theater is an AEA signatory. If it is, I hope that his tweeting actors are under contract just as they would be if they were performing the piece with their voices instead of just their thumbs. If his theater is not union affiliated, then I hope he is compensating his actors well.

    As for ” what we make spend(ing) at least part of its life in the real world rather than in the theater” – if you have touched your audience, what you make will be taken into the real world by them. There will be no need for you to take it there yourselves, and that, in my estimation, is what our art form is all about.