Our Predictions About the Future of the Theater

Screw emulating existing theater companies and forget about competition. We’re opening up our playbook to show you our predictions for the future of the theater. Take these nuggets and use them to create unique offerings and productions for the audiences of tomorrow. They'll be here before you know it.

Cities Are Suburbanizing — Where You Can Create Work is Expanding Both Within New York City and Within the Country as a Whole.

We're in the midst of a “multi-generational population shift from suburbs to cities…[Where people are looking] to obtain a more economical and cohesive lifestyle that has been described as ‘work, live, play.’”. Cities like New York literally can't build enough housing for their burgeoning population. Entire blogs are devoted to New York institutions that are closing due to increased rents. We should all take a moment to bemoan New York’s vanishing institutions and then take a broader look at what’s going on outside of Manhattan. There is a proliferation of theaters in revitalizing neighborhoods such as the Bushwick Starr and dozens of others. This revitalization of urban neighborhoods will increase the number of potential audience members and open a plethora of opportunities for different theater companies — particularly those who make the effort of enmeshing with their community and developing work and programs that stem from this connection.

Looking wider still takes us to cities outside of New York (yes, there are such places). Cities such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh & of course Detroit provide affordable housing and space for creation. Instead of being a full-time nanny, waiter, etc. you can be a part-time one and spend the rest of your time being an artist. If your work takes off, you’ll be able to ditch that part-time job a hell of a lot faster than you would in NYC. Theater created in diverse places and incorporating local perspectives will lead to a more meaningful theater overall. On a more practical level, it used to be that work was created in New York City and exported to other areas in order to make money for the artists and producers. The future is already headed towards work created outside of the major coastal cities and the most successful work will then be imported to New York in order to make money. Go west young artist…or east if you’d like to stay in NYC.

Attracting a Younger Audience is Vital. To Do So Create Work That Embraces Their Values of Openness, Sharing and Accessibility. Eschew “Luxury”

It’s an obvious statement but different generations have different values and meeting those values requires specific offerings. When I was growing up (I was born in ’83) I had to purchase my music on CDs and my clothes at the mall. I listened to artists like Jay-Z who wrote songs like Poppin’ Tags:

You know Hov’ be going to nice places

That’s right, and I’m droppin cash

Leave the mall with garbage bags

Gucci this, Prada that

Roll witch boy you’ll be poppin’ tags

Meanwhile young people today rent their clothes on Rent the Runway, stream their music from Spotify and listen to music such as Macklemore with songs like Thrift Shop:

“Hey Macklemore, can we go thrift shopping?”

I’m gonna pop some tags, only got twenty dollars in my pocket

I’m, I’m, I’m hunting, looking for a come up, this is fucking awesome

Keep these different value systems in mind when designing offerings for millennials. Tomorrow’s audiences won't react well to the traditional non-profit model of funding work by selling access to artists to the largest donors or by having high-end gala events. The world (theater included) needs to create new products and business models to meet the needs of this new generation.

Advertising Is Dead — Customer Development & Value Proposition Design Are King — Don't Be Upset About Not Having a Huge Marketing Budget — Design Offerings that Your Audience Didn't Know They Needed and You Won't Need One Anyway

“Advertising is failure. That is, marketing nirvana today is defined as having a great product or service that your customers sell for you. Thus the only reason to advertise is if that fails.”

The key is to develop products that customers value by understanding the customer and the value propositions that they require. This is done through using design thinking and engaging in activities like interviewing potential audience members and by using techniques like journey mapping where you follow them around like a fly on the wall while for a day or two. The goal is to figure out the audience member’s unarticulated needs related to their leisure or entertainment pursuits. Once you understand that, you can design an offering that they had no idea they wanted.

From there, you can use customer development to test your offering on a small audience and grow that audience iteratively using experiments and interviews. For the first time you have the runway to figure out what your audience wants and how to get it to them. This makes the old model of rolling out the show and hoping the advertising works look foolish and needlessly expensive. Small theater companies can use the frameworks of design thinking and customer development to iterate around large, slow theaters and truly create something that’s innovative and designed specifically for their audience.

Oculus Rift & Virtual Reality — Technology Just Solved the Supply/Demand and Niche Appeal Issues. Creating Live Experiences Will Become Cheap & Replicable.

No article about the future of the theater would be complete without including some elements of technology. If you haven't heard, virtual reality is here and it truly feels real. At a basic level this solves the problem of filmed theater — in a couple of years you'll be able to remotely watch a performance from the comfort of your home with a live cast while being surrounded by a live audience. Again, this will feel real.

On a broader scope it will be possible to create experiences that could not exist in the real world. Companies like Punch Drunk could create immersive experiences that are infinitely large. The Globe could enable you to see one of Shakespeare’s plays at their theater with the audience and cast in period costume. That sounds cooler than Shakespeare in the Park to me.

On a business level virtual reality will solve several problems for the theater. One is supply and demand — there’s no cost to having a virtual theater and no cost to store your virtual physical production. You could do one performance tonight for a full house and another one six weeks from now. You could beta test your performances virtually with a live audience and load into a ‘real’ theater once the show is done.

Virtual reality has the power to democratize creation in the theater. Currently, anyone with a MacBook Air can be a novelist and anyone with some canvas, brushes and paint can be a painter. Only someone with $25,000 to spend on a showcase can be a produced playwright. The affordability of creating virtual environments means that artists won’t have to spend a tremendous amount of money realizing their work. With graphics engines like Unity, they won’t need to know how to code or create 3D graphics. Once this technology takes hold the next great theatrical genius could appear from anywhere, not just from elite theater schools.

Building the theater’s audience of tomorrow by using customer development.