10 Ways Theatre is Evolving to Engage Today’s Distractible Audiences.

Look around you! I bet most people you see are either looking on their phones or within a minute of reaching for it. The immense power of these handheld mini-computers have changed the way we operate in this world and impacted the way our brains work. If we have a question, we google the answer. We consume so much short-form content designed to be super catchy, addictive and engaging. When it comes to sitting down with a good novel for hours, it may not be as easy as it once was.

An actor at the Phantom Peak Immersive event

Amongst the myriad of pro and cons that can be argued around our mobile phone use, theatre, one of the oldest forms of entertainment is having to evolve and re-invent itself to maintain relevant. For thousands of years, humans have been acting out scenes in front of a rapt audience. Perhaps the fight to the death of a hunted prey or plotlines from mythological tales. Theatre has always been a way to tell a story. A beloved art form, far more entertaining than a static painting on a cave wall or singing songs. Who doesn’t love the pull of a juicy, narrative arc?

Fast forwards to more modern times, theatre competes with radio, TV, streaming services, internet, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok etc. Our minds have been altered by the availability of so much information and entertainment. Our attention spans have shortened. How does the ancient art of theatre compete?

London is the home of the famous West End theatre district. Together with Broadway in New York City, these two areas are the worldwide centres of the highest level of English speaking theatre. There are 39 theatres in London’s West End alone and this doesn’t count all the additional performance venues in Greater London, outside of the West End district. London is known for hosting all the biggest and best theatre productions.

A rare choice by a production to have some entertainment during intermission. In this case, it was a chance for the side actors to show us how talented they are. You can see the audience members surround the stage on all sides.

Where better to observe how the theatre industry is trying to evolve and compete for our attention? How will they sustain a profitable businesses model and encourage us to happily part with our money? How can they appeal to a broader audience to diversify their customer base? How can they reflect our changing values and tastes? How can they encourage people to love the theatre and come back time and time again? Or will they go the way of the struggling newspaper and cinema industry?

Here are some of the ways that theatre has been evolving to broaden their appeal and keep us engaged.

1) Tell a true story

People are always fascinated by a good story especially if it’s true. There is nothing new here but the evolution is in whose stories are now being told and whose viewpoint is being used. Increasingly shows are telling the stories of those previously under-represented and unheard. Examples include;

  • Sylvia – a musical based on the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, a lesser known member of the famous suffragette family.
  • Dr Semmelweis – a play about the Hungarian doctor, before germ theory, who realised that cleanliness was the key to reducing maternal mortality but was mocked and pilloried by his colleagues to the point of madness.
  • Six – a super fun musical about the 6 wives of King Henry VIII but this “her-story” lesson is from the point of view of the women.
  • Allegiance – a musical about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War 2.
Six the musical

Whilst this type of show is becoming more prevalent, unfortunately, there are still many important stories which are not told simply because they don’t have enough recognition in the public consciousness to sell enough tickets.

The stage for Sylvia before the show begins

2) Use Familiar Music

Many of us have memories and special moments entwined with music. Harnessing upon our familiarity with particular songs are a bunch of highly successful jukebox musicals. Incorporating really famous and therefore familiar music draws a more broader audience to the theatre. Examples include;

You can even see the party in this picture from the curtain call at Priscilla the Party. Fun music, fun night!

3) Diverse Casting

To broaden the appeal of theatre and to take advantage of all the diverse talent available, some productions have taken to colour-blind and gender-blind casting. Whilst this can initially feel a little strange to to the audience, especially in the portrayal of real life historical characters, once you let yourself be hooked into the show, you soon realise that the person casted is the best person for the role.

The musical Sylvia, about the life of Sylvia Pankhurst had a mixed cast despite the actual Pankhurst family being a white. The formidable matriarch, the militant suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst was played by Beverley Knight, an amazing black woman with an incredibly strong and soaring vocal ability. She is an absolute legend and an excellent choice for Emmeline Pankhurst, a key character in suffragette history.

Other highly successful musicals that use colour-blind casting is Hamilton and Six. Hamilton covers the life of an American founding father, Alexander Hamilton and some of America’s early political history. It casts non-white people as Alexander Hamilton and other historical figures despite them being white in reality. This colour-blind casting together with it’s more modern music score which includes rap has attracted a whole new audience to the theatre.

Six, the musical based on the 6 wives of King Henry VIII uses diverse casting and it works wonderfully! It’s joyous, fun and the ladies casted are impressively talented.

Six the musical – a diverse group of talented ladies playing the 6 wives of Henry the 8th

Unfortunately, there is a risk that too much colour-blind casting of real historical characters can falsely give an incorrect impression of what it was like for certain minority groups in that time and also alter the image of the real person in question.

Gender-blind casting is used in Operation Mincemeat, a cleverly written musical comedy about a deception plot Britain used to deceive Hitler in World War 2. The use of gender-blind casting probably originated from a need to keep the costs down. Only 5 cast members play a whole array of wonderful characters and it works very well. There is something disconcerting about seeing a women portray an arrogant man. Mannerisms which are completely normal in a man suddenly seem outrageous, comedic and ridiculous when replicated by a woman. Likewise, when a large man plays a straight laced female character, it become blatantly obvious how so many women make themselves physically small to get through life. Whether it was the intention of the writers to make a statement about gender norms, it was one of the things that struck me.

“If you see it, you can be it” is an oft repeated phrase when trying to get more women into STEM industries. The same can be applied for young people looking to get into theatre. If a young person can see someone that looks like themselves getting the best roles in a production, that has to be inspiring!

4) Incorporate Modern Styles of Music and Modern References

Recent theatre productions have been incorporating more modern styles of music to broaden their appeal. This includes rap, R&B, pop and soul. Dropping in some modern references also helps to update some of the more older classic shows. Sometimes, no new lines are required. A clever use of intonation on an existing line can make something written decades or even centuries ago hit home today, powerfully resonating against some current topical issue.

The frustrations experienced by Dr Semmelweis in the play to be listened to and taken seriously reminded me eerily about the early days of the climate change fight.

5) Adjust the Pace to Keep it Snappy

More modern musicals seem to have adjusted their pace and intensity to engage younger audiences. For example, Hamilton, Operation Mincemeat and Six are very high energy productions. The pace is snappy and fast moving to hold on to our declining attention spans. This is both good and bad as some slower paced sections in a show can be strikingly beautiful in contrast and is a chance to delve into deeper emotion.

Six the Musical

6) Be Interactive and Immersive

London is experiencing a glut in immersive experience type events. These types of theatre events give the audience a chance to be immersed, experience a different world and to interact with the actors up close. It is much harder work for the actors as they have to stay in character whilst responding to the most random things that the audience might say to them.

Gunpowder Plot, takes you to the year 1605 and involves you in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the King of England. It includes live actors, virtual reality headsets, cloaks, a rabbit warren of a set at the Tower Vaults and a plotline with so many undercover spies and double crossing, it gets confusing whose side you should be on! The actors were brilliant at guiding the audience physically through the set and the story. At one point you even have to hide in a make-believe priest hold. The VR headsets have you flying over the Tower of London or rowing the gunpowder barrels down the Thames in the dead of night.

This kind of immersive event is the future of theatre. It engages the audience in a more complete way but it does require a massive capital outlay, a large cast and supporting workforce. As a result many events fail have failed.

Phantom Peak is one of the few successful immersive events that has been running for years. It invites you into an alternative Western, Steampunk type world, featuring an entire town that you can interact with. There are shops, live actors, games to play, mysteries to solve and all kinds of cool and random things to keep you engaged. They use a web interface on your phone where you can choose a plot line and are given clues to solve a mystery. There were 10 plotlines and we only got through 3 of them in a 4 hour duration. When you get tired you can grab a bite to eat or have a drink. These were reasonably priced and tasty which contributes to the success of this venture. The cleverness of the whole set-up, the fact that you cannot get through all the plots in one session and the change in plots with each passing season makes this event perfect for repeat customers. There were plenty of repeat customers when we attended, identified by their steam punk style dress and their gleeful interaction with the actors.

Phantom Peak – just a small part of the outdoor set

During Phantom Peak, we got to jump into a ball pit, fight our way through a maze of bungee cords and crawl through some tight tunnels in pitch black darkness! Of course, these are optional but they were really fun and a rare bit of real playfulness for grown adults!

A saloon and some seating at Phantom Peak

These immersive events make for an entertaining outing for a family, group of friends or a lovely date. It’s not stodgy and old fashioned like traditional theatre where you have to sit still and be silent for a few hours to be talked at. You can move and interact with each other, the actors and the set. You are on your feet, engaged and entertained. You are up close to the actors and really see them at their craft.

7) Make it an Event

Theatre events are evolving to provide a more holistic, entertainment experience to draw people. Priscilla the Party has a nightclub feel with a bar, loud music and disco balls. They really add to the atmosphere by hiring the right people. The ushers were dancing away to the music pre-show with their LED flashing cowboy hats. They were clearly enjoying themselves. Dining and drinking options are included at Priscilla the Party, Gunpowder Plot and Phantom Peak. Including drinks and food for purchase makes for a savvy business upsell.

Curtain Call at Priscilla the Party

8) Keep them on their toes

Guys and Dolls and Priscilla the Party have chosen to have most of their audience stand. They make use of modular, movable stage sections to change the shape and configuration of the stage throughout the show. Ushers skillfully guide the crowd and move the stage sections around amongst the audience. The result, as an audience member, is a varied, more dynamic and interesting experience. The audience moves like a fluid to surround the stage sections as they are moved into position and the actors play to the crowd which sometimes surrounds them, 360 degrees, at the base of the stage section.

Audience milling around pre-show. The area within the white line will rise up to form the stage when the show begins – Guys and Dolls

Another advantage of this type of standing type shows is that it is more relaxed. You can move around for a different viewpoint or go to the bathroom at any time. It keeps things more interesting, more immersive, more fresh and it’s working! One unexpected advantage of being in the standing audience is that you are close to other audience members in a way which feels more intimate than in traditional theatre, where everyone faces forwards to the stage. I can look directly into the faces of other audience members and I can see the joy and wonder in their faces as they watch the show. This is how I know it’s working. At Guys and Dolls, the standing audience were young adults and they were enraptured by the performance. It was a joy to see. No one could take their eyes off the stage. No one was tempted to reach for their phone.

9) Keeping the Cost Down

An alternative to going the big, expensive route of producing an immersive event is to try to maintain profitability by keeping the costs down. Operation Mincemeat and Six do this very well by keeping to a small cast and crew as well as using a smaller theatre but ensuring each seat gets filled.

10) Use Technology

Clever productions are taking advantage of technology to entertain and engage. Large video screens are commonly incorporated into the story telling. Gunpowder Plot uses Virtual Reality headsets. Phantom Peak utilises a web interface on your phone as well as various screens and robots that you can interact with. Frozen uses all kinds of technical wizardry to add a real wow factor to their show. Abba Voyage has a specially designed venue and uses motion capture technology to generate holograms of the members of Abba!

One of the many screens that the audience can interact with at Phantom Peak – clues can be obtained to solve the mysterious plot!

Despite the evolution of theatre, there are plenty of classic theatre being produced. There is still good business to be had with the old classics like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The King and I, To Kill a Mockingbird etc. A nod to more modern values can be found with some small adjustments to various dated lines.

Theatre is evolving and it’s a joy to watch. The boundaries are being pushed to appeal and entertain us. To remain relevant, resilient and to make it make it profitable, theatre has to evolve and reinvent itself, it has to be bolder, braver and work harder than ever. It’s an exciting time!

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