Some arts organisations in the Spektrix user community have recently been attracting attention for their use of surprise and secrecy in their programming and marketing: as part of the Open Court season, the Royal Court programmed two surprise performances every week for 5 weeks; the Lyric Hammersmith is due to launch their Secret Theatre season from September until May 2014; and St James’ Theatre is also staging a secret play of their own next year, along with a unique ticketing strategy that increases ticket prices by £3.50 every two weeks until the name of the play is announced.
What they all share is the understanding that playing on the heightened emotion that comes with a surprise or a secret can capture audience attention. This is especially true in an age where we’re often overloaded with information on shows before they take place, including reviews, tweets, blog posts, video trailers, adverts, programmes. Often, by the time it comes to actually watching the show, it can just feel like we’re going through the motions, or as Caryl Churchill said, "it can feel as if we are just sitting through the experience we more or less knew we were going to have – very different from that magic feeling, as children, perhaps, of waiting for the curtain to go up and not knowing what was going to happen."
So surprise theatre is both a good break for audiences and a reminder of how crucial marketing is to get right in order to have a positive impact on the audience experience. The element of surprise in the arts also gives arts marketers lots of opportunities to play around with marketing in the run-up. For example, Lyric Hammersmith are posting blurry photos on their Instagram with cryptic captions and playfully dropping hints on their blog and social media. It’s an opportunity to differentiate your marketing from the crowd and build a different type of buzz, one that draws people in and invites them to find out a secret, rather than tells them what they should be getting excited about, and perhaps paradoxically, this cuts through other marketing.
But it’s also more than just a marketing strategy as the Lyric Hammersmith's Secret Theatre manifesto makes clear. They see the season as part of a wider re-imagining of what theatre should be at a time when they are literally re-imagining the future of the Lyric Hammersmith as they embark on a huge renovation project. Keeping everything a secret means not relying on big famous play names or playwrights to drive ticket sales and therefore avoids treating theatre as a commodity.
In fact, when I went to the OpenCourt season at Royal Court along with some other Spektrix-ers to watch a surprise play, it felt palpably different to other recent experiences at the theatre: with no idea what we were about to see and no marketing material given out beforehand (not even on the seats as we came in, or on the ticket) I felt more focussed on the play itself. The comfort of knowing is taken away and instead, the piece has to stand alone to have an effect on the audience. It reintroduced that element of magic and fun described by Churchill, and made it feel like we were going on a small adventure.
Importantly for arts organisations trying to reach new audiences, it also pushed me outside my comfort zone in terms of getting me to take a risk and watch something I wouldn’t normally pick myself, and (in my case anyway) it paid off. We were lucky to see Inua Ellams perform an evocative and poetic story of his own life called The 14th Tale (coincidentally, Spektrix founder Michael was responsible for the lighting!). It made me realise how important it is for arts organisations to encourage audiences to take a risk on something new or a bit obscure, not just so that they can widen audiences, but also because audiences might really be missing out on experiences they might really like. Introducing a bit of mystery and intrigue can do the trick. In fact, the Open Court season resulted in over 50% new audiences. I also felt more compelled to tell people about my experience afterwards. A study recently confirmed that psychologically, strong emotions like surprise are more likely to trigger social sharing.
While your whole programme and marketing campaign might not be centered around the element of surprise, as long as you ensure the surprise lives up to expectations, it can be a small and cheap way to delight your audiences and differentiate your marketing strategy – so why not give it a go?