When theatres from around the country face tough marketing decisions, they know who to call. Dr. Mark Shugoll, President of the Bethesda-based Shugoll Research applies his companies’ years of expertise in corporate market research to the challenges facing theatre companies. Recently, the calls have asked ‘How do I attract and satisfy new audiences when theatre attendance is declining?’ and ‘What can we do better?’
So what does this marketing expert have to say about the recent decline in Washington theatre-going? He identifies two principal villains: ticket price and theatre he characterizes as less than “engaging.” “[Audiences] sit on their hands, they’re a little bit bored sometimes…We’ve got to do work that’s consistently great; we’ve got to do work that engages the audiences; and we don’t always deliver.” Shugoll says.
Part of the problem, he believes, is theatre that isn’t always relevant to diverse audiences. “People look around and say ‘where are people like me in the audience? Where are young people? Where are African-American people? Where are Latinos and Asians?’…We can’t just expect diverse audiences to find us doing traditional work.”
Shugoll acknowledges that more theatre companies competing for the same audiences and rising ticket prices compound the problem. Companies offer discounts on their websites, but “students can’t even name non-profit theatres in this town, let alone find their websites. We’ve got to find a way to go to them.”
Shugoll lays out the problems, then tackles the answers in this absorbing discussion.
But Mark Shugoll is more than a man who knows his way around focus groups and complex statistical analyses. Mark Shugoll is madly in love with Theatre.
It began, he tells us, back home where the offer of ‘two-fers’ in his Long Island high school got him into Broadway shows. “We would go almost every weekend to something for three, four bucks. I loved it.” His high school teacher offered him a deal to get him onstage in Inherit the Wind – he remembers it well. “…and then I retired.” he says with a huge laugh.
But his passion to be in the audience continued unabated. It was the Kennedy Center’s production of Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion that hooked him on Washington theatre. Horatio, a musical about Horatio Alger, was his first Arena Stage play (he still has the poster). He took his future wife, Merrill. (She’s now a member of the Board of Directors at Signature).
Mark Shugoll, patron to many theatres, Board Chair of Arena Stage, is also a man with a secret. “I am a stage-door addict.” “Any time I go to the theatre, I will go to the stage door.”
Shugoll didn’t used to go to the stage door alone. “The best thing I used to do, when my kids were really small, I used to wait at the stage door, and I used to give them my Sharpie and my program …you know, my kids are really cute.. (Shugoll has two daughters, now 25 and 20) – I used to use them to get my autographs. .. I was a little embarrassed to ask for autographs, so I would ask my kid to do it.”
In a free ranging conversation with Joel, Mark Shugoll talks about his life, his work for Arena Stage, the risky business of doing new plays and his great love for theatre and the people who make it.
These days, Mark Shugoll has another backstage mission: his own solution for engaging young people in theatre: ArtSpeak!, a program which he admits “I kind of stole the ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’ format.”
“We bring artists into this Middle School, and they talk about their career, they perform, they sing, which is so exciting. They answer questions, we play ArtSpeak! trivia, we give away CDs, we try to make it as fun as possible, … it’s an amazing thing.”
How amazing? Without prompting, Shugoll launches into stories from visits from Kristin Chenoweth, José Llana, Stephen Schwartz, Brian Stokes Mitchell and, from the very first ArtSpeak! 11 years ago, noted Broadway Scenic Designer Ming Cho Lee “that made me break out in a sweat.”
For these backstage moments, recalled with great delight, and a little singing,
ArtSpeak! next meets on June 6th at Annandale Middle School in Annandale, VA. The free program is open to everyone, middle school age and up and features Broadway star Lea Michele from Spring Awakening..
Shugoll’s passion and generosity has gotten him considerably past the stage door and into theatre’s nerve center. He sums it up:
“Pick a place that you like, and support it. Get involved. …if you give contributions, there are so many special events, you can meet artists…you feel good about yourself, knowing that you’re helping a theatre be successful. I have no artistic talent, but I’ve found a way that I can be part of the theatre community.”