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What I Learned From Ragtime

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Having the Kennedy Center production of Ragtime mounted on a Broadway stage has been both exciting and an honor. This was the first Kennedy Center musical that was transferred to Broadway. The chance to show our work to a larger audience was truly rewarding for all of us involved.

It was also an educational experience for me.

I have learned to appreciate how much easier it is to sell a show when it is produced by a not-for-profit institution than when it is a stand-alone, for-profit venture, as most Broadway shows are.

When a not-for-profit institution opens a show, we have already pre-sold a substantial sum of tickets to our subscribers. Most of our subscribers have tickets for the first few weeks of a run; this gives us more time to build public awareness, through advertising and word of mouth, for the later weeks when more single tickets must be sold. We also have ongoing marketing channels including newsletters, magazines, websites, and e-communications. The Kennedy Center News, a bi-monthly magazine, regularly reaches 250,000 households alone; our website receives more than five million visits a year. These modes of communications are invaluable in explaining a production, offering group and other discounts, and showcasing the reviews of critics.

When a Broadway musical opens, the marketers must start from ground zero. There are no subscribers; every ticket sale is a single or group ticket sale. There is no loyalty to the producing entity. Excitement about the show, and revenue, must be established from scratch. The first few weeks are not filled with subscribers; one has to find ways to pack the initial houses. And an open-ended run means that one has to sell so many more tickets than the limited runs typically mounted by not-for-profit theater companies.

The not-for-profit institution also has name recognition and a loyal audience base; many ticket buyers are happy to trust the Kennedy Center, or Goodman Theater or Signature Theater.

Only a few knowledgeable theatergoers really know the names and reputations of the producers of Broadway shows. And these days there are so many names above the title that it is hard to decipher who truly is in charge.

Perhaps the major exception to this rule is Disney which operates like an institution. Many ticket-buyers are happy to trust a Disney production, just as they are happy to trust a not-for-profit institution. And while Disney does not have subscriptions, it certainly has the communication channels that are far more potent than even those owned by the largest not-for-profit theater companies.

It would not surprise me to see theater owners and producers collaborating in the future to create mock 'institutions' that can establish permanent brand name, mailing lists, websites, and newsletters that emulate their not-for-profit cousins.

It would make their lives easier and their productions cheaper.

As for me, now that Ragtime has closed, I am going to go kiss my marketing department!

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