I am somewhat fascinated by the impact audience reviews have on Broadway shows. There have of course always been word-of-mouth hits and there always will be. But I don't personally know many people who select shows because of audience comments on The New York Times website or anything similar. Nevertheless, as emphasis on new media continues to grow, these "ordinary people" reviews are increasingly considered important. One indication of this is the Sister Act confessional in the Broadway Theatre lobby, where audience members can record a video of holy praise to be uploaded onto YouTube and/or the show's website.
"People were leaving the show on a buzzy high," said Drew Hodges, CEO of SpotCo, the advertising agency behind the video booth. "We wanted some way to capture what people were saying."
While I am not sure these videos translate to box office, I am impressed by the Sister Act endeavor. If you do think these testimonials matter, this is the way to get them. It's one thing to have a Playbill insert -- which Sister Act also has -- telling people to write reviews on The Times, Yelp, Trip Advisor and Broadway Box, but it's another to bring the technology to the audience, catching them as they are coming out tapping their toes. This allows the reaction to be recorded immediately while audience members are still on the live theater high -- no thinking time allowed. The idea is so brilliant SpotCo isn't the only one to have thought of it; Barrington Stage Company has a booth in its lobby called iCritic which functions much in the same way as the Sister Act portal (though it is considerably less pretty).
The Sister Act booth, which has been at the theater around three weeks, was a collaboration between SpotCo (the idea people), Associate Set Designer Andrew Edwards (the guy in charge of modeling the creation after the show's confessional) and a city fire marshal (the person who has to show up and approve such things). While the booth is promoted by just a Playbill insert and small, unostentatious sign in the lobby, hundreds of folks so far have stopped in and recorded their thoughts.
The team at SpotCo watches each video and posts the favorites to YouTube and/or the show's website. Hodges insists that no negative videos have been recorded, but does admit that some audience members record videos that have nothing to do with Broadway.
"Some people have said confessional things like: 'I slept with my best friend's boyfriend,'" Hodges shared. "You can't tell if they are serious or not -- we don't put them up."
The videos that are uploaded are chosen for their vibrancy, as one might imagine. In the Broadway world, not all videos are uploaded because, well, not all are interesting. Out in the Berkshires on the other hand, Barrington Stage Company puts up every video, positive or negative, exciting or boring. "The only exceptions would be if someone records a blank video or if they use vulgar language or violate YouTube's community guidelines," stated Barrington Marketing Director Laura Roudabush.
Whether any Broadway show would take it as far as Barrington remains to be seen. I feel not many people would go through the effort of recording a video review in a theater lobby if they hated a show. But there will be some and I believe that it would take a very brave -- possibly crazy/stupid -- commercial producer to put up video slams of a production.
Regardless, these booths may very well be coming to a theater near you. They can cost less than traditional audience reaction commercials, be refreshed quickly and feel genuine. There is an artificial quality when a person talks outside a theater with camera crews and everyone else watching; this is more real. Edited, but messy and therefore somehow sincere.