Theatre is in dire straits these days. Arts institutions tend to struggle financially in general, so its no surprise that donations, endowments, and grant giving is down with the poor economy. In Cleveland we’ve seen the fall of several organizations, even the ultra-commercial Carousel Dinner Theatre. The surviving theatres are like just about every other business these days–looking for new resources and streams of income to make ends meet.
I think free childcare could save theatres. No, really. I’m a father of three myself, and I understand that it takes a special kind of person to be able to take responsibility for children that are not their own. Even the most well behaved kids require patience, diplomacy, and a huge chunk of your energy and attention, even during the 2-3 hour duration of a musical or play. And here is why I think theatres should be doing it.
1. Eliminate excuses for not coming to see shows. Since I’ve had kids of my own, my attendance at theatre productions has dwindled considerably. There are many shows that I’d like to see that I would never take my kids to watch, whether for the subject matter or because the kids wouldn’t sit through the show. It would be very convenient for me to show up at the theatre a few minutes before curtain to drop them off in the theatre daycare center to enjoy my evening at the theatre.
2. Provide an extra value for your current customer base. Funds for consumers are very limited these days, so people want to get the most bang for their buck. Instead of slashing ticket prices or offering BOGO tickets, you’re now offering the patrons something extra for them at a moderately small cost to the theatre.
3. You will attract the patron base that you’re probably already trying to attract. Let’s face it–students and theatre people are probably already coming to see your shows, and the Sunday matinees are filled with the senior crowd. What the majority of most theatres really need in their patron base are the middle class, working families. These are customers who may only go to the theatre a few times a year, or maybe they know somebody in one of the productions; regardless, by adding free childcare during the productions you are more likely to attract these customers in the first place, and you stand a much better chance of keeping them coming back to future productions.
4. You’re educating the next generation of theatre-goers. This is a great opportunity to expose children to the arts. What sorts of things could you do to entertain kids during a two hour production? Show videos of musicals, showcase local actors and singers who need to test out new (kid friendly) materials, teach them a song and/or dance from a show, have them write their own show as a group, have them pick a play from a book of shows for kids–even with a small group the possibilities are endless. Look at it as a great opportunity to instill a love for the arts in a newer generation–in twenty years they’re going to be the patrons you want in your theatre.
I don’t think this would take too much to implement. There are many board members or volunteers who wouldn’t mind coming in to work with kids for a few hours. This would be a great thing for trade–in exchange for tickets to shows, free or discounted classes, or an internship, people volunteer to help play with the kids for a few hours during a couple of the productions. I think this is a great idea for most theatres, and I’m convinced that whomever implements this will see a great increase in paid ticket sales.