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Patron-picked lineup propels Playhouse sales

A lineup of plays heavily influenced by patrons’ input, deeper discounting and a broad-based marketing campaign helped drive the Flat Rock Playhouse to record opening day ticket sales.

When the Playhouse opened the phone lines, website and box office windows to sell 2016 season tickets, it got a welcome surprise.
“We were experiencing a really high volume of calls,” marketing director Dane Whitlock said. “Some people weren’t able to get through. Some people were sitting on hold for about 40 minutes. People were lined up outside the box office at 10 till 9. We hit our strongest sales early in the morning and ended at $35,000, which is a record. The highest one (before last Tuesday) was back in 2013, they did $28,000 in one day. That was for the 2013 season.”
Planning for next summer’s season early this year when Whitlock cast a wide net through email and social media inviting theater patrons — current enthusiasts and those who had fallen away in recent years — to list their preferences for plays and musicals.
“We weren’t able to do all the No. 1 choices,” he said. “It depends on what we can afford, are the rights available, how big is the cast?”
Even so, Artistic Director Lisa K. Bryant gave the green light to a season that will bring to the stage both sure-fire hits and new shows that have long been requested but never before done in Flat Rock. The lineup includes many of patrons’ top picks, including “The Music Man,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Based on a true story, the lesser known “Million Dollar Quartet” dramatizes an impromptu jam session of rock’n’roll and country legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and features such iconic hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
On the money side, Whitlock “flattened our subscription offerings” to make them easier to understand and more affordable.
“I looked through all the packages they were offering,” he said. “I think it might have been confusing. We did a Plan A (one ticket each to nine shows, at 20 percent off) and the Music on the Rock package (one ticket each to nine tribute shows, each $3 off). And then third, I took a look at other regional theaters and their subscription plan offerings and spoke to other marketing directors — just doing some field research — about how heavy was their discounting, They were discounting very very heavily and we were not in recent years. It averaged 10 percent.”
Plan A is available through the end of the year. Flex plans that offer other discounts are good through next Mothers Day.
Whitlock’s “four-prong marketing” strategy included direct mail to a database of Playhouse patrons, news stories and interviews, an email blast to 20,000 addresses and social media.
“We used resources of Studio 52 to make a video so people were able to hear my voice and see me” describe the season’s show. One day after the emails went out, 895 people had clicked on the link to the video.
The strong revenue from the season so far —most shows have met or surpassed budget — and the record-setting preseason sales has improved the financial outlook, Whitlock said.
“We’re continuing to pay down the debt that we inherited,” he said. “We’re also being very careful. We have to allocate a good amount of that (ticket revenue) to our 2016 budget.”
Bryant and finance director Kevin Hicks continue to enforce spending discipline “so we don’t have the problems the Playhouse has had for many years,” Whitlock said. “We will always say will have a long road ahead of us. But every day it seems like that light gets a little brighter.”