Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Broadway’s 7 pm curtain on Tuesdays was introduced more than 11 years ago. I thought it a somewhat more recent innovation, especially since I still regularly attend shows where audience members enter at about 7:50, usually far into the first act, looking embarrassed, angry or both.
Of course, this curtain time is no longer limited to Tuesdays, as many shows also play on Thursdays at 7, and shorter shows that can still give their company an appropriate break between matinee and evening even manage it on Wednesdays.
I remember the doomsayers when the Tuesday plan began: people wouldn’t be able to eat dinner, restaurant business in the theatre district would suffer, suburban patrons would be deterred from coming in for a show given the compressed travel time. That doesn’t seem to be the case, because while overall seasonal attendance has fluctuated between 11.5 and 12.5 million in the past 10 years on Broadway, there’s no evidence that the change in curtain times hurt business and it’s entirely possible that the adjustment helped to stave off declines by introducing flexibility.
Of course, that flexibility has gone far beyond the 7 or 8 pm curtain options. There are also shows with 7:30 weeknight performances, matinees variously at 1 pm, 2 pm, 2:30 pm, and 3 pm, and family oriented shows may well play two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday. (I remember the 1999 Broadway revival of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown experimenting with three show Saturdays, though that was short lived and, to my knowledge, never repeated.). At long last, the Thursday matinee (long seen in London) has been added. Right now, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, perhaps to retain a connection with its downtown roots, has 7 pm and 10 pm shows on Saturdays, a performance schedule that was once commonplace in the Off-Broadway of my younger days. I’m probably leaving a few options out.
I recount all these variants because I think it’s worth recognizing that Broadway producers and theatre owners, no doubt in collaboration with the theatrical unions, have proven that by being responsive to the changing needs of audiences, they can break out of habits for which the rationale may be long forgotten. For tourists, this means there are more possibilities of catching a show; for die-hard theatregoers, it means their binge weekends can be even more packed, in that eternal quest to see as many shows as possible in a limited number of days. For local audiences, it means they may have plenty of evening ahead of them post-show, or the opportunity to get to bed earlier on theatre nights.
I will say that this proliferation of performance times doesn’t surprise me in the least. Growing up in Connecticut, many theatres there had 4 pm Saturday matinees (followed by 8:30 or 9 pm evening shows) and the 4 pm shows were usually the fastest to sell out, no matter what was on stage. 4 pm shows also yielded the most geographically diverse audience, since the schedule allowed for day-trips with the greatest options of complementary activities – even plenty of time to sit by a pool or at the beach before heading to the theatre. And it was in 1985 that we surveyed our audience at Hartford Stage about their weeknight performance preferences, finding that by a 2 to 1 margin, they wanted 7:30 instead of 8 pm. It was implemented with nary a complaint.
All of this is merely a reminder that, as we search for ways to retain or develop audiences, the most simple tried and true elements of past patterns may not be something to cling to, just as abandoned practices may yet come into vogue once again. What may have been just fine five years ago may not hold today. We’ll only know for sure by experimenting – and by asking our audiences for their input whenever possible. We’re never going to be Netflix when it comes to entertainment on demand, but we might find there are some demands we can easily meet, if we’d just listen, and give things a try.