This case study examines the efforts of the Steppenwolf Theater Company to turn single-ticket buyers into repeat visitors. It is the product of multiple interviews with key staff and analysis of program elements, budgets, and planning documents.
At many theaters in the U.S., ticket subscription rates are falling, threatening their predictable income stream. This case study explores how the Steppenwolf Theatre Company addressed that vexing problem: It developed deeper relationships with both subscribers and non-subscribers.
The article is part of a set of case studies and reports looking at the efforts of arts organizations that received Wallace Excellence Awards to reach new audiences and deepen relationships with current ones. The pieces examine projects at 10 of the 54 organizations that received WEA grants between 2006 and 2014.
A 2019 update shows how Steppenwolf continues to form connections with its audiences to create a modern-day town square.
When Steppenwolf staff saw that subscriptions were declining, they realized they had to find a new way to build a reliable base of single-ticket buyers. The solution: build meaningful bonds with non-subscribers so they would come back to the theater for more performances.
Research revealed that single-ticket buyers had the same artistic preferences as subscribers. Both groups identified themselves as lifelong learners who went to the theater to be challenged.
With that in mind, Steppenwolf launched an experiment. It would promote a dialogue among audience members and the artists about the process of creating theater. That included:
Steppenwolf also was able to get buy-in from others in the organization early on. As a result, staff members achieved clarity about the role different departments and individuals should play.
The total number of non-subscribers who bought multiple tickets to productions increased over three years by 61 percent, from 1,416 to 2,281. Many audience members who used to attend only one performance per season bought tickets to two, three or more shows. At the same time, the relationship-deepening initiatives led to high subscriber renewal rates.
Single-ticket buyers — even those who saw only one or two productions per year — felt the same affinity and loyalty as Steppenwolf subscribers.