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Theatre for Audiences - A Note From Richard Hopkins

September 14, 2022

At FST, we are lucky to have such a large subscriber base. Subscribers are those individuals who sign up for an entire season of plays. There are significant dollar savings for the subscriber, plus subscribers get their choice of the best seats first. According to facts and figures provided by Theatre Communications Group (the service organization for the non-profit professional theatre in America), FST has one of the largest subscribing audiences in the United States. At last count, we sold 37,000 subscription packages.

Professionals think that FST’s subscription package is a good business strategy. They also think that our low ticket pricing is a good business strategy. When in reality, both policies (low prices and subscription) are not business strategies at all. They are artistic strategies.

When we started the resident operation of FST, we set out to build an audience. A subscription audience. And we set out to build a subscription audience for strictly artistic reasons: we wanted to build a relationship with the audience. We wanted to enter into a dialogue. We wanted a dialogue with a large, diverse audience so that we could better understand that audience. And, in turn, the audience could come to better understand FST. We wanted an audience that would help us build a theatre that would reverberate throughout the entire community.

The difference between a subscription audience and a single ticket audience is pretty simple. We build a relationship with subscribers. And they with us. Single ticket buyers are often strangers. We know that the old maxim is true: the theatre is only as good as the audience; and the audience is only as good as the theatre. We are interdependent.

Today, we have an extraordinary relationship with our audience. Some of them have been with us 20 and 30 years. Others have been here only 20 or 30 minutes. They’re not afraid of telling us what they think. And we’re not afraid of telling them what America’s great playwrights think. FST presents a wide variety of plays and musicals in order to provide a diverse library of experience. Together, we enjoy the riches of thought, meaning, and laughter provided by the best contemporary plays in the United States.

The theatre is as good as the audience; the audience is as good as the theatre. We learn from each other. We grow because of each other. The artist doesn’t have the answer. In fact, the great artist isn’t looking for the answer. The great artist is looking for the question. The quality of our art is in direct response to the quality of our questions. The role of the artist is to ask the best questions. In the end, for better or worse, society, with its leaders, will decide the answers. The artist’s duty is ‘To Ask.’ The audience’s hope is to engage and to be a part of the answer.

This relationship with the audience allows us to explore all kinds of plays. Dramas, comedies, and musicals. Without a subscription audience, Sarasota would not have been one of the cities in America to fall in love with the powerful, riveting production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This play had a large cast, difficult technical demands, and subject matter that made it a very difficult choice for production.

However, with a large subscriber base, we at FST know our audience, and we know that audience will readily engage with Curious Incident because the basic story is superb. Without a subscription audience, that play may never have reached the FST stage.

Similarly, our Cabaret Series thrives on subscriptions. Every show in the Winter Cabaret Season is created by FST artists with our audience in mind. This past season was a banner season, with all three Cabaret shows breaking box office records. Together, these three shows ran 9 performances a week for a combined 60 weeks, serving nearly 55,000 people. Those audiences are served by artists (directors, writers, and performers) who have come to know the audience over the years and create specifically for that audience.

The same is true for creating new plays for the Mainstage, like Mark St. Germain’s Wednesday’s Child. We devoted two years to the play’s development, specifically for our audience. And this summer, we will revive Larry Parr’s Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow, which was originally developed and premiered at FST, and subsequently produced in theatres throughout America. Also, this summer, FST will premiere the latest rewrite to Sandy Rustin’s juicy, hot comedy, The Cottage.

This idea of creating plays for specific audiences is not new. It is older than Shakespeare, who wrote for his friends and neighbors in the small city of London (population 50,000 at the time), a city about the size of Sarasota today. The idea of creating plays for specific audiences goes back 3,000 years to the ancient Greeks, when the entire village gathered on the hillside to hear the shared stories of their day.

By now, I think you understand that I think the audience is important. The audience is not just the “viewer.” Indeed, I believe the audience is the subject, the thing being viewed. For, as Shakespeare professes, it is the role of the artist to “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” And the audience is the big part of “nature.”

So the next time you come to the theatre thinking you’re just a “spectator,” perhaps you may wish to take a second look. It may be you on that stage. Or, at the very least, someone you know. Or some “Other” who you’ve never known. And that might be the reason you are so engaged.

And that’s why audiences matter to all of us at FST. They are both the “Viewer,” and the “Viewed.” We do theatre for the audience, and we do theatre about the audience. At FST, we put the world on the stage. And the more of the world we put on the stage, the more of the world we find in our audience.

At FST, we are proud to carry on the tradition of supporting artists who create specific plays for specific audiences. In this case, we are proud to support artists creating plays for Sarasota audiences. That is why FST has the largest subscription audience in the Southeast US, and the third largest in the nation. I hope you enjoy this Summer Season. These plays were created and selected for you.

Thanks for your support.

Richard Hopkins, FST's Producing Artistic Director