If an improv team never performed to an audience, does it exist at all?
Not all people who take up improv want to perform.
Some people are happy just getting to do improv while others want to take the stage and perform at the Esplanade Theatre.
If you’re part of the latter (and less megalomanic than I am), this blog post is for you! It covers everything you need to know about staging improv shows for indie teams.
Why specifically indie teams?
If you’re part of an improv house team, the logistics of performance is covered by the mothership. And you only need to practice, promote the show a bit and show up to perform.
Isn’t that nice?
But if you’re running an indie team, you’ll be in charge of everything. EVERYTHING!
Do note that this blog post doesn’t cover how to run an improv team or the actual show. These two points are critical for you to have a successful, long-running team that attracts returning audience members. But the topics deserve their own mammoth posts.
Let’s just focus on what you need to take care of when staging your indie improv show
Until you have a venue, you don’t have a show.
Booking a space will make your team feel that the show is really happening, and you’ve got tickets to sell.
Instead of trying to find a timing that suits ALL your team member, find a timing where more than half of your members can make it. Then book it.
If you’re trying to find a timing for everyone, you might end up not booking anything at all.
- Cost of venue
Unless you’re loaded, book a venue that’s not too expensive so you can cover your cost or at least not lose money.
How do you actually book a space? Finding it through your contacts is the safest bet. Ask around if anyone knows a place that lets you perform.
This process can be stressful since you’ll be talking to venue owners and negotiating the price of the rental. I do recommend having two responsible people in charge of this.
- Suitability of the space for improv
Even if you’ve found a space, make sure it’s suitable for improv.
That means a place where voices on stage won’t be drowned out. Avoid venues with high ceilings and an operating blender (been there, done that).
And if it’s a space without a stage, the team will need to be mindful of the view from the audience’s side.
Think about whether you need stage lights. Lights helps to focus the audience’s attention on the “stage”. Non-performance spaces usually do not have stage light, and even if it’s a performance space, lights might cost extra too.
If you do need stage lights, you can find them online. Or ask if others are willing to loan you theirs.
I cannot stress this enough: When booking a venue, please have at least two weeks lead time for you to market your show. You need the time to gather enough people to actually come and watch.
Now that you have a venue, it’s time to sell your show. But how?
I don’t recommend a ticketing system that’s purely cash-at-the-door.
You won’t have a concrete idea of how many people are actually coming (and paying) for the show.
Facebook RSVPs are not real butts-on-the-seats. Pinky promises can be broken.
**Past exception: The Indian Improv Theatre Singapore used to use a Google Form + cash-at-the-door system to sell out their shows. (Update: Now they use Peatix too.)
If you need an example, I found this Google Form by The Improv Company several years back. It’s OK to start with the basics!
Walk-ins are OK but make sure you charge them extra so they’ll be incentivized to pre-book their ticket. This can mean $10 for online tickets but $15 at the door.
Personally, I try to run my events, specifically PowerPoint Karaoke Singapore, purely on online bookings. I have no energy to deal with tickets at the door and I like to keep it that way.
If you’re thinking of online payment, here are some options.
After running indie shows for more than two years, I find myself going back to Peatix as the ticketing system. (I’ve only tried Ticketbox which has closed down.)
*Peatix has updated their processing fees and it’s only 5% now. They have an organic promotional mechanism that pushes your shows to people on their mailing list. But I don’t find it effective.
Despite having the organic promotional mechanism, you still need to push that booking link. I’ve been experimenting with putting up a booking link but not promoting it, and it’s not working.
And on the day itself, you can check in audience members using the Peatix app. Or you can print out the attendance list in an Excel sheet and cross things off.
Another way of selling your tickets. It’s cheaper than Peatix (3.9% + S$0.50) and you get audience member’s email addresses–be careful you’re not infringing on PDPA when you’re sending them future emails.
One downside with Paypal is that you’ll have to manually gather the list of people who have paid. Which can be a headache.
- Subscription-based ticketing
Depending on how frequently you run shows, there is an option of paying a subscription fee for a ticketing platform so you don’t have to pay for processing fees.
The Improv Company uses this system. (Check out TicketTailor here.)
But if you’re running not-so-frequent shows, do an analysis of whether it works out in the long run. Here’s a handy list of the different platforms.
How much to charge? It really depends on you. But in general, you need to know how much it takes to cover your venue and rehearsal rental, then work backward.
My indie team Modern Schemers made a conscious choice to charge $10 because we want our shows to be affordable, especially for people who have never watched improv.
Think about it, people can pay $16 on a weekend to watch a Hollywood movie for three hours. You’re competing with other leisure activities, and improv isn’t as popular a choice.
Eventually, when your team makes it bigger, you can start charging more. But when you’re starting out, be realistic.
This is surprisingly the most requested topic and a tricky one.
The simple answer to getting this right: A good show theme and awesome marketing content.
But it’s really deeper than that. And after rewriting this section, I decided to split this into sub-sections:
- Having the right mindset
- Getting an audience without the work, possible?
- Inviting your warmest audience
- Keeping your audience members
- Executing the actual marketing
Here’s something people don’t talk about (but know in their gut) about marketing a show: You need to be f–king proud of your show to be able to market it.
If you don’t feel confident that your team can pull it off, you won’t feel like promoting. Or when you do, you feel like a fraud.
This applies to your team mates too. Are they pumped about promoting the show or are people hanging back when it comes to sharing the show?
If confidence about the show is low, examine what the block is. And fix it.
Getting an audience without the work, possible?
Based on what I’ve seen, shows that attract an audience without much work on the performers’ part are free shows that are sponsored by established entertainment venues.
As an indie team that’s just getting started, it’s not easy to get that sort of gigs. Eventually you might reach that point, but for now, focus on what you can do–selling your next show.
Inviting your warmest audience
I want to be honest with you: Your first few rounds of shows will likely be full of friends and family. (That is if you’re actually pitching your show to them.)
There is nothing to be ashamed of, though I understand it’s not a good long-term solution because you can burn through your social circle easily.
**The exception to the curse of the Friends and Family
Based on what I’ve seen in Singapore, The Latecomers attract the most non-family-and-friends audience members to their shows.
They have the benefit of staging shows at venues that are already famous for comedy shows. These venues push the shows aggressively in email lists or through social media so it does help with sales.
On top of that, they have slick marketing content, which adds to their professionalism. They also pay to have shows photographed so they can use those for their marketing materials.
But if you’re just starting out, it’s OK to sell mostly to family and friends.
Keeping your audience members
It might seem out of place to talk about retention in the marketing part of the post. But the best marketing you can do is PUT UP A SOLID SHOW!!
Your show needs to be entertaining. People need to want to come back again (without you asking) and to invite others people to watch. You need to be so good, your shows sell themselves.
Word of mouth is really important. And it’s easier to pitch to existing audience members than to find new ones.
Yes, there can be shows that are meh (possible even for veterans), but you need to have a good show more often than not or else the goodwill of your audience slowly chips away.
Executing the actual marketing
OK, now we come to the actual strategy.
Based on my experience, the two most important elements of marketing that sells an improv show are
- A good hook/theme
- A lot of great promotional materials
If you have great designers on your team, get them to design your posters and materials. They need to look legitimate, and share-worthy.
Note: The poster doesn’t have to have your team’s faces inside. It’s a nice feeling to be on a poster but it’s not required.
Having one poster isn’t enough. People will get marketing fatigue if you continuously push that one poster.
Produce other fringe marketing materials: videos, weird posters etc.
Share the promotional materials EVERYWHERE, which is likely just Facebook for the most part.
*Facebook tip* Get your team page to post the main marketing materials, then ask the team to share that post. Facebook will push your original post further if there’s more engagement on it.
For the event page, invite everyone (you want to be at the show) to the FB event. Then personally invite people through Messenger. You are hustling to sell a show and you need to hustle hard.
Even for an audience that has no clue about improv
- If your theme and promotional materials are interesting, people will be curious to check out improv.
- If your theme and materials are not interesting, at least people will come to support you because you are an amazing human being.
This isn’t something that a lot of teams do, but as I work in marketing in my day job (and use it for my other side hustle), I know this is important.
Facebook can close down your account any day they want.
Unless you have email addresses, you won’t be able to contact your precious audience members when your page does go down.
Logistics on the day of the show
You did your best and sold ALL THE TICKETS to your show! Great job. Now here’s what you need to take care of on show day.
There needs to be someone doing front-of-house to check audience members in and to collect money from walk-ins. (It’s best for non-performers to do this because performers should be getting ready for the show.)
Give your front-of-house folks everything they need: Pre-booking list or the check-in app; slips of paper for suggestions etc.
Now, it’s show time…
Further reading :
- Do These 9 Things to Market Your Improv Show
- How To Promote Your Improv Show, Part 1
- Peatix’s Ultimate Toolkit for Event Planning
We’re just getting started with the aboutimprov.com blog. Let us know what about improv you’d like to know more about. Or if you have articles you’d like published here, let us know too.
*Updated on November 13, 2019
Since this was first published in May 2018, ticketing platforms have updated their pricing. And the author has been running more shows on their own.