Stratford festival invests in social media

The lights in the Avon Theatre dim and the noise from more than a thousand students becomes silence. A man enters the stage and makes himself comfortable in the wingback chair meagerly lit by a single spot light.

Actor Tom McCamus plays the swing role of author J.M. Barrie and the evil Captain Hook in Peter Pan during his tenth season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The tale he and an exemplary cast weave exhibits the magic Stratford performances are famous for, drawing audiences in and making their imaginations dance.

The Stratford Festival’s publicity director Ann Swerdfager is thrilled by all the plays in this year’s lineup and spoke excitedly about Peter Pan.

“The flying is magical,” she said. “People are having a hugely wonderful time at it.”

During preview showings, audience reaction was strong. Josh Ashley, a teacher at Huron Heights Secondary School in Kitchener, attended a performance with his six-year-old cousin and both enjoyed it immensely.

“He couldn’t decide if it was just make believe or whether he wanted to participate. His mom and I had to stop him from yelling at the pirates to let the lost boys go,” Ashley said. “It was amazing how they pulled it off.”

In a single performance attendees witness flying, sword fights, mermaids, Amazons and pirates. However, this is only a starting point as Pan is just one of 12 plays on the bill this year, each with its own sense of the fantastical.

The Tempest features renowned actor Christopher Plummer as Prospero. With a stage that is starkly set, cast and crew use incredible dramatization and a variety of lighting techniques to transport the audience from the depths of the ocean to a lost Caribbean island and finally to Venice.

If being marooned doesn’t seem like the way to spend an afternoon, As You Like It gloriously transforms the Festival Theatre into the beautiful forest of Arden, complete with a river and gorgeous appliqué of butterflies covering the stage. Both plays stir up the fanciful, providing the sweet relief that only truly good escapist entertainment is capable of.

The festival prides itself on offering a program appealing to all audiences, but youth are especially welcome, exemplified through the educational programs offered in partnership with the theatre to the some 90,000 students that attend the festival annually.

“Almost every day is youth-oriented,” said Swerdfager.

In addition to educational activities offered to elementary and high school students the Play On program, launched in 2005, offers discounted tickets to youth 29 years of age and under. Tickets for selected programs are released two weeks before show dates and can save youth up to 80 per cent per seat.

According to Carly Douglas, manager of promotions for the festival, the program now has over 25,000 registered members – each attracted to the idea of seeing live theatre for not much more than the cost of a night at the movies.

There was a need to attract students with such a program as regular priced tickets can cost as much as $100.

“That’s a lot to ask of someone who’s in school,” said Douglas.

Stratford is doing more than just reducing seat prices to reach a younger audience. The festival has established both a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. The Facebook group boasts more than 16,000 members – most of whom Douglas said are in the Play On demographic.

Douglas believes one of the benefits of tapping into social media is the instantaneous response from audience members. “They’re tweeting at intermission,” she said.

The festival is so invested in social media that it transformed its advertising budget for the Play On program this year, allotting 40 per cent to advertise on sites like Facebook and Twitter and much of the rest of its budget to online advertising in places like Google Ad Works.

“Definitely over the last year we’ve taken a more focused approach,” said Douglas.

The festival maintains that attracting younger audience members is not just about getting their admission dollars. Douglas believes theatre is a transformative experience worth sharing with younger audiences.

“Each experience is unique. That’s the beauty of live theatre,” she said. “It’s an evolving process.”

For the festival, part of that evolution is using social media not only to inform audiences and promote the plays, but to maintain open communication about what audiences want to get out of their experience. Recently the festival began using Facebook to ask audiences things like what they would like to see in the 2011 season and what charities the festival should support.

“This is the next generation of theatre goers and we want to make sure their voices are heard,” said Douglas.

Other plays showing this season include Dangerous Liaisons, Do Not Go Gentle, Evita, For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, King of Thieves, Kiss Me Kate, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Winter’s Tale.

For more information about The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and its programs please see, Stratford Shakespeare Festival on Facebook or follow them @stratfest on Twitter.