Milwaukee theaters find new ways to fill seats

Anne Siegel, Contributing writer

Milwaukee is blessed with a wide array of theater venues and companies to suit almost everyone’s taste. But whether a theater company focuses on splashy, big-budget musicals or intimate dramas, every troupe has the same bottom-line interest: to stay in the black.

In order to achieve this goal, theater companies – like all performing arts groups – are getting more creative in designing ticket deals and special programs to attract new and/or young audiences. Their marketing efforts often require as much creative thinking as do their productions.

Below are a few of the new (or almost new) programs created by local theater companies to attract new ticket buyers. These innovative ideas ultimately serve everyone in the community by expanding the theatrical experience and turning shows into high-concept events.

Skylight Music Theatre

Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee’s Third Ward is introducing a series of special evenings geared to LGBT audiences. “Be Out at Skylight” will take place three nights during the 2013–14 season, offering ticket-holders a pre-show reception during which they can mingle and network. The evenings will begin at 6 p.m. with complimentary appetizers and a cash bar in the upstairs salon. The shows follow at 7:30 p.m.

The three nights are scheduled during the run of popular musicals with proven queer appeal. The series begins Dec. 12 with “Les Misérables” and continues into 2014 with “In the Heights” and “Hair.” 

Skylight marketing director Jennifer Samuelson came up with the idea for “Be Out at Skylight” after reading in a trade publication about a similar series in another market. When she introduced the idea to Skylight’s board of directors, “It received an instant, positive reaction,” she says.

Partner organizations helping to sponsor the events include Wisconsin Gazette and Planned Parenthood. Samuelson says the concept seems to have caught on so quickly that the group’s marketing and audience development team has found itself asking, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” 

If successful, Skylight might further expand its targeted outreach to the LGBT community. “We realize that this group already represents an important segment of our audience,” says Emily Vitrano, Skylight’s audience development manager. “This season, our goal is to try to make an evening of theater more of an event.”

Tickets for “Be Out at Skylight” start at $22.50 and can be reserved by calling the Skylight Box office at 414-291-7800.

Another new Skylight initiative is called “Opera 101.” Teasingly advertised “for opera virgins,” the initiative is geared for opera newbies of all ages. It balances education with live performance and audience interaction.

The headquarters for “Opera 101” is the East Side bar The Hotel Foster, 2028 E. North Ave. New artistic director Viswa Subbaraman will lead the light-hearted program. He launched a similar program in Houston that proved to be a big hit.

The program’s approach is “extremely fun,” Samuelson says. The events are to be casual, held at the bar. The educational aspect involves teaching guests how to create an opera of their own choosing.

For more on the dates and times of “Opera 101,” contact the Skylight at 414-291-7811 or go to

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater is putting the finishing touches on an event for LGBT audiences to be held in conjunction with the production of “End of the Rainbow,” a salute to the late, great diva Judy Garland. She was so idolized in the LGBT community that Garland’s tragic death in 1969 is widely credited with helping to spark the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, which marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

“Rainbow” opens on the Rep’s Powerhouse stage Jan. 7, 2014. Keep an eye on the Rep’s website – and on Wisconsin Gazette – for emerging details about the event to be held for “End of the Rainbow.”

In its efforts to attract younger audiences, the Rep already has achieved success with a special subscription package for playgoers 35 and under.

The Rep’s programming doesn’t overlook families, either. In addition to presenting an annual yuletide production of “A Christmas Carol,” artistic director Mark Clements wants to ensure there’s at least one “family-friendly” show on each season’s schedule, says marketing director Lisa Fulton.

For the 2013–14 season, the hit musical “Ragtime” offers family entertainment at the Rep. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” is a historical epic about early 20th century immigrants coming to America seeking better lives.

Fulton says parents are encouraged to bring children ages 8 and older to see the show, which runs through Oct. 27. The cast features a few child actors, and it has some snazzy special effects. (In one sequence, a Model T is driven onstage.)

Next Act Theatre

Next Act Theatre is starting a new series called “Premier Professionals.” Hosted by Next Act board president Mike Burzynski, the series includes pre-show receptions with complimentary appetizers and drinks, as well as an appearance by a cast member.

Marketing and public relations director Becky Moder says the term “professional” casts a wide net. “We want to attract professionals from all walks of life – from accountants to interior designers, bankers to nonprofit staff members, educators to physicians,” she explains. 

Joining “Premier Professionals” requires an annual membership fee of $120, which includes a ticket to each of the season’s four shows and the opportunity to purchase two “guest passes” for $20 each. Certain restrictions apply. For more information, contact Next Act at 414-278-7780.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Two years ago, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre began an event called “Tweet Seat Night.” The promotion includes free tickets for 12 to 20 tweeters. Unlike the rest of the crowd, which is instructed to silence cell phones prior to each performance, tweeters do exactly the opposite: They tweet on their cell phones during the entire show.

To avoid bothering regular patrons, the “tweeters” are restricted to the second balcony of the Cabot Theater. Only shows performed in the Cabot are eligible for tweeters, and each production features only one “Tweet Seat Night.”

“We wanted to make sure (the tweeters) weren’t distracting the audience or the actors,” says chamber marketing director Cara McMullin. 

What do audiences tweet about? Cara knows, because she is backstage with a laptop or smart phone and monitoring the action.

“People will comment on a funny line of dialogue, or maybe what a character is doing onstage,” she says.

In addition to listening, McMullin also is busy “re-tweeting” many audience remarks on the company’s website. “Many of (the cast members) do read the tweets when I print them out and post them on the call board after the show,” she says. “In this way, we are incorporating social media into our marketing mix.”

If you’re looking to participate in one of Milwaukee’s growing number of novel theatrical promotions this season, check out the websites of your favorite theater companies. You might be surprised to find there’s something tailored for your niche or interests.