The separation of politics, religion & entertainment

When is an event at your historic venue a time bomb? Just like in polite conversation, when you bring in religion or politics, you’re asking for trouble. Obviously we all want as many paying, quality events in our venue as possible, but it is crucial to remember that when you cater to any one group exclusively, you are potentially alienating others. The real trick is to manage your rentals so as to not create the impression of being to closely associated with any one side, religion or issue.

Political rallies and small fundraisers can be great, as they expose a group of people to your venue, create a positive experience and memory, and can create return customers. However, it is best to closely monitor the diversity and frequency of your “political” events. It’s always best to balance them if at all possible, (like print and broadcast media do during an election cycle) and to avoid any differential treatment to any one side. It is essential that you provide the same service, billing and exposure to both sides of the fence. Be careful to avoid undo exposure on your marquee, website or print ads, and avoid special “thank you’s” on printed materials if at all possible.

Recognition of any religious holiday is a potential minefield. While it is possible to try to make everyone happy, it is inadvisable. It is best to avoid any stereotypical representation of religious holidays both in marketing materials (ads, posters, website, holiday cards) and in building displays.

To many Americans in the 1930’s, movie palaces were considered the “church” of the American middle class. Theatres also played an important role in many political campaigns (not to mention Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln assassination) and important war bond sales efforts in the 1940’s. While the public’s use of and appreciation of historic theatres has changed over the years, the best thing we can do as stewards of these properties is to make sure we don’t alienate any of our audience members regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

Best Practices – A Few Words

Despite differences in location, audiences, experience of staff/Board of Directors, condition of the physical facility and other tangible differences between historic theatres, there are some important elements of operation, best practices in the industry, that can be defined, areas include;

• Patron experience

• Stage safety

• Business practices

In the area of patron experience, it remains crucial to deliver a quality EXPERIENCE to the patron every time they visit. Despite what we may all feel is the overwhelming positive of visiting our venue, more than ever it is easier, sometimes cheaper and more interesting to go somewhere else. How can we continue to enjoy the audiences we have worked so hard to bring back to our venues, to our downtowns? By maintaining a unique, positive experience from the ticket purchase (on-line, phone or in person) to the arrival at our venue with swept sidewalks, a smiling face at the door, clean floors, well-stocked restrooms, good concession options, quality performances/screenings, comfortable atmosphere (HVAC), assistance if needed and a “thank you” at the door when the patron leaves. It’s amazing how much of a difference customer services means and your patrons will appreciate it when they experience it.

It seems odd to even have to talk about stage safety given the complex and dangerous equipment many of us have on site, but often new staff members or board members are not aware of standard protocol related to safety in the most dangerous area of our property. Whether you are a “hemp house” or a modern facility with motorized, computer controlled rigging systems, there are thousands of pounds of equipment suspended above your head every time you are on the stage. Facility stage staff should define and implement safety protocol that MUST be followed by all staff. In short, don’t go on stage unless you have to, or have been told to. Equally, don’t operate equipment you have not been trained on as it is expensive, costly to replace and essential to the operation of the facility.

Historic Theatres practice their own unique business practices, not many other businesses invite people into a big room, serve them food & drink and turn off the lights hoping for the best. Along with patron experiences it’s important to maintain the highest level of business practices in relation to advertising, marketing practices, legal filings, hiring and firing of staff and outside sales and rentals of the facility. It is advisable to have specific guidelines for any institution so that a “brain-drain” will not occur with the loss of any staff, and many of these areas are common sense. Make an effort to establish a reputation in your community as a model business.

By following these simple best practices, your theatre has a better chance of surviving and thriving in the long run.

The HTC team provided a level of practical solutions and historical perspective that would be valuable to any community or organization struggling to preserve historic gathering places that are so valuable to the future of culture in this country.

Rob Jordan
Executive Director, Criterion Theatre, Bar Harbor, Maine