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Starting 2021-22 Strong: Four Takeaways from my Conversation with Delaware Theatre Company

As performing arts organizations are resuming in-person performances this fall, there are a lot of questions about how quickly patrons will return. I’ve spoken to over a dozen managers in the past few weeks, and the early results are a mixed bag. Some are seeing tremendous sales while others are struggling.

Delaware Theatre Company (DTC), is seeing tremendous sales with its season opener Tommy and Me. We looked at single ticket units sold as of opening week to see how this show compared to other shows. We even went as far back as the 2011-12 Season. What we discovered is that Tommy and Me is in the Top 5 best-selling shows!

1. Diner (2015-16 Season, 5-week run): 3,549

2. Ella (2017-18 Season, 4-week run): 2,449

3. A Christmas Carol (2016-17 Season, 4-week run): 2,114

4. Because of Winn-Dixie (2014-15 Season, 5-week run): 1,692

5. Tommy & Me (2021-22 Season, 2-week run): 1,635

Even more impressive is that Tommy and Me is only running half the number of weeks as the other top shows. I spoke with DTC’s Managing Director, Matt Silva, about what set Tommy and Me up for success. Here are my takeaways from our conversation:

The right programming

Tommy & Me is a show about Philadelphia Eagles’ Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald, the famously tough wide receiver who helped take the Eagles to the 1960 NFL Championship game. Beloved Philly sports commentator Ray Didinger’s autobiographical show recounts a seminal time in Ray’s life when he helped his lifelong hero get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

DTC is located in Wilmington, DE. If you’re not familiar with where Wilmington is on the map, it’s thirty miles southwest of Philadelphia. Silva shared, “The popularity of Ray Didinger coupled with it being football season makes this show relevant to our community at the moment. There's a lot of attention around all things Eagles right now.”

Effective marketing

In advertising, there is paid media and earned media. Paid media is exactly what it sounds like – advertising you pay for. Earned media, however, is essentially word-of-mouth. Most importantly, earned media is public exposure that you don’t pay for. DTC has invested some in paid media, primarily with social media. They have also been purposeful in direct marketing to their past patrons.

While paid media has been effective, earned media has played a key role in the overall marketing plan. Ray Didinger (who wrote Tommy & Me) co-hosts a popular radio show every Saturday in Philadelphia. Silva explained that “Ray [Didinger] has a talk show on

94.1 every Saturday, and he plugs Tommy & Me. He also plugs the show on his four weekly segments on other live radio shows throughout each week.

Implemented a safety plan

Relevant programming and solid marketing are not enough on their own to drive ticket sales. No matter how much someone wants to see a show, recent surveys have shown ticket sales will remain sluggish as long as patrons don’t feel safe attending the performance.

DTC was early to announce they would require all patrons to either be vaccinated or have a negative COVID test within 48 hours to attend a performance. Also, all patrons are required to wear masks anywhere inside the building. Accommodations are made for any patron who wants to be socially distanced, and rapid tests are available at the door (charged to the patron at cost) for anyone who needs one.

Silva noted, “We communicated our health and safety plans early and often. The response from patrons has been overwhelmingly positive. Even without regular social distancing inside the theatre, patrons feel safe attending the show.”

Continued in-person performances during the pandemic

DTC was quick to find a way to continue serving their community with in-person performances. In just 10 weeks, they planned and launched an outdoor series using the front steps of their theater as the stage. Appropriately named “Front & Center,” the outdoor series presented eleven shows in the Summer of 2020. The series was an immediate success, and DTC expanded Front & Center in the Summer of 2021.

Silva shared, “We never really shut down or pivoted to virtual/online presentation. Two summers ago, we provided live outdoor entertainment. This past summer, we had 14 weeks of outdoor theatre. We spent money promoting the shows. People came to the shows and were seeing us in the news for having in-person performances.”

DTC didn’t limit themselves to their programming. In September 2021, they presented six performances featuring comedian Hasan Minhaj. They had the Clifford Brown Big Band Jazz Band in the theatre. They also presented a performance of High Intensity Productions’ dance piece, Bridge of our Roots. Silva observed, “This all brought NEW audiences to DTC in addition to our normal audience. People knew we were open for business and operating safely.”


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