In response to my post below, "On Purple Cows and Sneezing," Don Hall has posted "Controlling the Controllable," which takes my comments and extends them to practical suggestions. I think his #2 and #3 suggestions, in particular, are good: 2) Face to face marketing is more effective. Get out of the little black room and go where people go to have fun (if your show is fun) or to think (if your show is thoughtful) and market to one person at a time. 3) Start with your own personal "sneezers." Who do you listen to when they recommend a movie or a new CD? Chances are others listen to them for the same thing. Get them in your theater and make sure they have a phenomenal experience.
I'd like to make a radical suggestion for inducing sneezing. First, follow Don's #2 suggestion: hang out at a place where the kind of people you'd like to have in your audience hang out. Talk to people, talk about your project and find a few people who seem intrigued. Then follow Seth Godin's (author of Purple Cow) approach to selling his book. The first run of his book was sold for $5 a copy -- but there was a catch: you had to buy 12 copies. What he was counting on was that 1) sneezers, who are often first adopters who like new ideas, would want to be among the few who got a copy of the book, AND 2) by buying 12 they would be encouraged to distribute them to people they thought might also like the ideas. Thus, the ideavirus spread. After the first run was sold out, the rest of the books were released for public consumption at the usual price. The innovators and early adopters were already talking up the book, and with that network already working for him, the early and late majority wanted to get on board. Result: the book shot up the best seller list.
So, you've found your sneezers: offer them a full price ticket -- say, it is $20. And THEN offer them a $5 if they buy five more tickets at $5 each as well. The sneezer does the math: if I wanted to see your show and bring a date, it would cost me $40 -- but if I take them up on this offer, I can bring my date and four other people for $30. What will he do? But what is to stop him from buying the six tickets for $30 and then simply throwing the unused four away? Figure out some way that all six have to come to the box office to pick up the tickets. In addition, like Godin, limit the offer: the offer is only good for the first weekend. Result: your sneezer, who you identified as someone who would like the kind of stuff you want to do, will most likely bring along five other people that he also thinks will like this kind of stuff -- so already you have six people who might come back to a later production. In addition, you have a house of sneezers who will be spreading the word about your show all during the next week to friends of their's who may also be intrigued enough to show up. The audience grows, and fills with the kind of people who will like your stuff.
But what about the cost? Well, how much does it cost you to buy ads, do mailings, and put up posters? Take some or all of that money, divide it by the cost of the cut-price tickets, and determine how many sneezers you can afford. You're in control of the process, just like Godin was in charge of how many copies of his book were sold for $5 each.
I think this is worth a try, particularly for a newish theatre that hasn't yet established an audience base.