ED2011 INTERVIEW: At last year’s Edinburgh Festival those fashionable apps were everywhere you looked, as smartphone ownership became the norm. But the one that stood out for us was the Theatre Ninjas free tickets service.
In fact we liked it so much we gave the team behind it a ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award at the end of the festival month. The Theatre Ninjas are back again bigger and better for 2011, so we interrogated team members Rajiv Nathwani and Caitlin Albery Beavan to find out more.
TW: For the uninitiated, what is the Theatre Ninjas service?
RN: Theatre Ninjas provides free tickets to shows that have not reached their maximum capacity. It allows audience members on a budget to see a greater variety of work and, most importantly, to take a risk, and see a show they would not have otherwise picked out of the programme: because they have little knowledge of the company, or lack awareness of the venue, or because it’s a genre that they haven’t previously explored. The benefit for the performers and their venue is a larger audience, which will in turn generate publicity through word of mouth. Lots of Fringe companies ‘paper’ their shows early on in the festival to build audience and word of mouth, but that involves handing out tickets randomly to people near your venue. With Theatre Ninjas you are reaching people keen to see shows all over Edinburgh. Plus shows also get exposure on our site and app.
TW: Where did the idea come from?
CAB: The original idea was formulated by a group of friends in a pub who had just seen a theatre show for free via the Arts Council’s free tickets programme for young people, A Night Less Ordinary. We created a secret Facebook group to make each other aware of other free tickets available via this programme, and to share them out between us. From that the idea took off, why not create an app that offered a similar service to everyone? We then noticed that IdeasTap had relaunched their Innovators Fund, which could give us a little funding – so we decided to bring our idea to the largest arts festival in the world and see if the public liked it as much as we did!
TW: Why would performers want to give away tickets?
CAB: As Rajiv said, comps have always been circulated at the Edinburgh Fringe because it helps to raise awareness of your show and bring in an audience. Theatre Ninjas is just an innovative way of ‘papering’, which can ultimately help bring in box office sales. First, because once the free tickets have gone, more people might come having heard about your show on our app, and then buy tickets. And second because, if you’ve got a good show, the people who saw it for free will then spread the word to paying ticket buyers.
RN: Edinburgh was the perfect launch pad for this service. We had all experienced the Fringe ourselves, as performers or directors, and knew the heartbreak of creating a great piece of work and to then have the curtains open to six people. Ultimately, we want people to have the work they have lovingly laboured over to be seen by as many people as possible. Feedback showed that the groups that used Theatre Ninjas to fill up early performances both enjoyed good early date audiences, and also found those free ticket holders spoke about their production helping to cultivate future audiences.
TW: How did you go about setting up the technical side?
CAB: We knew we had only £1000 from the IdeasTap Innovators Fund, which isn’t a lot of money to build an app and a website! So the first challenge was to find a developer who believed in our aims of supporting fringe theatre. We were very lucky to find the London based developers Red-C, who worked incredibly hard to bring us the best app possible on our very limited budget. We worked with them very closely on what we wanted the theatre ninjas users’ journey to be, and were extremely fortunate that they could read our messy scribbles, understand our misuse of technical phrases and deliver us an app and website that looked like, and worked better than, we had expected it to! We should add that is was the multi-talented comedian Joe Lycett who created our logo, which finished off the app and website perfectly
TW: Why ninjas?
RN: There was beer involved. It created an identity: you bag your free ticket with stealth. You have to keep the secret codeword close to your chest, keep it discreet and not let on to others in the box office queue that you’re about to get a free ticket! That’s ninja-like, right?
TW: How was the service received last year?
CAB: It was unbelievable. We hadn’t expected the amount of attention it would receive. During the festival we had over 3,500 downloads, 240 companies register with us, and together they advertised 10,000 tickets with box office reports suggesting an 80% take up. We hope that this year we can boost these figures!
RN: We won a ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award and were included in the Sunday Times’ ‘Best 500 Apps’, as well as being nominated for Culture Sparks’ ‘Idea Of The Year’.
TW: Obviously, part of the concept is to create word of mouth marketing for participating shows; did you get any feedback about that working?
RN: The feedback from producers and venue box offices alike was fantastic. Smaller venues were now being visited by audience members who didn’t previously know they existed, and even though our ‘theatre ninjas’ were coming in on a free ticket, they’d buy a drink and perhaps some food at the bar and then book tickets for other shows at that venue which they previously had no idea were on.
CAB: Producers were finding box office sales increased as soon as word spread about their show, and this was our thinking behind including the Twitter feed with #theatreninjas on the app – we wanted ninjas to recommend to people that they should buy tickets for the show they had just seen for free and thought was brilliant. These elements are all improved for this year too, which will make sharing feedback and tips even easier.
TW: Ah yes, this year. You’re describing the 2011 app as being “new and improved” – what’s different?
RN: There’s a better interface, a filter to look at just comedy, music and theatre shows, improved functionality and a clearer website designed in HTML5 with better support for Blackberry and Android users. The new app and website have more personality, wit and charm and will (hopefully!) contribute a great deal to the excitement in the journey of getting hold of a free ninja ticket. We wanted to keep it simple to ensure the app and website can be used quickly and accurately by users on the move.
TW: Ed Vaizey seemed impressed by it all, how did that come about?
CAB: We wrote to him after our success in Edinburgh last year. We explained where the idea had emerged from and made him aware of what we had done at the Fringe, and his words on us entering his office were “I’ve been really excited about meeting the Theatre Ninjas”.
RN: You might remember that back in January, Ed Vaizey made a speech at the National Theatre where he was discussing cultural innovation and the opportunities that digital technologies provide the arts with, and he felt Ninjas was a good example. He was really interested in hearing about how Theatre Ninjas was set up and how it worked as part of his research for this speech. We were thrilled at the fact that he felt Theatre Ninjas was a great example of the use of digital technology in the arts.
TW: Some of you took a year off performing at the Fringe to launch Theatre Ninjas last year – will you be doing that again, or are you eager to get back on stage?
RN: You’re right that some of the Ninjas took a year off performing at the Fringe to focus on the project, but we’re all still performing, producing and directing theatre and television the rest of the time. We all enjoy these things too much to give them up. I believe that the reason why Theatre Ninjas is a strong concept is that it comes from a shared experience of taking work to the Fringe and facing the same struggles that we were trying to help companies overcome last year.
CAB: In order for the Ninja product and brand to keep evolving successfully, we need to make sure that we continue to perform, produce and direct work in order to continue understanding the evolving landscape so that we too experience what producers, performers and directors need from such a service. It also helps us to subsidise our involvement with it!
TW: Do you have any ambitions for Theatre Ninjas beyond Edinburgh?
RN: Well, we’ve actually ‘de-Edinburgh-fied’ the app this year. With it being GPS enabled, the app will now work to pick up shows around you, wherever you are in the country.
CAB: Post-Edinburgh we will rev up a gear to make sure we can provide free tickets in London and nationally, and perhaps include other types of events such as sport. There’s no reason that this couldn’t and shouldn’t be used outside of the Edinburgh Fringe, and this August will be a springboard for that.