By Frank Loiacono
More than 4,000 freshmen and transfer students received First-On-Us ticket vouchers during the past summer and winter orientations in an effort by the Staller Center to expose students to the Staller experience and to lessen the proportion of gray hair in the audience. But as of April 5, only 141 vouchers had been used.
Campus officials attribute the lack of success of First-On-Us, a promotional and educational tool in its inaugural year at Stony Brook University, to how it was marketed during the orientations. While the First-On-Us voucher came bundled with the Staller schedule in its own bag, “students still have too much to absorb in orientation,” said Director of Student Orientation Heather Robertson. “It’s an information overload.”
Freshman Eric Luu is a prime example of getting overwhelmed at orientation. When asked about First-On-Us, Luu was clueless. However, when shown a voucher, he remembered he still had his. “Oh, yeah!” he said, adding, “I didn’t throw it out.” Luu admitted he did not use his voucher because he thought it would cost him money.
The 141 vouchers that have been used were worth a combined $2,207. “We are losing money, but we are investing money,” said Staller Center Director Alan Inkles. A Stony Brook alum, Inkles knows that, while he may currently be able to fill up his theater with an older audience, if he does not plant the seeds now, there will be no older audience ten to twenty years from now.
The marketing of First-On-Us consisted of a five-minute presentation during the “This Community Belongs to All of Us” segment on the third day of summer orientation – by which time most students realize how “mandatory” the orientation events really are. “It’s heartbreaking to me…upsetting,” Robertson said. “We’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
As the numbers show, drawing students to the Staller Center with free tickets is not as easy as it would seem. “The thing is, you still have to go, even if it’s free,” said Staller Center Financial Director Barbara Wien, in whose name the Barbara N. Wien Endowment for Arts and Education was founded. The endowment, started in 2007 with $10,000 on Wien’s twenty-fifth anniversary of working at Staller, supports the First-On-Us program through the interest it collects. The endowment, currently at $79,000, earned $2,700 in interest last year, which was allocated to the debut season of First-On-Us.
While the Staller staff expected a slow start, they were disappointed at how slow it actually was. “I’m not going to have students knocking down the doors,” Inkles said, “but First-On-Us does get rid of the money roadblock.” From $5 movies to $15 operas to $37 main attractions, First-On-Us vouchers can be used at any show.
Inkles and Robertson want to come out of the gate stronger next year. They plan on sending out reminder emails to students who have not used their vouchers and including First-On-Us in the freshman seminar textbook along with established Stony Brook traditions such as the Roth Pond Regatta. “We need to just get them in and expose them,” said Inkles.
Located behind the Melville Library in the northeast corner of campus, the Staller Center is disconnected from many students. Inkles is proud of, and passionate about, scheduling a diversity of programs to bring in new faces. Performances this year ranged from Dutch hip-hop and extreme sport group 4-ISH to the 2008 Gala with Bernadette Peters to Stony Brook’s Emerson String Quartet. However, the Staller Center’s reputation for diverse programs has not reached everyone on campus.
Freshman Jessica Marmol, who did not receive a First-On-Us bag or Staller schedule, was asked if she would use a voucher if she had one. “To be honest, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I don’t think anything would interest me.” But, when told about the variety of programs and that the first would be free, she relented.
Finding out how to attract students to the arts is a learning process, Inkles acknowledged. “We’ve got to meet students somewhere in the middle,” he said.
“Maybe one shot won’t do it,” Wien agreed, “but they know it exists now.”
Sitting in two unmarked crates in the corner of the Student Orientation Office are hundreds of undistributed First-On-Us bags with vouchers and information packets – hundreds of missed opportunities and experiences. Next year will be the encore performance of the First-On-Us program. If the marketing goes well, it will be up to the students to give it a standing ovation.