In Repeat Attenders (2020), a legion of loyalists to musical theatre take their turn in the spotlight. The documentary introduces us to repeat attenders of theatre shows through a sensationalist lens. It opens with Sally Frith in Paddington Station, on her way to see Les Miserables for the 977th time. (Yes, you read that right). From there we meet a series of superfans, some of whose dedication makes even Frith’s pale in comparison. One fan, investment banker Joel Torrance, even has her beat on attendance numbers – he’s seen Rent 1,169 times.
Many of these superfans turn to musical theatre as a form of escapism. Gudrun Mangel suffered emotional abuse from her parents in her childhood, but finds comfort in watching Starlight Express. Christine Bogle loves dressing up as characters from Cats, but after explaining her love for the musical, says: “The worst part is feeling like me again”. Others leave you disturbed: Michael Falkner was jailed for stalking Beauty and the Beast star Debbie Gibson. At the end of the documentary, we’re left wondering if the repeat attenders are dealing with their issues in a healthy way. Even at a relatively moderate level of repeat attendance, there is the financial cost of theatre tickets and memorabilia; at its most extreme, the admiration can turn into obsession.
But short of that dangerous extreme, is the devotion of repeat attenders really so bad? I don’t think so. To me, the love and appreciation which drives the superfan’s repeat attendance is something which is very relatable. More than that, it empowers both the theatre industry at large and the repeat attenders themselves.
The intensity of the superfans’ devotion is not as strange as you might first think. Some might find watching the same show over and over again repetitive and uninteresting. But the avid superfans aren’t looking for something new or different each time they see a show. It is the sense of familiarity that keeps drawing them back for more. Just as comfort food or re-runs of The Office never seem to get old, repeated viewings of the shows don’t lose their magic for the devoted superfans. There is something about the stories being told that resonate with repeat attenders. The fact that they can laugh at jokes and revel in performances they have seen and heard so many times before is a testament to how captivating these shows are and the strength of the repeat attender’s empathy in connecting to the characters on stage.
This relationship between repeat attenders and the shows they love is not just one-sided. It’s symbiotic. Repeat Attenders shows us how the fans rely on the shows for joy and catharsis. At the same time, commercial theatres rely to a significant degree on the business generated by repeat visitors, a demographic that includes those who see the same show twice or thrice to those who have seen it hundreds of times. Styhre’s empirical study in Perception and Organisation: Art, Music and Media suggests that Broadway musicals like Miss Saigon and Cats relied on the predictable demographic of repeat visitors to sell tickets, especially in off-peak seasons. For the underdog shows in smaller, independent theatres, the superfans’ support means even more. It could make a real difference to the theatre’s bottom line.
Then, there is also the close relationship which repeat attenders have with each other. In Repeat Attenders, we see superfans discuss the shows they love, dress up in character, and perform in tribute acts together. They bond over their shared love of theatre. More than anything else, being a repeat attender is about connecting with other – both the actors on stage and their fellow fans. Although repeat attenders will have to miss out on their shows as theatres stay closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, they still have the camaraderie they’ve found in the superfan community. The heart of the superfan’s repeat attendance is in indulging themselves in what makes them happy and share their appreciation with each other. There are surely worse ways to live.