Promoting Theater in a World without Print
One day, we will tell our grandchildren about newspapers. Made of actual paper and covered with print, they ran off presses, an ancient process whereby news and views reached readers. In these olden days, theater reviewers, most of whom knew little about the art, rushed home from an opening night performance and wrote furiously so by morning–hours after they filed–a review would appear. Publicists had two jobs, encouraging writers to cover shows and convincing them not to print anything before the New York Times could scoop them.
I’m not among those who lament the demise of print. A newspaper byline gives reviewers an appearance of authority most don’t deserve. Now that anybody and her uncle can pontificate about any play that opens, everyone knows better than to trust “critics” automatically. If a blogger wants authority, he has to be specific and convincing, not suggest that you, dear spectator, “turn cartwheels to the box office”* just on his say-so.
Some producers miss the daily papers, where powerful reviewers without clear aesthetics were easy prey for clever promoters. If the appetizers at the opening night party were good, wasn’t the show? If the theater put a quotation from the review in an ad, or blew up the review to post in the lobby, wasn’t that the kind of self-promotion any reviewer would want again? Some theaters found themselves in trouble when reviewers they empowered this way decided they didn’t like that theater’s work, after all. Robert Brustein, a serious critic as well as founding director of the American Repertory Theater, refused to use positive reviews in A.R.T. promotion, sometimes frustrating his marketing staff. (The policy changed shortly before Brustein retired as artistic director.)
Now, all theaters are struggling to find new approaches to promote their plays, and what they’re doing more often than not is connecting directly to potential audiences instead of going through a third party. They are creating and maintaining websites, positing scenes from plays on YouTube and other sites, presenting scenes in public spaces designed to entice potential audiences to the theater for more, creating pages on social networking sites, sending direct emails and e-newsletters, passing out flyers, putting up posters, sponsoring a day on an NPR station, and more.
Recently, I enjoyed the first scene of The Tempest, which was presented without props or costumes at the Ann Arbor District Library. John Neville-Andrews, who directed the production at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, where he is also producing director, talked about how he had created a subtext for a scene that in too many productions seems like pre-show exposition. His engaging talk, punctuated with snippets from scenes and comments from actors, led several in the audience to say they would skip Stratford this season and instead go to Jackson MI for this festival. After spectators played Guess That Play, where an actor says a line and the first spectator to place it wins tickets, Neville-Andrews told me a little about how he was developing an audience in these troubled times.
Well, not mainly billboards. They’re too expensive, and how much can people read as they speed past? Still, a couple of well-placed billboards that simply tell travelers to visit the theater’s website, just as they might point them to a nearby landmark, seem to be helping.
What’s crucial is the site. Neville-Andrews employed a marketing company that taught him to point site visitors to Facebook and Myspace to attract young audiences. So, billboards drive people to the site which sends them to social networks where they can tweet about and friend request the theater. “You leave a path of pebbles,” he says.
“You can’t just create an attractive website and leave things up there,” Neville-Andrews adds. “It has to be constantly changing so people think, ‘I better check often.’” Online, people can buy tickets while they check out new photos, video clips of actors talking about the rehearsal process, and blogs.
The A.R.T. in Cambridge MA goes a step further. They don’t just change their site. Their audiences change it. The A.R.T. holds discussions of issues related to those in plays they present, discussions that take place online as well as in occasional talkbacks, and these discussions are enhanced by seeing the work. “We’re trying to offer a more interactive experience on our website,” says Robert J. Orchard, outgoing executive director of the A.R.T. “When somebody buys a ticket, they get an email asking them specific questions to stimulate a dialogue. We post that on our blog and capture people’s feelings. We post the good, the bad, the ugly. Only the libelous gets edited out.”
Orchard says the A.R.T. never does something they expect everyone to hate, but the theater realizes not everyone will like everything. “Some plays deal with issues that are divisive. It’s good when the work you do is engendering conversation and that conversation is providing complexity and nuance to issues that might be rendered in more simplistic terms.” The interaction attracts people to the site which attracts them to the theater.
Some theaters use social networking tools to allow spectators to talk or tweet about shows and post show photos. The Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh encourages retweeting– enlisting spectators to pass along production news. Facebook discounts help, too. When competing with a hockey game playoff one night, they offered discounts to Facebook friends, and the performance sold out. Twitter also serves for weather reports, since Quantum does most shows outdoors.
Still, managing director René Conrad notes that many subscribers are older people who aren’t comfortable using these utilities. Quantum reaches them by underwriting on public radio and taking advantage of public listings. “Our local arts council gives us space to post,” says Conrad. “We do local email blasts, too.”
Quantum also hosts a Sunday supper after the last performance of a show. “It’s an attempt to build a community around the theater, to make people feel they’re a part of Quantum Theatre, because they are,” says administrative associate Josh Storey. “Without them, we don’t have a purpose.” Conrad says Quantum has always been a “gorilla marketing organization” that depended largely on big signs in front of the theater and word of mouth, and it isn’t struggling much as a result of diminishing print possibilities.
Some theaters find the new online possibilities make things easier. Just about all use online newsletters and email notices. “We used to have a paper newsletter, and it was labor intensive, and cost more, and you couldn’t get it to people quickly,” Neville-Andrews recalls. “Before, people would call the box office and ask for best seats possible, and they might get to the theater and be disappointed. Online, you see the seating configuration and continue along until you get to a point where you can print tickets at home.”
Small theaters that never had print ad budgets and couldn’t usually get reviewers out, like the 200+ storefront stages in Chicago, aren’t suffering from diminishing print possibilities. Karin McKie, an actor turned publicist, represents many of them. She calls her publicity company Tree Falls because her mission is to ensure small theaters don’t open shows in a desert of empty seats. “If a tree falls…” she begins.
McKie says her clients continue to rely on free exposure–most don’t have a budget for TV ads, billboards, and the like. “We’re used to stuffing our own envelopes, putting up our own posters, and pulling costumes from our closets.” McKie, who likes plays that create dialogue about social issues, says collaborating with other organizations is part of the answer. “When you do a benefit for the Alzheimer’s foundation, for instance, you can put it on their website, and you’re reaching the exact right audience. They might buy out the house.” Talkbacks are also common. “If it’s a good play, it presents both sides of an issue, and a talk back helps reach audiences.”
Nevertheless, McKie says she will miss reviewers if they disappear entirely. “The artist creates the art, the public sees it, and the media interprets it for those who haven’t seen it. ‘What did Chris Jones say about this?’ is part of the artistic conversation. To their credit, newspapers really get out there when they can.”
Most theaters continue to rely, at least in part, on reviewers and bloggers. “We have one daily paper here in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer,” says Lisa Craig, Public Relations Manager for the Cleveland Playhouse. “Luckily, our theatre critic, Tony Brown, has an online blog through the paper, and he is very active in updating it, looking for content and posting what theatres send him.”
“So now much of what I do and want to grow is creating digital content– behind the scenes, interviews with actors, artists and directors– that we can use and the local media can link to,” says Craig. “A couple of other active theatre critics in town also have blog sites and their reviews are posted there before they ever appear in print. So developing those relationships is a key. We’ll use their blog posts, and our online content, in email campaigns and social media outlets.”
“The next step is exploring a blog site, where different artists can post stories and our audience can have a more interactive relationship with us,” Craig adds. “Our current website is designed to sell tickets and isn’t ideal for general editorial content and space for pictures, podcasts and videos. Moving forward, I’d like to better tap into collecting feedback from our audiences, capturing their feelings after seeing a certain performance, helping us to build word-of-mouth. My communication with the press and media becomes more and more digital as years go on. I can target specific national critics or regional freelancers much better now. “
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* What reviewer in what newspaper advised audiences to “turn cartwheels to the box office” after seeing what production of what show? Clue: The Michigan Shakespeare Festival is doing another production of this show this season.
Answers, responses, complaints can all go in the comment box below.
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