Has this conversation ever happened at your organization?

Board member/staff leader/other: I really want to do [name of relatively unknown but incredible play or musical].

Other person: What? That’ll never sell.

The conversation tends to be somewhat more involved, but the idea is clear. There is a desire to take an artistic risk but it gets shot down because “It won’t sell.”

I’ve run into this issue (and even said those words myself) in eleven years running a small, professional musical theatre company in Madison, Wisconsin, called Music Theatre of Madison. From day one I insisted on paying all artists, which was not the norm in our community at the time I founded the company. In addition, I wanted to do pieces that were thought-provoking and that audiences in our area likely hadn’t had the opportunity to see.
 

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Music Theatre of Madison. Photo by Jason Atkins. 

This combination of desires, coupled with our particular market and Wisconsin’s extreme arts funding challenges, has led to a sort of financial roulette. We’ve done eighteen city premieres, twelve of which were state premieres and two of which (Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35MM and Polly Pen and Victor Lodato’s Arlington) were Midwest premieres. Some shows sold very well. Others had disappointing houses and left us scrambling to cover our costs.

Two years ago, as I set out to write my thesis for my MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, I decided I wanted to investigate the marketing of lesser-known pieces, with the goal of creating a template that encourages theatres to take artistic risks. Many companies focus on risky work but fight for financial solvency. Others feel they simply won’t be able to get their current audience on board and opt for popular shows that, by title alone, put “butts in seats.” I envision a world where it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

The key element of my research was a survey I conducted of 150 theatregoers from coast to coast, asking about attendance habits, successful marketing tactics, and barriers when it came to lesser-known pieces. The results were surprising and enlightening, leading me to dozens of pages worth of ideas and conclusions.

Taking a Risk on Producing Lesser-Known Work
For the record, I’m certainly not advocating for doing away with well-known pieces altogether. They serve their important purpose and have been successful, or deemed classics, for a reason. Getting people to the theatre is crucial now more than ever, and these important works have enriched countless lives. Many classics can also be reimagined and conceptualized to highlight their current social relevance. Imaginative theatre artists all over the world are reviving well-known pieces in ways they’ve never been presented before, and that too is a wonderful initiative.

What I’ve found can be helpful for all theatre marketers. However, this research is primarily aimed at those companies who struggle to bring audiences to new and lesser-known pieces, those who have been burned before and feel obligated to stick to the tried-and-true. It’s designed to give marketers a clearer template for success; a template which can be tailored to an individual theatre company’s budget, staff capabilities, and audience.

The concept of the “lesser-known” piece will of course vary, largely by geography, as well as by the tastes and habits of each theatre company’s audience. A lesser-known piece here in Madison might be one that has had a very successful run off-Broadway in New York. Therefore, for the purposes of this research, lesser-known is relative to your theatre’s location. What your audience has had the opportunity to see will determine what they think of as lesser-known.

There are many more elements to this topic, which opens a Pandora’s box of issues related to marketing for theatres in general. I’m continuing to research, and live, the challenges of this task. However, in my initial investigation, I found what I believe is the overarching tactic for success in selling lesser-known pieces: In our marketing initiatives, we must paint a detailed picture of the experience with information that appeals to both the practical and adventurous sides of our audience members.

Marketing, the cornerstone of selling any product, gives buyers an idea of what they’re getting for their money. In the case of theatres, one component of that question—what the piece is about—is answered when audiences are presented with the opportunity to see a known play. Companies still must assure that the patron experience will be pleasant and that the show will be produced well. But one piece of the puzzle is in place. When theatres elect to produce something with a recognizable title, they are eliminating an admittedly very difficult component of marketing: Audiences already know what the play is, and an important part of the marketing process—articulating the most interesting elements of the show—has already been done by previous producers, scholars, reviewers, and artists. Furthermore, they may already have seen or participated in a production of the show, and have a sense of what their experience with it will be.

With an unknown piece, however, that familiarity component all but vanishes. Theatres presenting unknown pieces then have to make up the difference.

Balancing the Familiar with the Surprising
I recently read an article in The Atlantic that perfectly articulated the challenge of marketing the unknown. The piece was about industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who, in the mid-twentieth century, made his mark on the American mindset by designing everything from the Exxon logo to the blue nose of Air Force One. His innovation philosophy centered around the concept that people are torn between the desire to try new things and the fear of anything too new. Based on his experiences, he coined the acronym MAYA as a solution to selling new concepts. The acronym stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,” and its concept states that a successful marketing strategy balances the familiar with the surprising.

Humanity’s resistance to new elements, the article says, is ingrained in us from an evolutionary standpoint. If our caveman ancestors saw something they recognized, it meant that thing hadn’t killed them yet. This began our desire as humans to stick with what we know, from consumer-based decisions like our favorite cereal brands to personal affinities like our preferred side of the bed. Sometimes we may not even be thrilled with our choices, but we stick with them because we know what we’ll get.

Marketers of lesser-known theatre pieces can learn a great deal from the MAYA acronym as we set out to publicize our shows. The element of surprise is invariably present in an unknown show for prospective audiences, but marketers should ask themselves: What about it is familiar? What within the piece can audiences be drawn to that they feel is relatable, since they are already taking a chance on something they’re not familiar with?

That familiarity can be identified from an outside source and can be cultivated by the subject matter of the selection. A play based on a prominent historical figure, current event, or work of literature provides an instant component of comprehension for a potential audience member. Another common tactic is to describe a newer piece as derivative of previous well-known works or societal fixtures. For example, to market an upcoming reading of a new musical called Trumperetta at my organization, we could use “Gilbert and Sullivan meet the 2016 election.” Other pieces without well-known subject matter might require us to appeal to commonly felt emotions and challenges like love, fear, sickness, or betrayal. Sometimes we can combine all three of these tactics. But we must identify what is recognizable in the work before we can begin to market it.

People Need to Know What They’re Buying Before They’ll Buy It
Once we’ve identified the overarching elements of familiarity in the piece’s content, we must find the best ways to get that message to our potential audiences. With a new piece, this challenge is likely to include providing resources that patrons may not have ready access to in order to help them make their purchasing decision. All too often, however, I’ve seen companies ignore this important step.

Think of it this way: How many times have you heard about a production of a lesser-known piece, gone to the website or social media page for the producing organization, and gotten very limited information? Perhaps there’s a stock marketing blurb and a graphic. There might be a cast list if you’re lucky. But often, that’s about it. When I am deciding whether to buy tickets to a show, I want a preview of the experience of attending. Respondents to the survey I conducted indicated similar desires, regardless of age or income level. Understanding what the piece was about, and what to expect, was one of their top motivators for buying tickets to something they’d never heard of.

A New Brain at Music Theatre of Madison. Photo by Rhetta Hanson-Cook.

Tell All
The concise descriptions and limited resources provided by theatres describing new pieces are indicative of what I have found to be a false assumption: That our publicity efforts must be quick and dirty. I bought into this for a few years myself. I was certain that people don’t have time to read or do too much research. I believed I must get the information in front of them as simply and concisely as possible. The problem with this, I discovered, is that concise information on a lesser-known piece doesn’t motivate a purchase. The survey indicated that potential audience members are looking for a variety of information before attending. Going in blind is not appealing.

We live in an era where the consumer has an enormous amount of power. Before the evolution of the internet, marketers could succeed simply by being the most visible. Buying the most advertising was often the key to getting the most sales. Now, however, when people go to spend money on a product, they are looking for meaningful information: Specifications, details, reviews from other consumers, similar options for less or more money, etc. The internet has provided the opportunity to gather much more information before making a purchase to make the consumer feel more comfortable.

When thinking about lesser-known pieces, we as marketers must look at this buying mentality. If our theatres are producing a piece that’s unfamiliar to our audiences, then our marketing teams must provide the information that will make the consumer confident in their purchase. We need to be prepared to provide answers to questions a potential audience member might be in search of. What ideas does the show address? Are there links to articles or videos about the subject matter? Who are the artists that are part of it? If it’s a musical, what does the music sound like? Has it had other productions elsewhere, and if so, what did people say about it? If it’s an original piece, what inspired it? What made your artistic staff decide to produce the show? What existing works might it be reminiscent of? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what might the audience feel during their experience? Providing information on the content makes the ticket buyer feel empowered and, when explained well, can help them to understand how the performance could affect them on an emotional and intellectual level. The internet has created a more complicated consumer mentality, but it also provides a platform, accessible from almost anywhere, to inexpensively articulate what the product is. Theatres can make use of blogs, websites, social media, and e-news to help audiences understand what the experience holds.

Budgetary Challenges of Marketing Lesser-Known Shows
Of course, all of this takes more staff or volunteer time, and that can be a difficult investment for some organizations. But can we really afford not to try? Are we doing our jobs as theatre artists and enthusiasts when we continuously produce well-known shows just because we feel we have to or no one will come?

I can certainly relate to the budgetary challenges of trying to produce something unknown. I’ve lived with those challenges for over a decade. Many questions remain, the most prominent of which, for me, is the styles of articulating content and familiarity that are most successful. That’s why I’m on this crusade. There are many pieces I’m working on putting into place, and there’s much more I discovered. But this element of familiarity and fully articulating a show’s content is, based on my research, the defining component of the solution.