This week on HowlRound, we continue our series on Triple Play, a consortium project between Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area. Triple Play is exploring the crucial triangular relationship between playwrights, theatres, and audiences with the hope of creating a paradigm shift in the way the field thinks about audiences and the way audiences experience new work. Now in phase two, Triple Play is midway through 300 interviews between playwrights and audience members around the country. This series will share best practices in audience engagement and question how we define the relationship between artists, theatre companies, and audiences.—Alli Houseworth, series curator

Late May, 2011. Washington, DC. One of the hottest days on record; so hot you could feel the sweat drip between your shoulder blades all the way down your body until it tickled your calves. It was disgusting. My team and I stood behind a table in a park in Southeast, DC—the quadrant known for its poverty levels and its crime rates and its predominantly black population and its “you don’t go there” (until the condos started to come in)—and we stood there as the hip-hop blared from battery-powered boom boxes and smoke from the barbecue wafted through the air. We stood there, each and every one of us white as white can be, with one goal: get this crowd to come see our theatre’s production of Bootycandy.

At the time, I was the marketing director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and our run of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, the world premiere, began performances (coincidentally) the same week as DC’s Black Pride. I didn’t even know there was a Black Pride in DC until I started doing research on how to get an audience—the right audience—in to see this show, and I was born and raised in the area. Why didn’t I know? Probably because I’m a straight white female. Perhaps Black Pride isn’t meant for someone like me. I’m not the right audience.

a woman standing behind a table
A member of Woolly Mammoth's marketing team at DC's 2011 Black Pride BBQ. Photo by Alli Houseworth.

On paper for a marketer, Bootycandy is problematic. Some local print publications wouldn’t run ads because of the title. The title also turned off the “traditional” theatregoing audience. People giggled when you said the name. The relatively unknown African-American playwright shared the same last name as one of our country’s most well-known female southern protagonists. The play was almost impossible to describe: a coming-of-age story about a black, gay kid? A story about how words and labels can wrongly define an identity? As a straight white female marketing director, what the hell did I know? I didn’t even know at the time that being gay in the African American community is a huge stigma. I was doomed.

One day in the first week of rehearsal I gathered my whole white marketing team to go down to the rehearsal room to talk to Robert O’Hara and the cast (all black except for one). We brought pens and notepads and I will never forget sitting on the floor of the rehearsal room with all of them; us saying, we don’t know this world, and them saying, we know you don’t; and them saying, let us help you, and us saying, we’re ready. They gave us names and contact information of friends, colleagues, organizations; they offered to do anything to help; they let us know where sensitivities lie; they said over and over again how important, what an honor, it was for them to be part of this storytelling experience. The more they spoke the more we felt the same, and then several weeks later we were in that park at Black Pride on one of the hottest days on record in low-cut v-neck t-shirts that said Bootycandy that were now soaked in sweat and we passed out condoms that had a discount code on the packaging and said, We know we don’t know this world, don’t know it at all, but we have a play that’s going on that’s about your world and we think it will really mean a lot to you if you saw it and we’d really like you to be there. We think it’s important. This play is for you.

When I first started this job, our board president at the time, Pete Miller, told me, “Your job—marketing new plays—is like doing a new product launch every six to eight weeks.” Pete, a former AOL executive and lifetime theatre lover, knew you couldn’t take the same marketing approach for every play and be successful. Not every play requires you to show up in neighborhoods you don’t know, and not every play requires a feature story in your city’s largest paper. New plays are hard. Like new products, new plays are unknown quantities. They’re not household names. There could be multiple iterations between when the proverbial “go button” is hit and when the actual go button is hit.

My primary responsibility at Woolly as the director of marketing and communications was to develop a marketing strategy for Bootycandy (and all of Woolly’s plays—most of which were new plays) that would result in us meeting our sales goal. But that wasn’t enough for me. My team wasn’t marketing a product. We were marketing plays, and plays are art. As art, a play’s purpose is to have an intrinsic impact on the audience. Plays—like all art—need to resonate in the moment and they need to resonate after. This is not something a screwdriver or a vacuum can deliver.

Although my “business” job as an arts marketer whose company produced new plays was to meet the sales goal, my “mission-driven” goal was to get the play in front of the audience with which it would most resonate. It was important to me. That goal wasn’t just my own, either—it was a core principle of the company’s newly-created department, Connectivity. I worked to close the loop between my “business” job and my mission-driven heart, and understood if I got the right audience to see the play, then the play would resonate more, it would have greater impact on the audience, and the greater impact would result in greater brand-trust, and then more sales. But first and foremost I had to meet the sales goal.

In the end, Bootycandy exceeded its sales goal, closed the highest-grossing season in Woolly’s history, and brought in what many stakeholders said was the most diverse audience the company had ever seen. I couldn’t have been more proud of my team, and everyone at the organization, for all the stops we pulled out to make that show shine.

Six weeks after Bootycandy closed, I left Woolly. I left one of the best jobs at one of the coolest theatre companies in the country because it was my job to focus on the bottom line and all I wanted to do was talk to, sit with, listen to the audience, and give them a fabulously challenging unforgettable experience. The work I led on that show—the creation of swag, humorous discounting, grassroots outreach, trivia nights at a gay bars, giveaways at Black Pride, dancing away at an African-American gay bar—the work I loved more than anything else, where you could look into the eyes of your audience (both potential and present), wasn’t my job. It was connectivity’s job.

To this day I still don’t understand why connectivity lived—and lives—in a separate department than marketing. And, there’s the rub—this isn’t just a Woolly thing. This is a field-wide issue.

I’m psyched to see more and more companies create “audience engagement,” “community outreach,” and “community investment” departments, but why are these positions housed in a department other than marketing? Yes, they may “talk all the time” and “give names to each other” and “create the necessary materials,” but if the two departments ultimately have the same goal, why are they not literally adjoined—by staff, budget, administration?

The end goal for all of us, field-wide, is to have an audience. You literally cannot do theatre without an audience. Within the theatre, the marketer’s primary responsibility is to generate earned income. Most of the time this is done through ticket sales, though it can include concessions and merchandise as well. Aside from a product to sell, the thing the marketer needs in order to reach the goal of generating earned income is an audience—consumers, people to make those purchases. Therefore, we can say a marketer’s job is to attract an audience. Once that audience is attracted, earned income can be generated.

Getting Them In the Door
But how does the marketer attract an audience? There are many ways: advertising, press, group sales, electronic media, outreach, and engagement. Each of these is a strategy a marketer uses to attract an audience. The advertising strategy will use the tools and tactics of print or web advertising to reach an audience. The electronic media strategy will use the tools and tactics of email and social media to reach an audience. Your engagement strategy will use the tools and tactics of community outreach and lobby design to reach an audience. Because audience engagement is about reaching and connecting with audiences, it lives in the marketing family, just like how press and electronic media live in the marketing family because their goal—to reach audiences—is the same.

There are marketers that excel at press relations, marketers who excel at sales, and marketers who excel at audience engagement. Each and every one of these marketer’s work is about attracting an audience to the art. Some use tools that will get people to the art faster, and some will use tools that get “better” people to the art—those for whom the art will resonate with most. However, at the end of the day, no matter the tool, the entire marketing team is working towards funneling a potential audience to the art through a transaction to an experience.

The strategies needed to market a new play are different than those needed to market a musical or known quantity. Humans are naturally risk-adverse, afraid to spend their hard-earned money and precious time on something they don’t know. So, in order to attract an audience to a play we need to eliminate barriers to attendance and reduce the risk for the consumer. So how do we do this? A marketer’s greatest resource for understanding the play—from the impulse for its creation to the words on the page—is the source itself: the playwright.

The Playwright’s Role in Marketing
As my current career as a “marketing” consultant progresses, I confess to being baffled by the number of new play producers whose marketers don’t talk to the playwright as they are designing their marketing strategies. Why would you not use the most powerful tool at your disposal, the one who no matter how many drafts of a script are done or characters are cut, can always tell you the original intention of the play—what it really and truly is about?

Conversely, I’m equally astounded every time I hear a playwright say they don’t want to, or it’s not their job, to talk to the marketing staff. Aren’t we all working towards the same goal? Don’t we all want a house full of audience members for whom the work will resonate?

The New Play Audience
Finally, what about—the audience, the new play audience; these strange creatures who emerge from their homes, put down their phones, and sit in a dark place surrounded by strangers to hear a new story told by someone they’ve probably never heard of before. Aren’t these people just magnificent?

What if we, as writers, as arts-makers, turned towards them, welcomed them to our home away from home, watched them watch the play, and if we’re lucky, feel them transform even in the slightest—and feel ourselves transform too, standing opposite our audiences (both potential and present), vulnerable, ready to learn, knowing without them we are nothing.

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Triple Play, a consortium project between Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area, is exploring the crucial triangular relationship between playwrights and other generative artists, theatres, and audiences with the hope of creating a paradigm shift in the way the field thinks about audiences and the way audiences experience new work.

For the rest of this week we’ll be sharing bright spots that emerged from a convening hosted by HowlRound that took place in Phase I of the Triple Play research. At this convening, seventy theatre professionals from across the country (artistic directors, executive directors, marketing directors, managing directors, playwrights, etc.) met to hear the early findings.

As you read this week’s posts, the Triple Play team is deep in Phase II of the project—one where playwrights and practitioners will interview new play audiences in six cities across the country. All of the findings from this work will be published in spring 2017, followed by a seven-city tour.  

It is our intention that the practices shared this week will inspire you in your new play work, whether you be an artistic or managing director, on the marketing staff, a playwright, or, the most important job of all, an audience member.