Don’t Forget the Human Element in Marketing

It's so tempting for playwrights to want to self-produce in this day and age. This series seeks to show people how to run a theatre company into the ground so that they can learn from my mistakes.

I remember it very vividly. I’m dressed in a suit with a fake gun in my waistband sitting in the wings ready to play a bounty hunter in my play Last Hope for Twenty Miles. In the small basement venue where we were performing, there were was a thin sheet of fabric separating me from the steel chairs the audience would be sitting in. For thirty minutes as the house opened, I calmly got into costume and checked my props and sat with my fellow cast members backstage. I sat there listening for the telltale footsteps, rustling of programs, and hushed conversations that would announce to me that there was some audience out there. I listened for thirty whole minutes before my director told me that they were going to hold house for ten minutes to see if anyone else was going to show up. I was a devastated. Ever since I started this theatre company, I had been thrown into the deep end of the world of marketing and promotion. Over the course of two more productions and conversations with marketing people, I started to learn that marketing is basically three parts. Rhythm and timing, water torture, and connecting with people. And with this production I had failed to do them all.

I learned how to master the rhythm and timing a bit. I learned how to write a press release, contact media outlets, make and print fliers, and even leave little rave cards about our show everywhere. Every time I learned something new about audience development, a marketing professional, or a book showed me a trick about getting people in the door, it was always a day late. Even as I was walking to the theatre one night, I received a call from a local magazine that couldn’t send someone out to review the production because by the time the review was printed our production would be over. If only we had talked to them sooner about watching a dress rehearsal; they would have loved to come. As I hung up the phone, I couldn’t help but sneer and say: “That would have been great to know...two days ago,” before I walked into the building. I had done every trick I could think of and still was looking at an empty opening night.

event poster
This is the poster for the play that came too late to
do us any good. Photo by Sara Schichtel.

In my head I prepared to stand up and tell the director we should take this as a blessing in disguise and sneak in an extra dress rehearsal. Then, I heard a group of footsteps come downstairs, the familiar creaking of the steel chairs as someone sat down in the audience, and then rustled through their program. I breathed a sigh of relief, tucked my gun back in my waistband, and got ready to take my place. To my surprise, my director came backstage and called me over. “We only have one audience member.” I sighed and said, “Fine, the show must go on, let's get going.” My director responded, “He says he knows you and wants to talk to you.”

There was nothing to lose, so I stepped out into the house and looked at the empty forty seats. Sitting there looking up at me, rave card and program in hand, sat one of my best friends from high school (and geek celebrity in town), Zim. I hadn’t seen him in about five or so years, but on this night, for this show, I couldn’t have been happier.

He stood up and we shook hands and I told him that he was going to be the first to see one of the best shows in town. That night my actors gave the best performance of their lives to a house of one paid audience member and four or so staff members from the cafe upstairs that rented us the space. The small group there actually liked the show a lot. Both the cook and wait staff said it was one of the best shows they had ever seen to one of the owners. It was a shame that not that many people showed up because all the responses were very positive. The only response that I could muster was a feeble, “Thanks, be sure to tell your friends.” Zim and I sat down and caught up and he had only positive remarks about the play. That night as I went home I thought that for a night that was a financial dud, I couldn’t have been happier.

 

At some basic level [in marketing,] you must connect with a person, give them a reason to want to come, and then be consistent in letting them know where to find you.

 

two actors in a scene
Left to right: Zach McElroy and Ricky Young-Howze. We had a mock
photo shoot the day before our show loaded in. Turns out to do any good
we should have done it four weeks ago. Photo by Sara Schichtel.

The next and last performance saw more people in the audience. We were nowhere near the full house but we had enough to give the actors a nice round of applause. As I started to talk to them after the performance, I realized that none of these people had seen our fliers or a rave card. Ninety percent of our audience that night were friends of the cast and crew, or the venue staff. Later a reporter came to talk to us about the show. He said he got an e-mail from a friend who saw the show and said he had to see it. After all of the press releases and e-mails, it seemed that a “friend of a friend” was what got butts in our seats.

While I could master the rhythm of editorial deadlines and get posters up in a timely matter, what I realized was that only scratches the surface of what marketing is. At some basic level you must connect with a person, give them a reason to want to come, and then be consistent in letting them know where to find you. Everything else is just removing the obstacles that might get in their way from coming to the door such as price, location, and accessibility.

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Ricky Young-Howze shares his experience of starting his own not-for-profit theatre company and offers advice.

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I always talk about my plays if they are being produced somewhere. Whether it is a reading or not, it is out there. I also use my city's performing arts listing to advertise, and social media. At my last reading, the Artistic Director wondered why I went so far with my advertisements when the decision was made to post a link on the listing notice. I said: "I wanted people to come." The AD wondered why I couldn't trust that decision- "because people need more than just a link to click on today." Way to not do the work to advertise, let alone be an advocate to the playwrights you supposedly claim to support.

Excellent, Ricky, thank you. I've seen this happen time and again lately, people using all sorts of great tactics to get people to the theater, and Facebook and email are great avenues. Friends of friends of friends help exponentially to spread the word and fire up the desire to experience the play or other event. Some have started sending out the news and setting the buzz going from earliest conception to first gathering of director and actors, then throughout the rehearsal and production process. Kevin O'Leary's King Lear was handled this way, and following a highly successful three-week run this spring has now attained legendary status as one of the finest Shakespearean productions in Portland, Maine that we have ever seen.