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Fly on the wall opportunities

November 13, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Teachable Moments

On the train, after my show, I overhear three women reading through their dirty dancing programs. They are cross referencing the asterixes in the program with members of the actors equity association. It seems to be their first introduction to the AEA.

One of them says, “I’m going to tell so and so: don’t get your hopes up.”

These are the moments where I get angry at broadway and cash-in productions. The audience comes to them with hopes. And the story is so often disappointment.

Few patrons have high hopes when they risk their evening slumming it in a storefront show. But that’s why we can blow our audience away when we display quality, immediacy and craft.

But we are linked – indeed dependant – on larger theaters. We are part of the same brand of “theater,” even though we have been consistently a different animal for over 30 years. This is something that I think is lost on arts marketing gurus when they tell me that the key step for me is to improve my product. It’s not entirely true… I have to improve my product, and then find a way to keep it good for four years while we find our audience – self-funded – on a largely word of mouth marketing campaign. It works… slowly.

I want to improve the brand of theater in total, because I find myself in an unfortunate position – shows like dirty dancing don’t benefit my theater with their show-specific splash of marketing. But when those shows disappoint, my theater DOES suffer.. These patrons think… Man, i hate theater. If a large budget show can’t deliver satisfaction, how could a tiny theater run by a couple dozen people with a $3,000 budget?

That’s the message I’d like to deliver to them: we can surprise you. we can create a memory that doesnt’ disappoint. But my marketing budget can’t yell over the noise… and my first step isn’t going to be bemoaning the capitalist system in the hopes that will make my efforts suddenly socially relevant again.

Our message is spread slowly, cheaply, inevitably, one person at a time. I do doubt I’ll ever reach these women on the train with this message: good theater doesn’t disappoint. It’s like treasure, you have to sift through a bit, and maybe you have to find a trusted reviewer or friend who can help you find the good stuff. And it’s not all live remakes of movies from our teenage years or the high school musical we remember being so cliquey and odd – that’s a good thing sometimes, no? But man it is worth making a part of your week.

Good thing I brought postcards.

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4 Comments to “Fly on the wall opportunities”


  1. Just to be clear, I was not bemoaning the capitalist system, my whole point was to concede that theater can never really work as a capitalist engine (which is not necessarily a problem). But I think you make a good point about the trickle down effect of larger shows. For most people, even seeing a Broadway show is something of a peculiarity, let alone a smaller show off-off-Broadway. It’s about getting people in the mindset that seeing theater is not some strange, exotic thing, but rather something that’s no more exotic than watching television.

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  2. Absolutely right, Ethan, you weren’t – though other folks have used similar language and reasoning to make the point, which always feels like it leads to defeatism. I have this habit of responding to posts like yours with a challenge question, “To What End?”, which I hope doesn’t twist the thrust of your points too egregiously. As a practical humanist, I tend to take the approach that marketing and operating within the current system is something we need to understand and be fluent in, because our ultimate goal here is to convince a growing portion (rather than a shrinking portion) of the public that theater is as relevant as it is, and we don’t have the resources to change the playing field except possibly through applying our creative resources to social politics. True, theater needs to BE relevant to make that possible, but as Adam says today, that’s only half of the equation. Really knowing – and leveraging – how the capitalist mechanism works and fails will enable us to be more agile as an industry, precisely because theater’s ultimate purpose is not financial profit – it’s social profit.

    I greatly appreciated your thesis as it related to theater blogs, which helped convince me that my decision NOT to actively monetize my blog was actually the right move, even though blogging takes up some of my money-generating time. You’re a smart dude and it was a smart post. And I love that wine dude.

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  3. Stephanie Farina says:

    Perfect example of what you are talking about..I got home from work today and did my normal web checks. As I was glancing through the status updates of my friends I noticed two friends mention Six Years at New Leaf. I checked and times, it worked and I jumped on my bike and went. No money in advertising, but word of mouth about good theatre. It still leaves the challenge however, on how to get the non theatre lovers to do the same thing.

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  4. Yeah, I try to mix up most of my blog posts in hopes that, on the off chance I could make money off blogging some day, I have the cred to blog about more than just theater.

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