Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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It’s All About the Story

November 30, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Tools

voyagercoverjpg_2big.gifWe’re gearing up at several of my theater companies for a couple marketing summits, using different strategies for that immense undertaking, but the research involved in the process into other examples of Chicago Theater marketing has got me wondering – why aren’t theaters the best marketers in town?

Marketing is essentially a storytelling excercise, as Lois Kelly describes in her book Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. You’re using the worldview and values that already exist in a potential audience member, and crafting a message that says “seeing this play is a way to express your values, share them, revel in them, and hell, change the world.” (for a concise summary of Lois’ 9 genres of marketing story, check out Guy Kawasaki’s blog. Or cross-reference Lois’ stories with Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. Ah, it’s great to compartmentalize everything you’ve ever heard into neat little categories.)

Theater is one of the most innovative, powerful, and cohesive storytelling formats out there. It creates shared experiences, unlike printed media; it’s cheaper to produce (and in general less ruled by profit) than film; it’s active and even athletic compared to the disembodied voices of Radio. In theater, you can tell stories with the whole human, for the whole human, and still engage the imagination of an audience.

On our good days, theater artists are some of the best storytellers out there. And Lois Kelly tells us that the only reason people buy anything these days is because they are convinced by a marketing story (she’s of course not the only one). If you get that Nintendo Wii, you will unite the generations and create a community and lasting friendships, complete with slow motion victory dances, and it’s all thanks to the ancient wisdom of polite Japanese businessman. So why can’t theater get a wider audience? Because while we are great at crafting innovative and complex visions in 50-seat black box theaters, we’re not always well equipped to tell a good marketing story – which by necessity needs to be dirt simple and loud.

I think there are three basic hurdles to successful storefront theater marketing. The first issue theaters tend to have is that the idealistic desire for detail and/or innovation in storytelling – which serves the work so well – often also leads self-marketing theaters off track. Let’s assume that you’re putting together a postcard for a show. With all the text and imagery fighting for our attention in any given day, you will be lucky to have 2 seconds to hook someone into hearing your message before their attention span shuts you out, so that 4 paragraph dramaturgical summary of your play on the front of the card probably isn’t going to cut it. Marketing messages can’t ever be complex. However, as with the example of the Wii and most television commercials, just because your message has to be simple doesn’t mean that the box it comes in can’t be detailed and exciting and be filled with all kinds of goodies and emotions. It’s just that the first thing everyone needs to get is a unified, simple message. Two Seconds. Bam.

The second hurdle is usefully segmenting the actual community and marketing to specific populations within that community. Storefront theaters are funny beasts in that despite a prevalent desire to speak to and for a community, they tend to become most successful (though anemically so) with the internal theater industry demographic. That’s often because the theater doesn’t have the time, resources, or statistical ability to understand the day-to-day needs of the community passing by their message. While they may connect with individuals in the community very deeply, they have a harder time understanding the various mindsets of the groups of people walking by their message on the way to work each day. I think theaters also tend to want to bring all people together, and in many ways they can be blind to people who don’t already appreciate theater. Over time, this has created a really unhealthy divide between theaters and general society that many other arts organizations don’t face. This problem is described a bit in Standing Room Only, another book on marketing specifically for performing arts organizations:

Most nonparticipants have consciously or unconsciously eliminated the arts as being of any possible interest or value in their lives. They have drawn a “cultural curtain” and have turned off to anything that is written or said about arts activities…

Nonparticipants harbor many inhibiting images of the arts as relatively austere and effete, effeminate, esoteric, inaccessible, too demanding of study and concentration, arrogant, etc. Coping with these attitudes is not easy, but progress is made when experience shows the contrary or reorients the negative value.

The third hurdle, as always, is resources – money and time. Successful corporate brands can flood the market and streets with tasteful, huge, attention grabbing posters and videos and websites on every street corner. They can hire marketers to do nothing but pound the pavement with their message and get ads, reviews, and blogs to feature their product or message. Storefront theaters, on the other hand, need to step up the creativity to find ways of getting a marketing story out to the world… anyone who’s ever distributed posters and postcards door-to-door knows how difficult this can be. I’m increasingly wondering how effective things like postcards are these days, given that there are much more leveragable outlets for promoting a message. Blogs, MySpace, and Facebook are all recent additions to the more creative ways of mass marketing, and of course assembling a powerful and dedicated board can eventually be a solution to the woes of marketing a show while you’re in preproduction.

There’s a fear that I get when I look at these hurdles in the context of my own theaters… I worry that creating a message that jumps these hurdles will also somehow cheapen the experience of theater at the same time that it makes it more accessible. I think that’s just stigma talking. Marketers, like all humans, sometimes cut corners in their work for less fulfulling clients. But a well crafted message NEVER waters down the product… it’s just a good, well-lit frame for the work itself. And thus, both framing and marketing are arts in themselves, with all the potential success and failure that goes with the territory.

In crafting a branding message, I like to think of the care Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan took in crafting the Voyager Golden Record, an audio compilation sent into space radio broadcasts a-blazing, in the hopes of contacting and sending a message of humankind to alien life. The message was, simply, “This is humanity. This is who we are. Hello.” But the container for that message was incredibly detailed and well thought out – based on the anticipated audience of alien life forms.

As described on the Voyager Spacecraft Website:

Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played.

The spoken greetings begin with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and end with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Our audience is always alien to us. Theater folk are excited by that reality. The message we craft to reach them must be both simple and address what we know about them – their fundamental humanity and desire to connect with the people around them. This, I know: If we focus our efforts, theaters can be REALLY good at connecting with other human beings.

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