An abandoned letter to Theatre makers

Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don’t avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck. Your theatre is definitely in that magical ten percent of goodness. I know this because you tell me. I can see by the care you put into your facebook event, letting me know who the cast and director are and the dates and time while leaving out any info on subject matter so I would have a nice surprise when I come watch your show. I don’t even know whether I’m going to laugh or cry. Or the way you playfully make a hideous poster and stick it up on poles all over the city, I’ll certainly not forget that image no matter how much I want to. I love the sassy way you challenge Capetonians not to be lazy, because that’s obviously why they don’t come to theatre. Sheer laziness. Never mind that they flock in droves to night markets, gigs, gallery openings, beerfests and quirky little film festivals.

Oh shit, I moved off sassy satire into outright sarcasm. That’s not what I meant to do. I meant to parody the thinking of marketing in the theatre scene, instead I just got angry.

Look, I don’t have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won’t. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it’s not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers.

TheatreSports has lasted for 18 years, which makes it a pretty successful company. It has no sponsorship or funding other than what people pay for tickets. I’ll be the first to admit that our marketing is patchy at best, but we have one incredible strength: we give people the reason to see our show. We don’t tell people how good we are, our awards, how long we’ve been running for or that theatre is an amazing cultural phenomenon that deserves support. We tell them that it’s hilarious improvised comedy. And when they come for hilarious improvised comedy, we give it to them.

Essentially marketing is telling people what you have for them. You cannot get people to pay to see something they don’t want to and you can’t get someone to come back if you can’t deliver.

So, semi-fictional people I began addressing at the start, look at the points of contact you have with the public – your posters, releases and facebook/blog posts – and ask yourself what reason you’re giving people to see your show.


14 thoughts on “An abandoned letter to Theatre makers

  1. Uh huh. Like, totally. Sad thing is, there are so many unforgivably hideous posters currently festooning the poles of Cape Town, it’s hard to tell which one has inspired this inspired rant.

    • It’s exactly that – that there are so many. I have so many really lame fb event invites which are just totally uninviting, I walk past so many posters that are simply off putting. I cannot help but equate the talent and care that goes into the poster design with what goes into the production. The Fugard’s posters generally tell me they care about what they do – they are unusually consistent.

  2. You’re right there. The big challenge is to find a way through the absolute glut that Facebook, twitter, mailing lists have caused. Not to speak of the traditional ‘old school’ media – the poster, the flier en so voorts. The objective shouldn’t be just be to tick the boxes (poster – check, FB – check), but to create something with care that people will notice. Not easy.

    But as you’ve pointed out, nothing fuels the grapevine better than quality. People will come regardless of the publicity.

    (btw – enjoying your posts -:)

    • Most theater-makers are also responsible for the marketing of their work, unless they can afford a marketing department (most cannot). If they want people to see their work, they must market it to the public. If they want people to come back to their next production and the next and the next, they must make sure the art is consistently good, the marketing is good, and the patron experience as a whole is good. Art, Artist, and Audience. You have to cultivate all three in order to make it work.

  3. Thank you for putting this problem – which I suspect is worldwide – into words.

    I have often heard the complaint that “nobody came to my show” from smaller theatre companies who have no concept of how to attract an audience, and whose work is not yet sufficiently hot to ignite viral word of mouth. Posters on walls and postings on Facebook should be the bare minimum beginning of getting the word out, not the end.

    At minimum, pick six words that summarize the compelling reason to see your show and include them. That’s as many words as most people can comprehend in one glance.

    The situation you describe, the generic and supposedly artistic poster, ad or press release is so very important to a production that it should be receive the same gravity as any artistic challenge. Marketing and audience development take creativity, experience and time to accomplish.

    Boilerplate descriptions that a play is hilarious or moving is just regurgitation. And the need for photos of the cast in costume, well lit, not fuzzy to generate a positive image. Keep it simple. Make it idiot proof. And above all, make sure it attracts people, not the opposite.

    Happily the four major theatre companies in the Berkshires of Massachusetts are pretty savvy when it comes to this stuff, though (typically) our community theaters are still lagging behind. Part of it is budget, part of it is that they many don’t consider it important.

    • I’m sure it is definitely a worldwide issue – sadly one of the parties I’ve put in my sights isn’t a small company, it’s one of the 2 largest theatres in Cape Town and the only receiving government funding. Their posters have never been good, lazy and frequently using free stock photography – but this month they have taken a turn for the worse.

      I’m actually going to have to have go out and take a photo for it to be believed.

      Thanks for the advice and leaving a comment.

  4. You lost me when you pointed out you do improv comedy which panders to the lowest common denominator and is easy to market. As are gallery openings (free), gigs (you can talk during and leave whenever you feel like it), beerfest (Too obvious).

    An uphill battle for people making less palatable shit and not easily solved by your cavalier “advice”.

    • I’m writing in the context of the Cape Town Theatre scene where theatre marketing (generally) sucks and theatre-makers blame the audience, accusing them of being lazy. Yes, marketing a more avant garde show, even trying to convince people to see a Caryl Churchill play, is difficult. But can you look at the examples I gave of why I’m frustrated and honestly tell me that those sound like good marketing strategies? Fb invites with no context, blindingly ugly posters, and exhortations that the audience must ‘overcome their laziness’.

      As for what I do, yes, I pander to the lowest common denominator once a week. The rest of time I don’t.

      The “advice” may be cavalier, after all it’s stuck in a rant on a blog that usually gets 10 hits, but I stand by it – no matter how much less palatable your shit is there is a reason for people to see it and you need to let them know that.

      • thanks for the link. I bookmarked it. And apologies for my unnecessarily curt response. As you might have guess I do some weirder theatre and have a lot of sketch comedy and improv friends who fill their shows like “poop the musical” or whatever… So I let my bitterness fly a bit. Again, apologies.

  5. Pingback: Arts Management and Theatre-Making « FTH:K

  6. Finding this 6 weeks later — the problem is the same in New York. I work in the business but find myself utterly uninterested in seeing anything unless I’m required to do so for work. Theater producers and marketers seem to be allergic to the idea of telling the audience what the show is about — so my response is, well, I guess it’s not about anything or they would tell me. And if it’s not about anything, I don’t need to see it. And the blowhards (professional critics and otherwise) who bloviate on and on about the meaning of things that actually are about NOTHING — I can well afford to see lots of theater but keep my wallet shut.

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