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August 26, 2008

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Malachy Walsh

I'd also argue, that all of these things could be UNTRUE if what was being staged was more relevant.

And by that, I don't mean plays about war, capitalism, global warming and whatever else is grabbing headlines. After all, by the time any of those subjects see the stage, there've been 500 TV and film documentaries made about them.

And that makes it really tricky.

Kerry Reid

Good post. I often mention that I know many people who will go to art galleries, jazz concerts, dance performances, independent films -- but who are incredibly picky about going to theater. And honestly, I think the reason isn't money, or even necessarily that the seats are uncomfortable. It's that they've been burned too often by bad shows -- either preachy, pedantic material that tells them what they already know (war is bad, power corrupts, etc.), or misguided attempts at being "edgy" that are merely self-congratulatory and obvious -- the kind of stuff they grew out of back in high school. (What I call the "Mommy! Daddy! Watch me be transgressive!" school of theater. Oh hey, they're naked and dropping the f-bomb. How daring. Yawn.) Or maybe it's just a dull script, unimaginatively directed, with pedestrian performances. In all cases, the problem is that they, as audience members, are STUCK there. With performers mere feet away from them.

And unlike a bad film, walking out of a bad live performance takes a certain amount of cojones -- and an awareness that the people who are onstage probably see you doing it, and they feel bad when they see you doing it. And since my friends don't relish being cruel or rude, if they don't walk out, their only other option is to sit there, suffer in silence, and wonder about all the cool things they could have been doing with that night on earth instead -- perhaps engaging conversations with each other, for instance. We all only have so much time, after all. When it's wasted by bad theater (or any other bad "entertainment,") it's no surprise to me that audiences think "Well, I won't get fooled again."

The difference between seeing a bad live band and a bad play? No one can dance ironically to bad theater. (Well, okay, "Mamma Mia!", but. . .)

Laura

So how can we let young people sample theatre in a way that makes the investment seem safer? How can we get theatrical video podcasts on iTunes? Samples of performances (short enough to be OK rights-wise), interviews with artists, testimonials from YOUNG fans, behind-the-scenes documentary-type footage, cast recordings of musical songs, what else? Do you think any of these types of things could gain a following? Be interesting enough that people forward them to their friends? It would have to be good stuff... but maybe worth a try?

devilvet

I remember a dramaturg I knew who always got a little bit of steam out of folks ears when she was asked how to generate audiences. Her response was do good or better theatre. This of course seems to be an attack on the quality of what any given artist is doing. Now this lady was a bit smug, so maybe that was her intent. But regardless of that...she is right in that doing theatre better is PART of the answer. Of course due to the subjective nature of what a spectator wants...that can not be the sole answer.

Whereas, Video podcasts seem like a way to introduce theatre to folks...we should remember that the internet is a tool but never going to be the answer. Ironically the one thing that is harder than getting folks to you show, is getting folks to your blog or your site. I am not attempting to downplay or devalue a web presense, which from a marketing standpoint is absolutely essential...but podcasts are putting the cart before the horse.

I sort of think it has less to do with changing the preception of "theatre"... and it has more to do with focusing on the perception of YOUR theatre company. i.e. in the end you are only capable of "carrying your own water" and no one else's.

Even if a specific theater company's attendence is not what anyone would desire, there always seem, at least in the big cities, to be those theatre companies that are doing very well (or relatively well in comparison to other companies).

So, why is it that these companies have success. Some might debate that a given's company success has to do with appealing to the least common denominator. But, if that is your opinion then you must admit that you have a pretty low opinion of the theater audience in your community. I agree that insulting or devaluing the quality of an audience is not essential to finding an audience.

However without talking about the message or intent of the theatre, it seems that there is still an audience for the "live event".

Adam

I think a good outlook lies between Kerry and Laura's answers.

Theatre attendance is absolutely a function of programming. Quality programming "lifts the tide" for all theatres and poor programming lowers it.

A few days I was watching a documentary on the early beginnings of video games (because I'm a nerd).

Short version of the story, there were maybe 5-6 main video game manufacturers, led by Atari. Business was good.

Then Atari started dropping a ton of bad games. I mean a ton of them.

And Atari killed the video industry for years. People will only tolerate bad product for so long.

------------

But here's the other side, one way to improve the perceived quality of a performance is by doing what Laura's suggests . . . finding ways to introduce people to the work before they see it.

Put it this way, let's say a theatre spends weeks doing blogs, video interviews, etc.

A potential new patron comes along and watches/reads the stuff.

Then she goes to see the show.

And the show, for whatever reason, isn't good that night.

Because the patron had a chance to connect to the art before she showed up, there is a better chance that she may:

1. Give the show the benefit of the doubt
2. Give another show a chance

---------------------

devilvet

It is a tough call to make. In some way, the theatrosphere seems to come back to this question often (I suppose because it is so vital that we keep attempt to apprehend it). I guess what I'm saying is that if folks out there perceive theatre is not be worth their time, then it isnt worth a podcast viewing either. I think the podcast is a great way to reinforce the support of the patron that you already have, but when it comes to getting new folks into the audience (except one at a time over a period of many many productions)... I think you are going to need

a) some sort of promotional catalyst outside the boundaries of your company i.e. a gushing review from your local paper b) some way to hold on to of re-capture the audience after the performance is over (hence where I think your web presense will get the most mileage)

My experience is that the non-initated non theater goer is not investing anytime looking at podcasts in order to convince themselves they are wrong. Usually, the non-theater goer becomes a theater-goer because someone they know/love is in a show and they end up enjoying the show enough they might risk another show.

But without that initiate intimate connection...how does the podcast even get played?

malachy walsh

I hope that as theatre people do explore using the web to show video of their performances and interviews with artists, that simply videoing these things is usually not a good idea.

Almost all of the work I've seen "showcased" in this way has poor sound, bad editing, horrible lighting and dull framing.

It often leads to a very wooden, artificial and stilted feeling that is among the reasons people avoid theatre.

Or, it misses the boat by being completely esoteric and pretentiously confusing.

Also, the dry interview has never really worked for me unless it was with someone who was truly interesting. And even when it is, I believe people have trouble getting through it. (As interesting as Julie Taymor's TED presentation was, I stopped watching about mid way through.)

I think people should think about these mediums more as visually exciting invitations than excerpts, using the short work of directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry as a general guide...

Joshua James

I feel, and still do feel, that much of "mainstream"* theatre is mired in the past - if we're not doing revivals of plays that are forty, fifty or a hundred years old, then we're doing productions of ten year old animated Disney movies or musical versions of LEGALLY BLONDE or THE WEDDING SINGER, all of which are years old.

What new thing, in terms of experience and voice, are we offering audiences now that is worth the time and money it costs them to see it?

It's not just a risk for the audiences, but a risk for the institution as well - they don't want to risk a lot on an unproven new voice, so they go with the familiar.

And then the familiar becomes too familiar, and like the Atari example above, people go elsewhere.

Not just audiences, but creators, too. They go to comics or television or movies, because there's an audience there.

That's just my opinion.

*I know, a lot of us here don't do MAINSTREAM, but we're talking about people's perception of theatre, right? Their perception is Broadway and off-Broadway as mainstream, not the show I'm doing with my buddy that ran six performances.

Adam

Hey,

I talked about this conversation on my blog. Check it out here:

http://missionparadox.typepad.com/the_mission_paradox_blog/2008/08/the-devil-figured-it-out.html

RLewis

Of course I have to chime in on this one: first, to again reject the premise of this perennial question. Are theater audiences really shrinking? I have seen no statistical evidence to back this up. We have more and more theaters doing more and more shows countrywide; potential Bway shows are postponing indefinitely cuz decent theaters aren’t available; [TOS] is the only show on Bway with struggling %#s; and the City just completed a decade-long building boom of new Off Bway theaters (ok, that’s still going on). What am I missing?

And I really have a problem now after waiting in line outside of the Minetta Lane Theater for a one-person Fringe show....at the Player’s Theater – that’s more than a block away. A one-person show. A Fringe show. A line outside over a block long. Does not compute. Ya know, the Fringe used to fill cramped spaces like the old Collective: Unconscious, Nada, Dixon Place, etc.; and now look at the venues: Barrow St., The Connelly, Player’s Theater, 45 Bleecker, etc. – 100-200 seat theaters. And these are primitive plays at best with only the production values that can get on and off stage in 15 minutes –folks line up around the block for this. Imagine what audiences would do for quality work.

I think both theatermakers and audiences are holding onto old notions of nyc theater (price, convenience, comfort, etc.), because there has not been a concerted effort to rebrand theater into the current state of the art. Your points are “objectively true”, but they are also objectively Not true. It just depends on what math you’re objecting. Sure, old folks go to Bway, but at my group’s shows, I can count them on one-hand (and we’re not having a problem selling out shows. We’re just not. Who is?).

Less than a decade ago you could end up in a theater without air conditioning; good plays were rarely staged in the outer boroughs; the only free theater was outdoors; etc. – these things are no longer true, but we’ve yet to wake up audiences to this new reality. We’ve yet to make the case in an organized way. There is theater at ever price point and discounts abound for the smallest of effort; all theaters have air conditioning and most now have better than folding chair seating; local theater is beyond city-wide - when we used to talk about dozens, it’s now hundreds; etc.

I do think this moment is something we could build on before we lose another generation of audiences, and there are some terrific comments here for getting more folks to choose theater as their leisure option of choice. But look, theater is analog – always will be – love it, deal with it, or get out of the way. That is its beauty. But analog doesn’t work well in digital environments. Theater on video most often sucks, and it gets worse on the ‘net. Plays can’t do trailers, dvd’s, ep’s, or cd’s like film and music – that’s our marketing challenge. We have distribution issues, but digital is macro, and I don’t know if theater works best like that.

I prefer a micro approach that builds on the subjective nature of the spectator, not bashing them for not trying new things: if I have a play about... Red Wine, let’s say. Well, then I put posters up at the local liquor store, offer discounts to food groups, do pre-show wine tastings, get free booze from distributors. Options abound. I hit folks with an interest in the themes of that specific show, not some mass mailing or podcast link emailed to people who don’t care anyway. A micro approach gives even a bad show some appeal for the right audience.

There are all levels of theater being done on all topics imaginable, but still folks outside of the community mostly know Bway – clearly, we’ve not done our indie job of getting the word out. We have yet to make the general audience aware of all the other theater options near them for cheap. Look at our theater blogs: bring up a terrific performance and one person chimes in to say they wish they had seen it; but post a Dark Knight review, and you get 20 comments dissecting all its finer points – don’t we already have the theater we deserve?

Laura

I completely agree that simply filming a stage show pretty much always looks bad, and that getting people to actually download your podcast or whatever is tough. But I think the key is to think beyond the boring, the ordinary. The point is to create some piece of digital media that COMPLEMENTS your stage work, not just spits out the boring old tried and true advertising people are already ignoring in another form.

For example, see this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGzJ4RK0lSI
It's basically a couple of actors from the TV show "Veronica Mars" screwing around on set with a video camera. A fan of the show found this video and emailed it to me, and I laughed. I then posted it on my brother's MySpace page. Then some of his friends watched it and thought it was funny... out of all this, several new people went and checked out the show and became fans. Because it was fun to watch, made you want to know what else these people were doing. Here's another example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrlSkU0TFLs
Nick Keenan (who I have never met in person) posted this on his blog, and I immediately shared it with a number of friends, put a link up on my own blog, and ALSO went to find what BBC's The Wall is all about.

This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about. Content that is catchy enough without context for people to want to share it. Obviously, coming up with the thing that's going to catch on. But I think you have to think bigger than just recording what we're already doing. Try something totally new.

Granted, all of these things remain simply marketing tools, and there are bigger issues to tackle here. But if we can chip away at pieces of the problem with new, creative solutions... well, every little bit helps!

devilvet

When I use the word marketing... I see folks gets that exhausted look...

But if you think of the marketing as an extension on the stories you are telling... it shouldn't be so dread inspiring.

I think this has to be part of the process of any kind of marketing in order to make it lively.

Marketing is not merely publicity... marketing has to become part of the story/narrative itself.

malachy walsh

Laura, those are fun examples and I think you're right about digital media complementing the show.

I'd say though that the two examples are also problematic. The Veronica Mars thing is for an audience that already knows the show and characters and stars. It's what I'd call a value-add and really won't do anything to get a bigger audience for the show. It might deepen a fans love. And it will definitely let advertisers see the audience looking at VM more easily. But get more eyeballs to tune in? I don't know.

And the other video is simply a fun way to point out that sometimes you don't want to be contacted through social networks. And then, there's a wrong way. And a right way.

It's important to remember that with theatre, to truly bring in new audience (rl lewis' observation notwithstanding), you have get over a very specific obstacle: People feel they already know theatre. And they don't like it.

Like an ad in a magazine, no-one wants to look at you.

So any approach, but particularly the viewer-activated viral approach, needs a broad simple idea to work as a hook. If the playwright has done his or her job properly, that hook is already provided by the play. All you need to do is figure out a compelling way to intrigue people into finding out more about that idea - ie, seeing the show.

Insider-like messages and inappropriate production values won't help. People have to "get it."

Also, when it comes to viral marketing, something that hasn't been mentioned here - and is the dirty little secret in marketing circles - it has not proven to be as effective as some hoped.

I think this is largely due to misuse.

Here's a link to some observations I made about this over a year ago. It still applies: http://litdept.blogspot.com/2007/06/what-is-viral.html

Which gets me to my other soap box - which is while all this marketing stuff may be helpful, it should never drive the art. When that happens, programming becomes rote and audiences, after a few seasons, start falling asleep.

Which I think is a reminder that when Donna Walker Kuhn talks about doing a show that appeals to an audience, I'm pretty sure she's not talking about choosing shows that are easy to sell. She's talking about finding out what it is about a show that is interesting to people and marketing that.

Be relevant.
Be irreverent.
Be interesting.
Be open.
Be welcoming.
Be true.

The first comment I made on this string was that I thought theatre had ceased to be relevant. Though I think there's a lot of sameness in subject matter being produced on stages across the country (how many war plays, how many relationship comedies, how many arab-isreali, anti-consumerist critiques are there out there?), I also think that marketing depts have failed to see that
whatever the current topic a play may tackle, the reason to see it must be deeper. And that's what has to be advertised. Otherwise, why should I see if I'm not in the niche that the play was written for or in agreement with the POV the play is presenting.

I also still think TCG should pool money and get someone to create ads that simply sell live performance as something worth participating in. It's a brand/category sell but it building global interest will pique local interest.

Laura

Malachy,

I totally agree, and all the greatest marketing minds in the world will tell you that the best marketing is to have a good product. Period. The first time I ever saw a commercial for a toothbrush with "cross-action" bristles, I was all over it - not because it was a particularly good commercial, but because I am kind of weirdly obsessive about brushing my teeth, and I thought this particular new innovation would feel great. But I don't notice all toothbrush commercials, because really, most toothbrushes do the same thing. Coming up with the innovation in our production (whatever the stage show may be) comes first, and for it to be "innovative," it MUST be relevant.

Then I do think there are creative ways to hook people through digital media, but you have to have a product that inspires interesting add-on media in the first place. And while it's true that the digital media may not attract large numbers, what it does do, if it is "catchy" is attract rabid followings. We've all been rick-rolled, right? But only a select few of us have been tickled enough by the concept to pass it on. However, those select few LOVE to pass it on and will do so to everyone they know. The key is not 500 people saying "This is kind of cool," to one friend, but maybe 15 people saying "THIS IS TOTALLY AWESOME YOU HAVE TO SEE IT RIGHT NOW" over and over again. That kind of enthusiasm is much more compelling.

I like the idea of TCG coming together to really all help each other out with this, but I think the likelihood that slick, expensively produced TV ads are going to get anybody excited about live theatre (who isn't already so) are pretty slim, too.

malachy walsh

I'd actually suggest that TCG avoid TV and instead to an outdoor campaign - specifically bus shelters and wild postings.

Since I think that the campaign is arguably for a non-profit, they might be able to get the media donated. Which means they'd only have to pony up for production costs.

And I believe, rightly or wrongly, that it would be easier (and strategically better) to get people excited about the category (live theatre) than any particular show.

One of my fundamental problems with theatre marketing currently is that companies often promote one show, the show their doing. Instead of interest in every show they make.

malachy walsh

I saw this buried in this weekend's Times article.

I don't think most critics believe this for theatre here. I don't think most artistic directors act on even if they do believe it. Both those groups need to change that in order to lead audiences.

Or someone from the fringe will do it for them. Or not.

*************

John P. Waters, director of graduate and undergraduate Irish Studies at New York University, said, “We need to see new theater, because we have a new Ireland.” Mr. Waters will participate in a panel on contemporary Irish theater at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University on Sept. 11.

“Ireland has been blessed with rapid, bewildering challenges in recent years, and drama is guiding the conversation,” Mr. Waters said.

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