Archive › The Arts

Listen: Boston Theatre Conference 2011 #BTC11

A few weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to the Boston Theatre Conference Blog 2011. I sent this post in late and it was never put up so I thought I would post it.

In presenting my graduate school thesis, a website redesign and strategy for The Peterborough Players in New Hampshire, I opened with the prologue from Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

It goes on. I’m sure you know it. If you didn’t see it done at Actors’ Shakespeare Project last fall, for a refresher, you can see Derek Jacobi do it.

Riffing off the prologue, which discusses the magic of theatre, the illusions we create on a daily basis as we transport audiences to different times and places, I went on to discuss the challenge of creating a website that truly lets someone experience a theatre production.

Marketers, too, have to create an illusion, inspiring people to believe that they will be transported to different places in their imagination while in the theatre. Not only do they have to be inspired to go on the journey, but they have to also be willing to pay for it. In our society, one of the primary ways we show that we value something is to pay for it. As a marketer, my duty is to make people value the art on stage sufficiently so that they will part with their money to see the show and, hopefully, return some other time to be transported to another, vastly different world.

Marketers do it in short time periods and limited budgets. How do we do it?

Tom Stoppard would say: “It’s a mystery”. Well, not so much a mystery as a shared enterprise with all the “players” in the company from management to creative staff.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in college sticks with me to this day: The key to great theatre is understanding how to listen. It’s a difficult thing to learn but it’s essential to everything we do, every day, from ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks to having a conversation with a colleague. Listening is how we get stuff done. Listening is how we collaborate and build community. We find out what other people need, we share our own goals and aspirations, and find out if we can work together to achieve them. But after listening comes the problem solving; sometimes the listening results in a consensus, sometimes not, but that is where some dynamic leadership steps in.

I arrived in Boston in 2003, a year out of graduate school in Internet Strategy. While that may seem like a common degree or idea now, back then I was constantly giving an elevator pitch of what I knew. In 2003, the Arsenal Center for the Arts hadn’t been built (I was sharing part of a New Rep office with Adam Zahler in Newton Highlands, back when performances were at the church). Zero Arrow Theatre (now Oberon) hadn’t yet been built. The Calderwood Pavilion didn’t exist.

Back then, print media had a whole different meaning, too.

I remember Adam taking me to a TAMA (Theatre Arts Marketing Alliance) meeting in the South End. It was there I met all the others who were in charge of selling the shows. It was there I met all the others who are preoccupied with whether shows have momentum and buzz. I was in a room full of people who understand the pressure-filled no-win situation of the adage:

“When the show does well, the show was good.
When the show tanks, the marketing sucked.”

From January 2009 through November 2010, I wasn’t part of this community. I wasn’t employed at a theatre company. I was unaffiliated. It was a strange feeling. Looking in from the “outside” made me realize how much I valued the work of the committed people in the Boston theatre community. I am back in the conversation on the frontlines with my current position at Central Square Theater.

What did I do in the interim? I never stopped thinking of you, the Boston Theatre Community. I did what I always seem to do, not wax nostalgic about what happened in the past, but reflect on it so I was pushed to be innovative and creative with where the opportunities were now, fill a need, and lend a hand, something like a community organizer. In this case, the community I was organizing wasn’t the other marketers in the Boston Theatre Community but the audience.

In May 2008, ExploreBostonTheatre.com began with a Twitter account (@exploretheatre). I set up an email account and a bunch of Google Alerts on every Theatre Company and artistic director in Boston and New England. I started sharing links to stories, listings, and reviews that came down the pipeline. I tracked click-throughs and within a couple of months was seeing the links were being shared and clicked on, sometimes, 200 times.

One important contradiction to remember about me: I am a marketer who detests hype and hyperbole. Whenever I see it happening, I think of the late, great George Carlin’s “Advertising Lullaby”.

What do I like? I like content. I like things I can read, watch, listen to. Things which cause me to pause and think; things that draw me closer, connect, and encourage me to be part of the movement. I want to be moved and inspired.

In August 2009 when I launched ExploreBostonTheatre.com it was as much a laboratory for me to find out what was possible and successful as much as it was a way to contribute to the building and strengthening of audiences for Boston theatres. What did I learn? Here are some takeaways:

  1. Find the words to express your passion. It’s important. To inaugurate the site, I gave a softball-freebie to any artistic director who wanted to answer the call. All they had to do was answer the question: Why is theatre important? Of the few hundred theatres to whom I sent emails, I received two. I even received a response from one artistic director who said, “The answer to that question is self evident.” If The Boston Globe came calling and gave the artistic director the same opportunity to expound, words would be found—they would leap off the page. Take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce that you are passionate and people should become part of your tribe and invest in your success.
  2. We live in a Google world. 65% of my traffic came from search engines, primarily (95%) Google. If you can’t be found easily online, you don’t exist. What search terms were driving traffic to my site? Theater company names, actor names, playwright names, director names, phrases (people looking for information about the cast or running time). More importantly you should ask yourself: Why were people going to my site before they were going to yours?
  3. Press Releases are not just for the press. They are Google bait. People know press releases are a good source of the basic facts they need. Make it readable and accessible. Remember: People like me, BroadwayWorld.com, Playbill.com and many others who use press releases to create content to inform their audience. Write well. Be passionate.
  4. The more hype and hyperbole in your press release, the less credibility it has. In the year-plus of ExploreBostonTheatre.com, I read several hundred press releases from Boston theaters. It’s like sitting in a room observing auditions. You get bored. Tell me a story about the piece and convince me it’s important that audience (or, just me) see the show right now.
  5. Create beautiful content. 80% of the press releases I received never had any photos. Most of the company’s websites didn’t even have publicity photos. I would make a gallery and so would others. Plan ahead. Celebrate your productions with beautiful content.

I want to be part of a community of generous individuals who care about the bigger picture of defining what theatre is and means to audiences right now in the world, even if the views in this world of theatre diverge. Convergence is not what the individuals in theatre strive for. I understand that. The creative path is one of being different from your neighbor; offering something unique to the audience. But we all share the wish and the need to entice the audience to participate in our world. If we don’t keep that goal in mind, we go dark. Marketing wants what the art wants--important work that speaks to Boston and beyond, forcing us to see the world through different eyes or to know that we are not alone. I always go back to music and recall this quote from the movie Walk the Line, when Johnny Cash is auditioning for Sam Phillips:

“Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”

I don’t go to church. I go to the theatre. I experience art to be inspired, enlightened and yes, maybe even saved. I believe in it. And, I have this suspicion that if you’re part of the Boston Theatre Community, you believe in it, too.

I go to the theatre to be reminded of the possibility and that things can be better. Joe Henry sums it up, talking about going to the movies in “Our Song”

“We push in line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed as
Younger and braver and humble and free.”

Remember everyone in your organization, from marketers to fundraisers, to production managers, to box office representatives are there for a reason. They are there by choice. Don’t take them for granted. They help make everything happen for the audience.

Now, go create and inspire—and listen.

Comments ( 0 )

New Repertory Theatre 20th Anniversary Video

Recently New Repertory Theatre (where I worked from 2003 through 2006) posted the documentary video that I had worked on during June 2005.  The video was played before the 20th Anniversary Gala, which also was the theatre community’s first opportunity to see a performance in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

After the video, the audience was treated to a spectacular concert version of New Rep’s award-winning production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It was a fitting celebration for a company that has had a meteoric rise from the small church space in Newton Highlands to a resident company at performing arts center.

Creating this documentary for such an important event was a particularly exciting opportunity.  New Rep partnered with NewTV (Newton Community Access Television) and I had a great time working with then recent high school graduate, Josh Woolf, who was an expert in video production.  Josh’s expertise in knowing nearly everything about the equipment (all mine was a few years out of date) helped us tell New Rep’s compelling story. Josh’s technical experience and my background and knowledge of theatre, a desire to learn more about New Rep, and experience conducting interviews helped us capture some wonderful moments.  It was a great experience in storytelling.  Josh has since gone onto study at Emerson and has worked on a few films as a production assistant.

The interviews took us to New York City to talk to Founding Artistic Director, Larry Lane, and around the greater Boston area to interview other founding members, board members, and Rick Lombardo, the Producing Artistic Director who recently announced he would be leaving to assume the same role at San Jose Rep.

While at Antioch College, Bob Devine, the then-President and Professor of Communications, once said that all Antiochians inevitably work on or create a documentary.  As community members, we recognize there are important stories that must be told.  At that moment in time, I was a student of theatre and psychology, and I didn’t envisioned myself working on any types of documentaries.

I was wrong.

After working on the New Repertory Theatre 20th Anniversary Video, I understood what Bob meant.  When a staff member has the time and freedom to research and present a history of an organization, they are able to fully become part of a tradition.  They understand the context of their daily work in the bigger picture.  The history, as it did for New Rep, illustrated the broader contribution of many different people over an extended period of time that made the theatre what it is today.

When documenting a growing cultural organization like New Rep at a historic moment of moving to a new performing arts space, you begin to learn what it takes to be successful.  You learn about the diverse group of people, each with their own, opinions and personality quirks.  You also learn how each one of these people has contributed to the success and sustainability of the organization.  Above all, what you discover is that through the difference, they are all working together towards a singular, mission-based vision for the organization.

It is a commitment to success.

The stories of the hard work, sacrifice, and commitment that build cultural organizations and institutions into essential parts of life must be told.  They serve as a constant reminder of what is important in our communities and how, if we don’t support them, the can disappear.

“Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country — they just make our country worth defending.” - Ken Burns

Comments ( 0 )

Museums of Boston

Yesterday morning, I was honored to be the featured speaker at the September Museums of Boston meeting held at the Garden in the Woods.  When Barbara Levitov of the Davis Museum at Wellesley invited me, she cited a recent survey of the membership where they responded that they wished to know more about the marketing and audience development strategies of theatre companies.  Having worked for both a midsize and large theatre in the Boston area I have had broad experience in building audiences for a variety of productions.

When planning this presentation I recalled a three-day workshop I attended a few years ago sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.  The workshop, “Increasing Cultural Participation,” outlined the three basic strategic categories for audience interaction and outreach:

  • Broaden
  • Deepen
  • Diversify

I decided to use that outline as a jumping off point for the presentation.  Of course, I wanted to find a way to bring using the internet into the presentation but, from experience, I know that not all organizations wish to learn only about opportunities for leveraging the internet for marketing.

The initial part of my presentation was an explanation of the intended outcomes for each of those three strategic areas.  I peppered my presentation with examples from my work at both New Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre.

Overall, my emphasis was that an organization must have a measurable audience development goal and a mission-driven strategic marketing plan to reach the goal.  Each specific marketing or audience development tactic contributes parts of the overall goal to increase participation.

Whenever I make a presentation to a smaller group like Museums of Boston (we were all around a long table) I tend to let the group participate and shape part of the presentation.  As part of that goal, I offered to talk about utilizing the internet for audience development and outreach.  The group was definitely interested utilizing web technology to build audiences and one member was particularly interested in the Mike Daisey incident at the American Repertory Theatre.  If you’re not familiar with the incident, read Mike’s post on the American Repertory Theatre’s blog and watch the video, too.

I used the Mike Daisey incident to reinforce that marketing on the internet isn’t a case of when something catches fire, it will obviously lead to ticket sales.  It also isn’t a case that something that has great exposure (the video has been viewed 150,000 times) necessarily transforms to the people who watch it acting in any other way than just watching the video. The video was a great spectacle.  Audience members weren’t compelled to attend a performance because the interruption that made the event so memorable wasn’t necessarily going to happen again.  What was interesting to people and why they watched it was that the performance was disrupted as opposed to the performance itself.  What was lost in our distribution was that Mike Daisey is a wonderful performer and, even without the rude disruption by the school, he is definitely worth seeing.

Museums of Boston allowed me to stay and attend their meeting and take a brief tour of the Garden in the Woods.  During their general meeting, I was pleased to listen to a lively discussion about whether the Museums of Boston website was showing up as an referring site in each individual organization’s Google Analytics reports.  A discussion of the importance of knowing where your traffic is coming from showed that the members there were already looking for ways to increase the traffic to their sites.  In the arts community, these kinds of discussions and information sharing opportunities are necessary. and they don’t happen enough.

Thank you to Museums of Boston and especially to Barbara Levitov, Marketing Manager at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College for inviting me to be the featured speaker at their September meeting.

Comments ( 0 )