Working Your Promotional Angles: Urban Arts Case Study, Part III

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Idiosyncrasies are a gold mine for communicators working in theatre production, provided you’ve got an eye for detail and a willingness to innovate on the fly.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re responsible for promoting a completely new work or the billionth production of a classic like Julius Caesar — your company’s creative choices, individual personalities and even the rehearsals will provide angles you can work to distinguish your brand and generate audience interest in your show.

Victoria-based Urban Arts Productions had a great product in their adaptation of Marie Antoinette: The Colour of Flesh, but weren’t able to translate that creative success into large audiences or a key critical review.

This is my fourth post in a six-part case study on what they and other independent theatre companies might do to better-promote their creative work, capture larger audiences, and engage key critics.

Playing catch-up? Here’s what you’ve missed:

Haunted Stage + Ghost Sightings = Milk the Hell Out of It

Novelty carries significant weight in the 24-hour news cycle, especially in entertainment. As you prepare your promotional campaign, one eye must be primed for new opportunities to add to the story you’re crafting.

You should also be open to taking that story in new directions if the trajectory you started down isn’t netting the results you intended.

During the intermission conversation I participated in with Heather Jarvie and other audience members at Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, someone more familiar with the Maritime Museum’s history asked Jarvie whether she or the rest of the company had any encounters with Victoria’s Hanging Judge.

For those of you who are as unfamiliar as I was with the Maritime Museum and Victoria’s history, the Hanging Judge is Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie (1819-1894) who served as British Columbia’s chief justice for nearly 25 years and once presided over the courtroom that served as the stage for this production of Marie Antoinette.

According to Jarvie, not only had everyone in the company had an encounter with the judge, audience members during previous shows had approached her at intermission to ask:

Who was the gentleman in period dress standing in the balcony overlooking the courtroom stage?

Let me note that the rest of the museum’s historical facilities were closed at this point and the building felt eerily silent long before Jarvie started talking about the ghost. Of the five other people who also heard this story, three immediately moved their seats to our side of the stage area to be in a better position to spot the ghost, should he appear again.

(To my knowledge, there were no sightings during the second half of the show.)

The Hanging Judge’s existence is hardly a secret in Victoria — he is in fact a key figure in the cottage industry of ghost tours that operate in the downtown area, particularly in October leading up to Halloween.

Despite this sensational angle, I couldn’t find a single mention linking the ghost to this production. Information about the ghost is equally difficult to find through the Maritime Muesum’s website — after a search, I found it buried in the public education programs section.

While it’s true that not everyone is fascinated by the occult, this aspect of Urban Arts’ production howls for coverage. Journalists who might overlook the show on its own merits might be willing to entertain such a pitch. The ghost angle might also have lent itself to a promotional campaign jointly run by the company and the museum to target people in visiting both show and courtroom.

If nothing else, the company’s individual stories would have made for ideal Facebook or blog post fodder.

Consider the Human Factor

If you were launching a Broadway play starring an actor like Julia Roberts or Kevin Spacey, you’d have to be crazy to ignore their personal klout in your communications planning, right?

While few of the actors featured in less prestigious productions walk in the door carrying that kind of media pedigree, they are nonetheless assets.

One of the central ideas of the flattened communications world we now live in is that everyone has a network you can mine to promote ideas or products. All that differs is the scale and your willingness to be creative.

Melanie Leon, Andria Young and Garry Garneau were the actors in this production of Marie Antoinette. While the Urban Arts website carries some information about them, it isn’t easy to find.

Their names and roles appear under the Marie Antoinette navigation tag, but the photo is from Nevermore. Production stills and actor headshots are provided in the photo section, but that’s it. Even the short biographies in the print program that I received at the performance are missing.

A quick social networking survey didn’t produce much more. Garneau has a Facebook profile, but it’s private; he has a short profile at Theatre Online with a headshot.

Semi-hilariously, the fifth-best result under his name is Part I of this case study, which included a labeled production photo of him with Leon from the Urban Arts website. (This may be due to Google search engine tricks that store your preferences for sites you visit often. I tried it a second time after dumping my cache and cookies, but if you get different search results, let me know.)

I couldn’t find anything definitive for either Leon or Young.

In the age of social media and DIY promotion, these absences shock me. Surely maintaining a public social media and/or web profile is part of the game young actors get taught in theatre school these days? If it isn’t, you should have hard questions for your curriculum designers.

Regardless, encourage your actors to create public social media accounts if they haven’t already done so — you can then loop that information back into either your company website or Facebook page to generate fresh content.

Engaging your actors in this process will likely prompt them to share information about the show through their personal networks, which could range from 10 people to over 1,000, depending on how aggressively they network.

(Don’t care for social media networking? My friend, you have chosen the wrong field and possibly the wrong millennia. But that’s another post.)

By definition, your actors’ friends, colleagues or followers are invested in them and their activities. Even if their social media contacts live too far away to buy a ticket, they can be part of the groundswell buzz that helps to perpetuate your content machine and build SEO data for your websites.

In the corporate world, this kind of influence is why companies care so much in building fan communities for their brands and generating likes on their products — it generates social media klout, which, if you follow any of the discussion of how search engines like Google are mining this information to refine their search algorithms, is fast-becoming its own reward.

Lastly, if your local media market is as hard to crack as the Victoria mainstream newspaper scene, you should also consider whether your company members’ hometown connections could land your production some profile coverage in the online editions of other publications. This might be particularly fruitful if they come from small towns with limited local entertainment possibilities.

In the age of Google News, media hits are media hits, no matter where they happen.

Even Failure is Exploitable

The beauty of live theatre is the energy and excitement generated through the performance.

The inverse is the awkwardness experienced by both actors and audience if there aren’t enough bodies in the room to generate a buzz.

While the poor turnout for Marie Antoinette was a surprise to my relatives and me, the poor ticket sales couldn’t have come as a shock to the production team.

I chatted a bit about this phenomenon with my friend Jennifer @momsalon, who has a background in theatre. She observed that it’s difficult to switch gears and compensate for poor sales midway through a run. Everyone’s focus is on the actual production, not necessarily the promotional wheels propelling it. This is particularly true if the company is small and resources are limited.

You still owe it to your bank account to have done your homework. You have to know the magic breakeven number that will allow you to account for your fixed costs. Sit down with your numbers people ahead of time and calculate some break points at which point it might make sense to give tickets away.

Yes, that’s what I said. Give the tickets away.

No matter where you perform, there are people who would probably come see your show for free. Maybe it’s the local high school crowd. Maybe it’s a retirement home down the street. Maybe you do what local companies used to do back in my grandmother’s days at North York General Hospital and give tickets to the hospital staff as a joint thank-you/promotional act.

Scout your network and find these pockets of willing audiences. Do whatever you have to do to put bums in seats and get people talking about your show.

If you really have a great product, word of mouth will do your advertising for you. Depending on your luck, timing and the length of your run, you might be able to turn abysmal sales into a packed house — if not for your current show, then as momentum to feed the next one.

Cracked? Perhaps.

Considering the alternative to inaction, what do you have to lose?

Looking ahead to Part IV

Next time, I’ll talk about the importance of Twitter to your social media campaign.

Catching up? Here are links for the whole series: