Tag Archives: theatre production

Marketing and Show Promotion

Like most performance arts, improv suffers from an excess of interested performers and producers, but a relative dearth of available interested audience. And like most performance arts, improvisers and producers of improv tend towards a one sided view towards the challenge of finding an audience for their improv. They see it as ‘how do we sell tickets and get butts in seats?’ rather than ‘how do we form relationships with a community that will want to support us?’, not realizing that answering the 2nd question is the most effective way of answering the 1st question.

Improv theaters with training programs grow an easy audience by giving students free passes to shows. But they’re not making money at the door when those students attend. Comps fill your seats but don’t pay off your expenses. And their word of mouth doesn’t go far, since nearly all their peers are also improvisers, and in our post-modern self-absorbed society almost none will pay the word of mouth any real mind.

Big Chicago improv theaters like iO and Second City have a long-standing built in audience for its main shows. However many of their lesser shows, and most shows elsewhere, struggle to fill seats even during prime time slots. Most shows seem like a case of a show in need of an audience, or shows made primarily for the sake of those making them, rather than made for an audience in need of a show.

Some inconvenient truths about producing improv shows:

– Unfortunately, when producing a show, your goal typically is to make money, at least enough to pay off your expenses to produce the show. No one’s into making improv shows to get rich, but anyone who makes a show happen at least wants to pay back the $200-400 or so to rent the venue, plus the cost of any rehearsal space, or a board op if they needed to pay one. And of course it’s nice if they can ever pay performers a little for their trouble. Turning a profit isn’t even on the radar. It’s just about making the show worth your while.

– The bulk of most improv shows’ audiences consists of other improvisers. These peers don’t have a lot of free time or disposable income. Rarely will they pay full price to see a show. But, like theater and dance, improv doesn’t do much to engage or cultivate an audience outside of its own peers.

– Marketing efforts often amount to the same ham fisted and too often annoying methods: Flyering + postering, Facebook invites, disposable-quality YouTube videos, email lists, begging for press from publications and websites, etc.

– Unsolicited word of mouth also comes up empty. I hear a couple dozen times a week about some really awesome show someone saw or otherwise knows about. When I hear about a show, I’m respectful about the input but I’m likely not going to see it. Whether or not I have the time and money… hell, even if I am interested, I have far too much else going on. So does pretty much every other improviser, let alone anyone who is not into improv or your improv group.

– Most people’s natural introverted aversion to sales and marketing (people generally don’t like directly trying to persuade someone to do something they probably don’t want to do), combined with the comfort zone of one’s social circle, leads people to lean on Facebook and other passive marketing methods that feel productive but often don’t bring much of anyone to the theater.

– We forget that other people are just as low on disposable income as we are, and are as strapped for time as we are. Most share our same schedules. If you don’t have the time and money to see a show costing that much, at that time… they probably don’t either.

– We forget that, if we aren’t interested or willing to pay to see a show at that time, for that price, with that content, etc… others in our demographic probably aren’t either. We forget that, if the investment and effort to see a show seems like too much of a bother for us, the driven working improviser… it’s probably too much for other driven working improvisers, let alone the not-as-driven casual audience that you want to pay full price to see your show.

– The more roadblocks you place to seeing your show (like ticket prices $10 and higher, a late start time on a work night, an unfavorable venue, an uninspiring lineup of groups, spammy and annoying marketing), the easier it is for anyone, let alone an improviser, to say no-thanks. Most non-improvisers also don’t have much money, and choosing to buy a ticket to a show, even a $5-10 ticket, is often for them an important one. You face a steep uphill battle to convince them to come.

– Simply put, it takes far more interest in and empathy for a target audience, and a committed interest in that audience’s needs and lifestyles, than we want to admit. The work to engage your community is just as important, if not more important, than scheduling and staging the actual show. If you don’t cultivate an outside audience, then you may as well have never produced the show.

No one in performing arts likes confronting the reality of show marketing. We generally don’t do it well, and we rely on methods that were outdated a decade ago to reach a changed culture that doesn’t respond to those methods. Effective marketing needs to be more personal and direct, and more about building relationships with a larger community that will in turn take interest and initiative in seeing your work with minimal or no solicitation.

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While I think we can do better, and find a better way to cultivate an audience community, there is also one final inconvenient truth: There are currently far more improv performers and far more shows than our culture wants or needs.

Let’s never mind that improv is still a strange unknown topic to many people, and that if people were aware they may be more interested. Jai Alai is a strange and unknown sport to people in the U.S. You think there’s a huge untapped market for that? You think all they’re missing is mere informative marketing? Highly doubtful. While improv is more applicable, sure, the ceiling for its reach may be lower than people want to believe.

I recognize that the unfortunate best answer, for both improvisers and potential audiences, may either be for the community as a whole to do fewer shows, as well as eliminate shows produced in unfriendly time slots (unless overwhelming audience demand presents itself)… or to create a more affordable and attractive way for improvisers to stage free and otherwise easily accessible shows (i.e. more shows like Shithole).

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In the interim, we ought to stay optimistic and open minded, to grow our audience for paid shows while we can, and find a better way to do it.

I’m not saying I have answers. But I do see what is not working, and I do have at least a general idea of how to do things better.

 

It’s important that we engage an audience that may want and be more easily able to see such a show. I have some ideas in mind to find that audience, in early stages, but it’s definitely more than posters, a Metromix listing and a Facebook invite.

I’d love to talk it over with an artists or producers who also want to change the paradigm on show marketing, and help find and grow a new audience for our work.

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Keeping A Calendar and The Value of Commitment

Last week I saw someone hang a colleague out to dry on a work shift at the colleague’s theater, because she had double booked herself. Though I take or leave many faux pas in the performing arts community without a fuss, I was aghast at such a failure.

Never mind that she hung someone within a work commitment out to dry. I could not believe she didn’t keep a calendar. Because if she responsibly did, there is no reasonable way this happens.

If you’re going to be a busy performing artist, or other person working in the performing arts, or really just anyone with a schedule in general… diligently keeping a real-time schedule and calendar is an absolutely mandatory minimum, right up there with paying your rent or mortgage. If you don’t diligently keep a calendar of your appointments, that’s an indictment of your character and reliability.

Google Calendar makes this very simple and easy to do, and anyone with a remotely recent mobile device, or at least in possession of a computer with a working internet connection, should be able to readily access it at any time.

I have kept a Google Calendar since 2010, shortly (and fortuitously) before I dove back into theatre after a long hiatus. I color-code and log every commitment with a short detailed description making it clear what I’m doing. I’ll even log things I haven’t committed to but am considering, and will only take those off if I decide I’m not going.

I log shows I plan to attend or am considering attending. I log proposed and planned meetups with friends, and even log time to do laundry and run errands, just to make sure I make the time to do it. I not only note appointments, commitments, anything noteworthy I did. There is never a point where I don’t remember an appointment, because I look at the calendar daily and each one is clearly noted there where I can see it. I go into greater detail than most probably need to, but anyone can keep a basic calendar online of their gigs. I’ll probably write another detailed post later (with pics) on how I set mine up.

Anyway: Double booking should not ever happen under any circumstances. Even if you’re asked to do something and don’t have ready view of your schedule, tell whoever to wait for you to check your calendar and confirm before you commit.

I don’t know how the colleague who took the pipe on this faux pas dealt with this, and beyond what I was told that’s not my business. But I consider such an offense one of my few blacklist-worthy offenses. I won’t work with people who do it.

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I am dead serious about the value of commitment.

If you’re an artist, this is going to sound I’m ripping you. Not only am I not ripping anyone in particular, but I know I myself have been guilty of what I’m about to describe. This is a common habit and I only seek to point it out so we can all work together to avoid the pitfalls.

An anecdote: Back in the day, I played with college basketball simulators, where you coach and manage a college’s basketball program. During the offseason, in the game, you recruit players to play at your school.

If you recruit one good player, you will almost certainly get that player to sign with you. But if you try and recruit more than one player, then the chances of successfully signing any of those individual players go down. There is a law of diminishing returns that kicks in quickly after two players, where on average it hurts you more to try and recruit three, four five players and beyond than it would to try and recruit two.

The lesson of the game is simple: Like anything in life you have a finite amount of energy and resources, and once you’re devoting too few resources to any individual, the effectiveness of your work in each instance decreases to an unworkable, ineffective level. So, especially when it comes to a specific goal, you are better off focusing on 1-2 commitments at a time then trying to meet several more.
To bring this back to performance art, a schedule with a high volume of gigs, groups and opportunities can begin to hurt you after a while. Every new opportunity you take diffuses the focus and commitment you can regularly give your existing commitments, and not only does the quality of your participation and availability to those commitments suffer, but your work suffers as a whole as the busy schedule frays your discipline and you develop bad habits.

Bad habits:

– Showing up at the last minute before call or late because you book yourself to rush from thing to thing on a tight schedule.
– Leaving as soon as the meeting/show is over and never having time to talk, or get to know anyone new.
– Never having time to spend outside of meetings/shows chatting and commiserating with colleagues (no, this does not need to happen over food or alcohol).
– Doing the bare minimum that is asked of you while working, because that’s all your divided energy and attention will allow.
– Going into auto-pilot due to fatigue, stress and time constraints, which reinforces any relevant bad habits since you will default to those patterns of behavior. More so, it inhibits your growth and development.
– Promotion without building relationships, e.g. typically spamming Facebook posts and invites for shows to people you never spend time with or communicate otherwise. When done to excess (which is sadly common), this comes across as quite rude.
– Not attending other people’s shows, often because you’re overbooked.
– Terrible diet, which in the long run makes you look and feel like shit.
– Tunnel vision: By only caring about what you personally are doing and what your closest colleagues are doing, you shut out everything else going on… much of which might have otherwise presented you with rewarding ideas, experiences, relationships and opportunities.
– Lack of self reflection, which drastically reduces your personal development.
– Lack of rest, which accelerates burnout.

It’s a lot like depriving yourself of sleep to make more time for things: As your sleep deprivation adversely affects your energy and health, it (to say the least) reduces your ability to make the most of that extra time.

Book your schedule solid and eventually you begin to flake whenever possible. Young performers tend not to realize the reputational damage it does to repeatedly back out of and miss meetings, practices, rehearsals and shows. Almost everyone will incidentally have to miss one from time to time. Sometimes you have to take some time off, and you can work that out ahead of time. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the people who repeatedly message the day of and say they can’t make it. Or the people who are always running from thing to thing, and treat you and your group more like a half hour errand appointment than a true relationship or a commitment.

And culturally artists (inaccurately) learn that this pattern of behavior is good for their careers and development, that a large quantity of gigs and resume line items will inevitably lead to a higher quality career. The idea in principle is at best conditionally true, and only loosely so.

Yes, practice and reps matter. Yes, experiences can be useful. However, the key to any of these experiences being useful is *committed focus*. You have to be fully invested in these experiences, and give yourself space outside of them to reflect and grow for them to maximize your development.

Otherwise, you’re simply mastering the ability to relentlessly burn both ends of the candle, lean on your existing habits within that schedule, and little more. And, as someone who has done that in his life: While that can be a useful skill, you need not commit to that so greatly than any of the individual commitments comprising that schedule suffer at its expense.

I cannot emphasize this enough: Nobody is keeping score of how many shows you do, let alone judging you on how many or how few shows you are doing. Literally no one worth a shit cares.

It’s about not just what you do within those individual commitments, but the quality and active interest you provide your relationship with the people you’re meeting those commitments with.

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Now, the working actor may find this idea of finite commitments a bit ridiculous, because most actors go gig to gig. They audition for and get cast in a role, they spend a few weeks rehearsing, then they perform, then it’s done. They constantly hustle for gigs even as they’re currently working through gigs.

I’m talking more so about ongoing commitments: Being on a team, being in an ensemble, committing to an independent group, meeting with a fellow writer to mine material every week or two. Also, friendships, intimate relationships. These relationships matter, and they atrophy when you neglect them (as a lot of performers tend to do). Often, overworked performers think their relationships and connections are a lot stronger than they actually are, having neglected them for so long.

Every commitment is not just dates on a calendar. It takes effort outside of those dates, making time when applicable outside of those dates, giving thought when you’re away to the work you’ll do next time around. It’s about making the time to get away and rest, so you’re focused with energy and ready to go next time around.

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At the very least, make sure any dates you committed to meet are on your calendar. There is no excuse not to.

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Make your own opportunities to practice and perform

When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams.

While forming a group to practice and play with isn’t a slam dunk, the real barrier is fear, a lack of self confidence and a resulting unwillingness to commit by players. You don’t do it because you don’t think you’ll have the commitment and the ability to a) follow through with a regular schedule on your own as players, and b) get better and challenge yourselves.

With classes and jams, you have an instructor or a leader buggy whipping you all the way, plus an audience of peers who (usually) are cheering your efforts on. If a group of you decide to meet and practice together, there is usually no experienced mentor leading the way. You are effectively directing and leading yourselves.

Without that mentor or leader to answer to, there to push you, there’s a great temptation to either flake and not attend, or to not try as hard as you would in class or a jam. People don’t have the respect for a voluntary practice among a group of peers that they do for a class they paid $200-350 for (and in some cases get punished for not attending), or for a jam in front of mentors and peers (which they often paid to participate in).

Don’t think I didn’t run into this challenge when a bunch of us formed Wonderland in Seattle, or with myself in everything I’ve done. It takes a collective commitment, as well as a bit of personal investment, to start a group and not only keep it grow but to continue growing and improving together. It was hard to keep the group on the same page, to have the lacking commitment of some not derail or bring down the work of everyone that’s committed to getting good.

Someone has to wrangle everybody. Someone has to find rehearsal space and (usually) pay to book it. And, most of all, people not only have to agree to participate but actually show up, almost every time. And that never minds that the success of the group from there is about how seriously everyone takes the practice. Or actually booking a show, paying for the venue, and somehow finding enough friends, family and word of mouth to fill the venue for that show. It’s very hard to be a leader of something so relatively nebulous.

I recalled this whole idea when I read Joshua Ellis’ piece this morning on empowering people to learn to code. The title and premise of his piece mirrors my point on starting a group: The trick is that there is no trick.

The barnstorming improv groups you see in Chicago, Seattle, NYC, LA, anywhere… there was no special requirement (like completing a training program) or magic formula to their success. They didn’t even necessarily have to finish their respective school curriculae (and many didn’t). Once they had a handle on what they wanted to do in improv, and once they discovered a group of people they liked practicing with… they formed a group, met and practiced regularly. Eventually, they developed the confidence in each other and their work to produce or appear in shows, and that was that.

Yes, it certainly helps to be well trained, to have a knowledgeable and strong-minded leader, to have an uncanny sense of cooperation among the group and the right people, to know people that can hook you up with space or gigs in improv shows, etc etc etc.

But so many groups came into it sort of trained, with no hookup other than a space they could afford to rent, with a rough idea of what they were doing and maybe one or two people confident enough to steward the ship.

And that’s the secret. There’s never going to be a right time, when you’re ready. You’re never ready. And yet, you’re always ready. You’re always going to be learning, and always going to feel to some degree uncomfortable.

You’re never really going to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you actually, seriously attempt to do it… much like you were never going to learn improv until you made the effort to sign up and come to classes. And often times you not only won’t have that expert assistance, but you probably don’t even need it. You can learn how to do it yourself, and can learn a lot more about being a practicing improviser from actually trying and failing and learning to do it better than to go to class and then hardly get to practice at all unless you go back to class, become addicted to jams, or somehow score off an audition.

If you take nothing else away from this post, and my audition post, it’s that you and your peers have the power to create your own opportunities. And that rather than wait and hope that someone will cast you in something, all of you should get together and just make your own opportunity. Take that $5 you’d have spent on a jam, pool it with 6-8 other people, and rent a rehearsal room for 2-3 hours a week. Find some exercises you want to practice, or just do some scenework. If you want to do a show, practice scenes for a couple months, then get in on a show or find another group to split the bill with. Just do a 20-30 minute montage if all you want to do is scenes. Just do it, see what happens and learn from it.

As with many things, 80% of the challenge is just making yourself do it.

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Ideas for a practical approach to fringe festivals for emerging artists….

Performing in fringe festivals is a risky and expensive venture. Presuming you are even selected after paying the application fee, you almost always have to pay several hundred dollars in entry fees to get a slot in the festival. You have to book and pay for travel. If you have a job, you usually have to leave that job for some period to participate. You have to invest in promotional materials to distribute, or other similar efforts… and there’s no guarantee you’ll draw an audience even with thorough promotion. No matter how good your show is, you may end up performing for rows of empty seats, and might not even make your investment back, let alone pay your bills.

I traveled with Xan Scott for her show Apocalypse Clown a few years back. I produced my own solo show, Drawn Dead, at the 2013 Seattle Fringe Festival (SEPT 2015 EDIT: And the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival). Along with the firsthand lessons, I got to meet and take in the efforts of more successful touring performers. Their years of development allowed most of them to profitably tour fringe festivals across the continent.

Those of us who don’t have that following face far greater risk. Personally, I racked up a lot of expenses doing it and eventually settled back into a day job, one I wasn’t ready to give up just yet to take a shot at out of town festivals, even if the upside was great. Often, the end result is a smallish audience and a significant net loss.

(Festivals claim to promote your show. Technically, this is true, but that means putting your name in their program and in media promos. Telling people about and selling your show is still up to you directly.)

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When I first got to Chicago, I had no notion of trying to do any fringe festivals for a while. Making do in Chicago alone was going to be tough enough, and getting the time off to travel for festivals wasn’t currently practical.

… or so it seemed. Living in Seattle I took for granted being very far from any other accessible major festival venue. The closest cities were Vancouver BC and Portland, each about 3 hours away by car. Everything else was a flight or a long drive away. I pretty much had to leave Seattle behind for 1-2 weeks to do a festival. If I had a day job and bills to pay, there was no way I could manage that. Only when I went freelance and/or self employed was it even possible.

But Chicago is in the Midwest, very close to a lot of other major cities. Milwaukee is only about an hour north. Indianapolis, most of Michigan, Iowa, St Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville are all less than 4-5 hours away by car. Minneapolis and KC are only 6 hours away. Hell, I can get to Toronto in about 8 hours if the border wait isn’t ridiculous, and Hamilton or London Ontario even sooner. So many places are within reach now.

Also, Chicago itself is a theatre hub, itself home to the Chicago Fringe Festival. But many of the suburbs have active theatre scenes, e.g. just an hour west is Elgin, which hosts the Elgin Fringe Festival. Just around Lake Michigan in Grand Rapids is the Lake Effect Fringe Festival. There may be others I haven’t found yet that are within an hour.

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That all said, I remember how much work and investment I put into Drawn Dead in 2013, and the return I got from it. It was an expensive experience rather than a lucrative or sustainable one. Once the thought of giving festivals another shot started crossing my mind, I had to consider the personal cost and benefit of the effort. But I felt there was more of a gray area than the seemingly blunt divide between Martin Dockery or Wonderheads level success and what was basically an expensive theatre vacation.

And it was an unlikely subject that led me to explore that possibility…

CONTINUED IN PART 2.

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