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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Marketing and Drawing an Audience

I'm certainly no wizard at marketing. I've been known to draw small houses to very well-reviewed shows. It's a talent. It seems as though, unfortunately, that marketing is a piece of the puzzle that the producers of new works either shy away from or have failed to grasp effectively. I've read a fair amount of talk about why new work isn't produced often enough, and also about the perennial desire of Republicans to nix all funding to anything beautiful and socially important. I'd like to add that an understanding of and effective use of new marketing, or trends, or how things become popular; this would give us a leg up in a very difficult place to make art.

I'm not trying to blame the person that got punched for starting the fight; after the invent of home entertainment, even the film industry has taken an audience hit. Theater's decline in popularity is a part of a trend that's been going on for decades. We moved from the live performance, to the cinema, from the imaginative radio to the expressive television. We have moved from board games and card games to video games. We have moved from news print to Google News. We tend to hear either those who incorrectly believe that audiences will come to quality work and most writers lack of audience is reflecting their own quality (if so, explain Mamma Mia); or those who feel that human beings have fundamentally turned away from the arts, that we're on a sinking ship, and we're helpless to stop it so why try? Just make plays for yourself; because plays are important just for being still around. That's not good enough for me. That makes us a tree falling rather quickly into a far off forest.

The fact of the matter is, we live in a culture that has a vast number of ways to communicate, and theatrical exposure still comes (even on the internet) from very basic sources. One is listings, the other is reviews. The problem with both is that the audience that seeks these things out is an audience we already have. That is not expanding our audience, even for a single show. That is trying to take the small audience that exists and turn its attention your way.

In a culture that Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink, it's important to ask ourselves why this is? Is it because the drink itself is vastly superior to, say, RC Cola? Or Sprite? I would pose that it has been incredibly smart at marketing itself. We know it takes paint off of cars, but who doesn't like a big coke with a cheeseburger? Coke is a victory of branding.

Branding the smaller theaters and new works would have to be a concerted effort. Kirk Wood Bromley had suggested several times that we rename "Off-Off Broadway" "Indie Theatre." It's not just a quirky idea; it's a branding concept. As much as the use of such capitalist language makes most earnest young writers want to spit out their own teeth, it's an unavoidable fact of the current culture. How we're branded and sold is of the utmost importance. Language is the basis of thought. Period. If you control the language by which you are referred, you control the impression that the world has of you.

Indie Theatre is one possible solution. But it's also likely to become no more accurate than "Independent Films" that are put out by Disney or "Alternative Music" on the Time Warner label. The Fringe is an example of what Indie Theatre would undoubtedly become: a label on a style. Then again, we don't want to place the Indie theater label solely on a budget, do we? Or is that the lone criteria?

Another important way to spread an audience for a refined taste (which is, after all, what the arts often are) is to use the example of wine. What do wine tastings do for wineries? They cultivate an informed audience. They give something lovely and delicious away for free, even make a ritual of doing so. In doing so, their audience becomes both complimented (they're learning something refined), indulged (here is something for free) and sold (if you like that so much, we have it by the bottle.) Not a bad model for marketing new works, if approached carefully.

Rebranding and cultivating...are two ways to market that don't require Grey Advertising and paid listings. And they may well do more for the entire community than a single show.

I'll leave it at that for now. Thought that might be worth some discussion. I'm sure there's far more to be said on the subject.


Scott Walters said...

I like your idea of wine sampling. In the Restoration period, you didn't have to buy a ticket until the first act was over. So you could poke your head into a theatre and see whether the play looked like something you're interested in. This might make people more likely to take a chance on something new -- if they didn't like it, they could nip out for dessert instead.

As far as marketing, the question is 1) do theatres have enough money to pay the enormous costs of advertising? 2) could OOB (or Indie Theatre) market itself as an entity (everybody pitching in for the marketing)? My experience is that, tacitly at least, we tend to compete for audiences.

One approach that also might work would be more personal: find ways to make friends of our audience, so that they have loyalty to our "brand." In other words, create our own little community that we know and are known by.

Freeman said...


Thanks for the comment.

The "wine tasting" comparison, I think, has appeal to me because it cultivates the taste of the audience, as opposed to try to sell them on something they don't understand.

I would say that OOB or Indie Theatre could certainly take steps, or individual companies could take steps to "rebrand." Precisely what I'm suggesting is marketing techniques that don't require some huge investment of capital. Word of mouth is the most valuable for more marketing, it's been said. How do we create a buzz that reaches the living room? How do we make going to a play as cool to a teenager as going to see a band?

I would say that in New York I see the tenuous value of making friends with your audience; which is that your audience becomes primarily your friends. I would say the personal approach has done a great deal to shrink the audience. I would love to explore how to get the mass audience excited by our product.