Branding the independents
By Simon Ogden
When I started my theatre blog in March of 2007, I had no idea there were other theatre bloggers out there, much less an organism called the theatrosphere. For real. It honestly didn’t occur to me. I had only just found out what a blog was in the first place, and I was incredulous that you could have one of your own for free, and it seemed like a pretty effective cattle prod to force me to write.
I decided on theatre as a subject because I had concurrently formed a small, independent theatre company in Vancouver and I very much liked talking about it, so I figured I’d talk about it to . . . well, I didn’t really know who, just . . . the internet, um . . . people, I guess. I had literally zero idea how to get anybody that I didn’t already know to read this blog thingy that I was starting. Does anybody out there on the internet possibly give a shit about theatre, never mind my opinions on it and the life of my little unknown company? Probably not in the least. But, being both a theatre nerd and a word nerd, in I dove.
My site is now read by thousands of people a month. So apparently people give a shit. This is an important note if you are at present considering starting a theatre blog, and even more important if you are considering a career in the theatre.
I remember how, soon after I wrote my first couple of posts, I thought it might be fun to do a (probably futile) google search for ‘theatre blog’, just, you know, in case. Imagine, if you will, being the only Star Wars freak in your entire elementary school, and then being sent to Star Wars summer camp. (Why wasn’t there a Star Wars summer camp, by the way?) To my exhilarated delight, it turned out I was showing up way late to a party. A big, loud, rowdy party where the guests were as likely to bust out into a brawl as to make out for 5 minutes in the hall closet. And the first new friend I met at that party – the first hit on that google search, as a matter of fact – was Theatre is Territory. Ian and the Praxis crew instilled in me the importance of joining the discussion, starting some of my own and making personal connections to attract attention to my own site, my own ideas. They taught me the importance of getting smart about marketing.
The party has cooled down quite a bit since the summer of my initiation, and a pervasive air of solidarity has settled over the active theatre blogs. Through all the discussion about stuff like the role of the critics; contemporary v. classical; the sanctity of stage directions; etc; etc, there has emerged a dominant binding topic amongst those of us in cyberspace who choose to discuss the trials and tribulations of staging independent theatre, namely: how the hell do we get more asses in the seats?
Now, I know theatre has been dealing with this forever, but now people in Toronto are talking about it to people in Australia, who are then talking to people in London, who are carrying on the conversation with people in Iowa. All before breakfast. So now at least I’m sure that it’s not just my company or my city or even my country that’s having a hard time with this particular problem. Okay, great. What’s next? We’ve named the Big Problem, how do we fix it?
Let me be clear at this point: I’m not talking about filling seats as a way of making money for your company. Nor am I talking about getting your art into the heads and hearts of as many people as you possibly can. I’m talking about doing both simultaneously, with equal weight. The vast majority of us want to make theatre all the time, yet most of us have to hold down some tepid day job that pays the rent.
Between my day job, and my work with the blog and my theatre company, I work an average of 70 hours a week. And mine is a song that I hear sung all over the theatroshpere. Crazy, right? Why can’t indie theatre be our day job? Because, simply put, there isn’t enough of a demand for it. And it’s not society’s fault, it’s not the media’s fault, it’s not the fault of the dreary economy. It’s our fault. Simply put, we haven’t done enough work as an industry to create the demand. We’ve put marketing so far down the long list of priorities that it’s been reduced to a few-weeks-before effort to sell the next show.
Our job at this stage in our development, Independent Theatre, is not to sell our next show. Our job is to use that show to sell our brand of entertainment. And to do that we have to sell each other’s shows as well, with no prejudice, judgment or competitiveness, until the routine of checking out the small-house theatre listings is burned into the consciousness of our respective communities. And if politics are an issue amongst the companies in your particular community, they’re going to have to be the traffic of the stage alone for a while. What do you say?
Simply put, it’s getting smart about marketing that is the key to our evolution. As artists we’re doing fine. Astonishing, even. As business people we suck. We’ve got grossly overworked Artistic Directors handling the creative and the business side of things. We’ve got production budgets riding on one piss-up fundraising party. We’re spinning wheels when we need to fly, and there’s never been a better time to take off. In a tight economy we represent the best entertainment quality for the least amount of money. Period. So we must stop marketing only to our friends, our families, to other artists. 10 minutes on Facebook will take care of that. We must have a dedicated marketer on the staff of every single show who does nothing but sell that show (and thereby the industry), to the community at large outside of the choir, to all those citizens who are always telling me, all the time, that they don’t go out and see theatre because they never hear about it. We need to find more people to tell them about it. And in all probability the third or fourth time someone from our community tells them they should go see a play, they will. There you go, 15 bucks in the bank. And that’s how it’s going to work guys, $15 at a time. So yes, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, because unfortunately, our predecessors in indie theatre didn’t do enough of it. I’m sure they were great artists, though.
I now hold the opinion that the theatre arts at our level should function as a business, not as a charity. I do not think we’re a charity, although at one time I did, but I’m pretty sure I was being selfish. Health, education, social services, environmental protection, human rights, developing nations . . . these are charities, and people who are able should freely give the organizations that represent them money, and ask for nothing in return. But us? We’re selling a product, make no mistake about it, and the good news is that we not only have a great product, we have an essential product, one that’s been around for centuries and will always be around. The product is sound, as long as the artists in your company can spend all their energies on the art side of things. It’s a product that an enormous amount of people will be happy to spend an hour and a half and $15 on. We just have to ask them. All of them.
I have arrived at these conclusions by working steadily in theatre for 9 years and listening to and taking part in hundreds of conversations every single day with my peers from around the planet, right here on the internet since March of 2007. I have no formal business training. I’m a theatre artist, a bartender and a blogger. But now, for better or for worse, I’m also an arts marketer. Because some of us have to be, much more of us have to be, if any of us want to be solely theatre artists giving the art that found us the love and attention it deserves. If the theatroshpere is any indication, there are a lot of us who do. Give a shit, that is.
Read more from Simon Ogden at his blog: The Next Stage.