Everything I know about theatre today I learned from blogging

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.

19 thoughts on “Everything I know about theatre today I learned from blogging

  1. Hey Simon,

    Did you find Theatre Is Territory before or after we produced Dyad as part of the Toronto Fringe? Either way it’s true that Praxis and you have had a lot of synergy (Any Jem and the Holograms fans out there?) for the past couple of years onstage and online.

    I really like your post and I am excited to send it to some people I know who need to read it.

    Of course I have one critique. I think the “orphans and dolphins” definition of charitable organizations is incorrect. The government funds many industries including banks, auto companies and oil companies through tax breaks and incentives. Why banks and not theatre?

    There is also a powerful argument to be made for the benefits a government and its citizens derive from increased culture. Although I have some concerns about Richard Florida’s “Creative Cities” model, there is much data on the return in terms of tourism and increased spending cultural activities have on an economy.

    TAPA did a comprehensive stats report released last year that proved quantitatively that the #1 reason tourists came to Toronto was for culture. We are not a weight pulling society down. Investment in the arts comes back to a society with a significant return.

  2. Hey Mike, thanks for the space. Ian’s idea of guest blogging as a way of amping up the conversation is great. More guest posts!

    I’m pretty sure I found Theatre is Territory well before Dyad, I remember Ian’s progressive marketing campaign for it on the site and loving the anticipation build of it. That was certainly an influence on my recent 21st Floor campaign.

    With regards to your take on governmental funding, I absolutely couldn’t agree more. The serious (ie: in it for the long run) companies are an essential component of Canada’s culture sector, and not only should we be eligible for federal assistance, we need to be prioritized ahead in the queue of some other sectors. I don’t think eligibility for tax breaks and incentives makes us a charity, I think it clarifies us as a serious industry, now more than ever, actually. This is yet more work that a strong administration department of each company needs to devote energy to.

    What I’m referring to here is the companies that have set themselves as a charity within the community and ask for handouts with no return, and do little or no real outreach to raise the profile of theatre or enhance the credibility of the industry as a whole. I’m all for corporate sponsorship and big business fundraising – I think this is the next stage in our financial development, actually – but it’s this image of being a small little charity case that has to change. And I think this change starts with creating public demand through outreach marketing, just like with the auto companies etc.

    We have to run with a small business model, not a charity model, if we’re going to grow up. This starts with branding.

  3. Cool. I get and appreciate the distinction. And yes, more guest posts are on the way.

    Totally unrelated, but shockling to the Toronto blogosphere: Torontoist just announced it’s shutting down at the end of the month! What am I supposed to sip my morning coffee and read The Globe and Mail?

  4. Great article. It’s a time of change and flux in the arts industry and focused marketing, marketing that strives to communicate and connect with an audience just may be what brings a company through.

  5. Great post, Simon.

    I’d like to echo Michael’s assertion that one of the best untapped marketing tools we have is the known and studied benefits of increased culture (especially cultural works in which the viewer is actively engaged) on different metrics of societal ills – education, crime, etc.

    One of the biggest hurdles that I think we need to overcome is the hurdle of our own creative energy. If you buy in to the idea that marketing a show and creating a show are both equally creative endeavors that are worthy of our time – which I do – you’re still left with the problem that both are time-intensive. There’s very little way to creatively multi-task your way around what comes down to a choice for a small company – either spend your time making your show better or spend your time finding new people who will like your show.

    One company in Chicago springs to mind as someone who has actually had some success in finding a way to creatively combine these two tasks – The House. Basically, I’d boil their strategy down to: piggy back your theatrical aesthetic on a commodity that already has some marketing traction, in their case, the graphic novel. Each play that they have done – they do all original works or adaptations, or lately, remounts – has been inspired by some aspect of a graphic novel / pop culture genre – they had a rock ‘n roll samurai trilogy, a time-travel family drama, and a number of off-the-cuff reinventions of works like Peter Pan and the Nutcracker.

    While their product has had some artistic inconsistencies for some, and their single-minded success has spawned some well-earned backlash in the community (especially when the economy crash drew the public’s attention to more high-minded goals and the House apparently didn’t get the memo), it has always been simple and clear how to market and merchandize their shows, because in many ways their work is inspired by marketing rather than the other way around. All their works are written in house, so they’ve spun off a cottage industry of DVD sales of their live performances, as well as action figures, t-shirts, merchandise, and trading cards (in lieu of programs). All these things are rolled out onstage at intermission, and the audience scoops it up double-fisted.

    The ENERGY of the shows and the merchandise feeding frenzy has also created a very exciting entity – the House’s junior board, which are essentially up and coming artists who do the work of marketing and promoting house shows rather than creating the work. How the junior board stays engaged with this work, I couldn’t tell you, but it certainly solves the problem of company energy: inspire folks to be dedicated promoters of your work.

    To sum up, one way that clearly works in
    Chicago
    to market your shows is:

    SHOW = PARTY = AWESOME = YOU ARE AWESOME = YOU ARE A PART OF US

    Not all work can be marketed like this (except maybe that last part), but the success of it has sometimes made me drool, so it bears mentioning!

  6. Hey Nick, that completely kicks ass, in so many ways. Talk about a new model! Just reading that is inspiring enough to start a lecture series…

    And I love the idea of merch. Brilliant. Every time I see a play where they even just sell the playscripts or CDs of the show’s music I have to buy it. And I always have to stand in a line-up to do it.

  7. Again, from the experience of watching a couple theaters sell party/plays here – there is potential and a big danger with this kind of approach, and that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t go for it.

    The danger is that you will begin to sell sugar water instead of vitamin juice.

    We were talking before on Adam Thurman’s blog about how marketing as an entity can lead us astray when we don’t temper it with purpose. It’s a hammer, and there’s a right way to use it and a wrong way to use it…

    But if you ask the hammer how to build your house, it will tell you to build a square box, with lots of nails. It will not tell you how to build the right house for you – or Vancouver – or Chicago – or green living – or for resale value – or the future. It’s just a hammer, and the amazing part isn’t the hammer, it’s that we as creative people haven’t been curious enough to learn how to use this particular tool called marketing creatively until now. Well, okay, Andy Warhol was pretty good at this, but that’s just one dude’s aesthetic.

    If you’re a set designer, you start your process by knowing your tools and knowing the properties of materials. You understand that you can create lifelike woodgrain by layering different color values and textures. You develop technique to achieve dramatic effects cheaply. We need to not just buy into the idea of marketing shows ourselves, we need to study in depth the techniques of marketing and then use them creatively and wisely.

    We could easily turn on the gas here and do damage to our work. Have you noticed how awkward – even in large theater institutions – that the marketing department is? It’s like the other newbie, the projections department – we turn that big projection gizmo on over the stage and more often than not our audience shifts and we’re running roughshod over the thing itself.

    Can’t afford to do that anymore, can we?

    As I understand it – and oh yeah, I think it warrants several lectures, so I’ll be obtusely simplistic – the functions of marketing that we could begin to think creatively about are:

    Segmentation – knowing the types of people that could want to go to your show, and knowing exactly WHY they would want to go.

    Communication – picking just the right message, medium, and saturation level to target a communication (“come to my show”) to those Segments that you’ve chosen.

    Relationship Building – capture those people, welcome them, hand them a cup of coffee, write down their address, get to know them, and make sure in dozens of ways that they will want to spend their free time with you in the future for many years to come.

    Am I missing a big idea here? I’m still figuring this out on some level, so I very well may be. I think if we start thinking of these three functions of marketing as PART OF OUR WORK – part of the design, part of the world of the play, we’ll start thinking of them as less of a chore and will have more energy for them.

    We’re doing this full-environment approach for our next play at New Leaf Theater, Touch. It’s a difficult environment to capture and drop as an attachment over the internets, but Boy oh boy do we need to meet up if you’re ever down Chicago-way, and after these conversations I’m so excited to check out the scenes in both Toronto and Vancouver and see how it works on the ground! Being connected with the strongest ideas coming out of several countries’ worth of independent theater is an oddly comforting and energizing thing, isn’t it?

    Thanks for continuing to explore this subject, all!

  8. Comforting and energizing it is Nick, and the single greatest use for this theatrosphere of ours, as far as I’m concerned. I feel like we’re so close to independent theatre being a legitimate self-sustaining industry in its own right, and this is the natural next step. Literally developing the page for all of us to get on.

    This could be the most inspiring comment thread I’ve ever read…

  9. This is a great argument. Great. I’m a theatre and arts blogger in Milwaukee who is freaking tired of all of us whining about lack of funds, lack of people, blah, blah, blah. My mother, a middle school teacher, has the best advice: if you have a problem, make a plain. This is not just a crisis waiting to happen, this is an epidemic that needs to be squashed. We as theatre artists need to reinvigorate the masses. Television and internet be damned. People still like to be surrounded by people. I don’t have the answers, but I intend to pursue them. And you can guest blog on Artsy Schmartsy any damned time you want.

  10. Right on Jonathan, couldn’t agree more. It’s a time for action not complaints over drinks.

    And I love AS by the way, already a huge fan.

  11. The funny thing about me being a playwright who’s also into branding and niche marketing for the arts and entertainment industry is that I’m never taken up on my offers to do work.

    I used to think it’s because people don’t have money, but I guess that’s not necessarily true.

  12. One more thing,

    I love your thinking that the arts isn’t a charity . . . but don’t let that undercut the idea that a good arts org wants AND needs donations, preferably from individuals, to thrive.

    The arts are a business. But they are a business with a complex economic model. Ticket sales can’t cover the cost of the art and infrastructure, so you absolutely need other sources of income.

    Selling merchandise may help, but really you need people who are willing to pony up a check.

  13. Thanks Adam, much appreciated.

    So, if we’re forced to accept charitable donations from patrons, is there perhaps another way we can treat them other than ‘thanks for the free money’? What value or service can we offer in exchange for their money? The civic theatres can offer subscriptions or in-theatre advertising or something, what can the independents offer?

    I’m a little stumped by how to approach potential patrons about this, at this point in the company’s evolution. I’d be more into branded sponsorship than accepting charitable donations, it seems to fit a more small business aesthetic that I’m more comfortable with. That’s just me, though.

  14. A recent Rand study points to a structural problem for arts marketing: lack of demand. The assumption that there is an audience, or that one can be created by the right combination of product and marketing is flawed. Arts producers, marketers and managers need to become aware of how the over supply is being created and take measured steps to correct it. Some have suggested that competition will kill off the excess supply, but who among us want to see less art? Start by reading the Rand study on cultural demand. It’s available at their website.

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