I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts enough to write a coherent, fresh blog piece based on the marketing strategies of recent shows I’ve been seeing. Two weeks and three pages of notes later, I give up. I have trouble discussing things rationally when I’m moody and confused, and it’s time I surrendered the ghost on this one. Marketing might be more complicated than I’m able to speak to, so I’ll just share my thoughts/frustrations instead. Then you can tell me I’m an ill-informed plebeian.
I went to Round House Theatre’s The Talented Mr. Ripley dragging my heels—my friend Marc, an actor in the show, asked me to go and provided comps, so I went. Round House isn’t a theater I used to consider myself invited to, so to speak. When I think of Round House, my brain returns images of vanilla shows, old rich people and Bethesda. And yet there I was in the audience, gasping with glee and sweating in anticipation. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather: Ripley was the best show I’ve seen in DC in the last two years I’ve been back in town, and by a big margin I might add. Almost everything about the show was remarkably done, detailed, and oozing with intelligence. Where did those negative images about Round House come from? What planted that seed?
I knew Ripley was playing all along. I saw the press. And I almost missed a much-needed night of exciting and inspiring theater, in part because the information I received was both misleading and lacking. The initial press I saw back in September unfortunately turned me off to the production entirely—the article was more a loving profile on “the star,” Karl Miller, than anything else, and gave a lot of lip service to his transition to NY, which of course made me annoyed (personal thing). The only information on the theater’s website was a short synopsis of the play, and both the press and the site featured this photo:
Not only is this completely misrepresentative of the play’s character and style, it looks … goofy, fake, dinner-theatery. It tells me, “Don’t go to this show. You will pluck out your eyes.” In one swift blow, I’m taken down a false path. Karl’s deeply troubled Tom Ripley never once looks like that in the show. Nowhere on the website or in its press am I given a true sense of the play’s eeriness and darkness, the strength of its ensemble, its breathtaking design concept, or sharp direction. As another example, take a look at this poster from a show I saw recently (also comped by my friend Daniel, an actor in the show), All’s Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare Theatre:
I saw this many times on ads and banners near my office, and by the looks of it, again concluded I would never, ever see this show. This photo looks like it’s for a production of The Music Man or some silly nonsense; in reality, it was a lovely, polished production of, yes, a relatively dull play, but one good to watch nonetheless. All’s Well was very grown-up: art nouveau finery backlit by a smoldering sunset, solid and confident performances from most, careful direction, and comedic bits that added meat to the show instead of providing “relief.”
Makes me wonder, how many people make buying decisions based on seemingly small aspects of a theater’s marketing concept, such as a press photo?
They certainly had a big impression on me. I also know, for myself, the appearance of a theater’s website is the primary place where I gather my basic notions about the company. I’m not saying any of this needs to be fancy. Take for example dog & pony dc‘s site. This tells me everything I need to know about the company. It’s indie, it’s in-your-face, it’s woman-centric; the mission is right up top, company news is visible, there are photos, the company’s voice is “heard” through the screen. Look at the Kennedy Center’s site: heavily text-based, older and very standard design, inconsistent standard fonts, requires digging for information. Says to me, it’s an institution, it’s been around for a while and has an old-guard feel, and there’s a lot of variety so you’ll have to find your niche. Contrast with BAM’s website. Modern, consistent and thoughtful design; horizontal scrolling pictures, video and information for each show; easily navigable and concise. Says to me, it’s also an institution, but they do edgy work, if you like one event you’ll probably like another, they cater to young people.
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What if Marc wasn’t in Ripley? An exciting and inspiring night would have passed me by, and I wouldn’t be looking forward to Round House’s upcoming shows, which now I am. Turns out, they also have $10 tickets to any show if you’re under 30, so now I know I can go whether I have a friend in the production or not. How many people know about this?
I say all this still not knowing if “blame” is to be placed. Maybe it’s just misfortune. Or am I just not looking hard enough? Is it my duty as an artist and practitioner to seek out information? Maybe it’s my duty to take more gambles with my money. Is it the theater’s job to push information out to me, the consumer?
Who is responsible, as it were, to be the advocate for a new piece of theater?
I could stand to do more digging myself, but theaters should also know that there may be more interest out there than they think. Most show information I get comes from listservs and email chains, word-of-mouth, and local blogs like BrightestYoungThings and DCist. Represent yourself well, and don’t be shy about getting the word out.