Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Attempt At Explanation

Today there was some brief discussion on Kris Vire's blog that made me take a second look at what I wrote yesterday, which raised an urge to isolate what I think is the basis of what I was trying to say and elaborate upon that:

Yes, expansion and innovation are important, but they aren't the only issues on our plate, nor are they higher-ranking than whatever it is that has attracted our current audience base.
So it shall be written, so it shall be done.

No really, though. I, like any artist, want as many people as possible to see my work. And if there is a way to alter the image of theatre to get Joe Q. Public to buy more tickets, then I'm all for it. But not at the expense of those audience members that have been loyal to us. Nor at the expense of the work that we are actually offering. My question to the image-modifiers out there is who exactly you're gunning for: the (as I not-so-eloquently put it on Storefront Rebellion) Sopranos crowd or the American Idol crowd?

Now watch as I try to ride this line without falling on the elitist side...

Because there is a difference in the two: The Sopranos requires more intellectual engagement (for better or for worse) than American Idol, which, on the other hand, emphasizes the malleability and immediacy -- and I'm going to go ahead and say visceral experience -- of the medium (also for better or for worse). Both are hugely popular, and there is bound to be an overlap in the audiences, but at the same time there is going to be a very divergent selection of viewers for each as well.

Transferred over to the theatre world, and playing no biases, the strictly Idol crowd will more often than not tend to line up with the world of Broadway and other large scale shows for their sensory focus (as well as other spectacles on a smaller scale -- Redmoon, for instance). Low rent storefront theatre, when unable to build the spectacle, will usually push the level of mental engagement required from an audience, be it dramatically or comedically. That's not to say that non-spectacle theatre is always smarter, just that it's quite often a game of listening rather than watching. Or listening as much as watching.

All of this background disclaimer for what? For the fact that I am working from the side of small storefront "listening" theatre, and so my preferred crowd is the Sopranos crowd, which needs to be pulled in through marketing, no doubt, but not through a major image change, because they're already into the (extremely) broad style of work that I'm trying to provide. New marketing image? Pish! Find out why the people who like what you do like what you do. Then hone in on that: it is your appeal, after all. By all means, sell that in innovative ways, but don't act like it's something it's not. If you try to sell The Sopranos to an American Idol crowd (to belabor a metaphor), you're going to end up with one of two options: a crowd that is unhappy when you don't deliver what you've promised or a show that, despite the title card, looks suspiciously like American Idol (or vice versa) -- which runs risk of alienating your current audience, the most faithful barometer of what you're doing well.


I have some good vibes that need to be sent.

To the seven or eight year old girl sitting directly in front of me on the Red Line who wet her pants:

You may never know how terribly sorry I am. Had I known what had happened and that I was the only person between you and your sister, I would have gotten off and waited for the next train so you could take care of things without having to feel any more embarrassed than you already were. I pretended not to notice when I did get off, because I know that's what you wanted, but all I wanted to do was tell you that everything was perfectly alright. Mistakes happen. You had no reason to feel ashamed; most especially not because some random stranger was witness to your accident. Because, sweetie, I was the only random stranger around and you can rest assured that I'm not gonna hold it against you. This too will pass, darling. I hope your sister was caring enough to say what I could only think.


I was working through a lot of self-doubt shit this afternoon -- I'm the guy who technically falls under the 'young, upstart punk' heading of theatre taxonomy, which I realize is a role in which it is hard to be taken seriously sometimes. And I started to think a thought rare for the young, upstart punk role: what if there's a reason for that? What if I'm just plain wrong because I haven't had as much experience and opportunity as the rest (or the majority of the rest) of the blogosphere? And I was pretty sincerely down on myself for not being able to recognize this, for going about flaunting it regardless, and worst of all, for not being able to fix it, when an incident on the Red Line showed me in an instant how useless and debilitating shame and embarrassment can be. And it took a seven year old to teach me.



Kris said...

Paul, I think there's an assumption you're making that's unfounded, at least from my point of view. When I'm talking about marketing, I'm simply talking about ways to get the word out about the work that's being done, not changing the work itself. I'm not suggesting that all of the small, smart storefront companies that I love abandon their missions and start putting up Mamma Mia to bring in the crowds. I'm thinking simply of ways to engage those crowds in what's already being done. It's possible, as someone suggested in the past few days, that George Hunka is working from a different definition of marketing--perhaps the Mamma Mia definition--and I suspect you may be as well. In which case we're all just arguing in circles.

Paul Rekk said...

I don't think it's circles so much as a number of lines of thought only partially linked, Kris.

To be fair, my thoughts are mainly in response to the more reactionary views out there, of which yours is definitely not a part.

My fears lie in the idea that we can pull in an disassociative audience by changing the image of theatre. Because, as hyperbolic as it may be, that image does have some basis in fact, and we can't change the image without having an effect on the work.

Marketing as a concept? Totally with you on the basics of what needs be done. I failed to address that mainly because it already is being done -- we just need to buck up and continue to fight the good fight.

I primarily take issue with the focus on the 'image' side of the marketing, which seems frighteningly close to talk of (re)branding to me.

Sorry to have added to the confusion, as there seems to be much amongst the denizens of the webbernets on this particular topic. But thanks for calling me on it and forcing some clarification.

Tony said...

To me, image and re-branding are not necessarily a bad thing. I do not think that one should change their work in an attempt to get butts in the seats.

But I do think there is an opportunity for some change. For example, you say are an actor and director. You have also said that you work primarily in storefronts and smaller houses. That probably means you're non-equity yourself (as am I). A quick glance though the comments on Chris Jones's blog would suggest there is an image in some minds that, as a non-equity actor, you are an amateurish (in the worst sense) hack, obviously of lesser quality than a "professional Equity actor".

Equity spends a lot of time actively working on the image that only Equity actors are professionals--implying only Equity actors have talent and only Equity shows have quality.

That is not true of Chicago as whole, and though I haven't seen you audition or on-stage, I would assume you are not an amateurish hack. (though I've met many equity members that are.)

When I talk about changing the image, that's my most direct point. There is an incredible amount of talented non-union artists in Chicago, many by choice. Letting people know that is a good thing. Actively engaging people to change their minds is what good marketing does. Changing what you do to try at fit what someone tells you they want is what bad marketing does. And let's face it there's infinitely more examples of the bad side than the good.

If you watch Sings & Arrows, (if not I'd highly recommend checking it out on DVD,) in season one there's a great example of bad marketing in it's extreme, with the Shakespeare amusement park.

Kris said...

Tony, that's a good example of an image that could use change. As Don keeps saying, there's a good chunk of the audience at Wicked or Goodman/Steppenwolf/Chicago Shakes that's never going to get into the storefront scene, because they want the opulence as part of their theater experience. But I believe there are plenty who'd be surprised at how much they'd enjoy the intimacy of smaller theaters--but perhaps they're put off by this misguided perception that non-union theater is naturally amateurish (a perception that Chris Jones is pushing harder and harder these days, for whatever reason). That's an example of audience behavior that could possibly be changed by the right kind of marketing, without changing the work at all.

Paul Rekk said...

Ah, yes. I'm totally with you now, Tony. Sorry about the miscommunication, but I was treating 'image' more as how we are presenting ourselves, rather than what outside factors are thrusting upon us (because, of course, no non-equity company is going to tout themselves as amateur hacks).

While I do tend to agree with Don that most regular patrons of the VIP houses are looking for their theatre-going experience to be An Event, I'm sure there are exceptions that prove the rule.

So, if these audience members haven't yet fallen for the non-equity = glorified playtime trap, it seems a big part of the marketing question in this case is the where and when instead of the how. How can we effectively present ourselves where we know these audiences are going to see us (i.e. the Theatre District)? I can get off the Blue Line on my way to the Chopin and come face to face with a Goodman poster -- audiences coming out of the Goodman most likely haven't the slightest about The Mill (to give a current Chopin parallel). In this example, I think that's a big issue to focus on. We can't afford to be as widespread as the Goodman, but we can learn be more efficient.