Friday, February 06, 2009


After ruminating for over a week, I’ve concluded that I can’t posit anything even resembling answers to the broken LORT business model. I’m frankly too far removed from the details of how it works (or doesn’t work) to know why it’s broken or whether there is any realistic hope of fixing it. My feeling though is that there is more than a whiff of the same scent that dogs Detroit and the auto industry about LORT, that is, a sense that something fundamental needs to change or the whole structure might come tumbling down.

There has been a lot of spirited debate and well-considered commentary about government support of the arts, but even though the new President seems much more willing to consider greater support of the arts in general, an “arts bailout” as part of the current stimulus package being debated seems to me to be a fading hope. Even with a government boost of some sort, similar to other areas of the economy, I expect things will get worse before they get better.

From my removed perspective, most of the debate about LORT and government support concerns organizations bigger than most of the theaters in Richmond. My sense is that most local companies are not worrying about their shrinking endowments as much as they are concerned about scraping $5-$10K together to put up their next production, or securing a grant or sponsorship so they can pay to have any staff at all.

It gets increasingly hard to be a Pollyanna about this kind of thing but the only way to avoid complete despair about the current economic situation, I think, is to consider the situation an opportunity. And what I see in the troubled economy are opportunities for a new insurgency in local theater. What it would involve – IMHO – would be new and aggressive forms of marketing. Here is a scattering of my ideas:

-- Opposition marketing. There was a stink a few years ago when companies started naming the names of their opposition in their advertising. But personally I think it works and I think theater needs to do the same. But not necessarily with other theater companies but other forms of entertainment. Movie tickets are near $10. Concert tickets can be $100 or more. Theater needs to place itself clearly in that hierarchy. “Why spend $50 to hear a bad band play too loudly when you can be enchanted by a new musical for half the price?”

Another opposition tack would be the local versus regional/national argument. “You’d love to go to Broadway, wouldn’t you? Well, you don’t have to spend the money. We have Broadway caliber theater right here!”

-- Cooperation and partnership. While I think theaters need to be place themselves in opposition to other forms of entertainment, they need to work more cooperatively with other theaters. Joint ventures double and triple the reach of a theater into new audiences. And all of the local colleges, universities, and high schools have theater programs. You don’t think they’d love to have more visiting artists, more workshops, more interaction with working professionals in the theater world? I think they would.

-- New media. I think theaters are way behind the curve in terms of utilizing new media to get the word out about local theater. I’ve been turning the idea around about doing a weekly podcast about Richmond theater for months. Why isn’t anyone in the community doing this? WRIR has “Wordy Birds” and Tim Bowring’s show about local artists. Why is no one arranging a meeting between someone with a mellifluous voice like John Porter and a local high school’s drama program and saying, let’s do a weekly podcast and try to get it on WRIR? At least.

And video / YouTube. Is it just my impression or do theater people have some aversion to video? Yes, I grant that a video of good live theater can’t do it justice but it can sure whet someone’s appetite. Hell, movies these days will give you almost the entire movie in a one-minute clip. And people still go see the film. A snippet of a musical posted on YouTube with links mailed out to everyone on Facebook and/or through their Constant Contact list would do a lot more to generate excitement about a production than current print / email efforts, IMHO.

The latest unemployment figures just came out and they aren’t good. Times are going to be tough for a while. Survival during the next year or two is going to be tough. But the theater people I know are creative, hard-working and persistent. I would hope that some of them (some of you!) will find the opportunities buried in the current heap of bad news.


Anonymous said...

You've made some great suggestions. I'd love to see a theatre group try some and do it long enough to see if they have an impact.

Along the lines you established, I was thinking about the popularity of movie trailers the other day. Why don't we have theatre "trailers?" They could be YouTube videos or even live, short skits before a show. When you have an audience, why not try harder to sell them again? Sometimes it might take more than a still picture to create interest in an upcoming show.

The 2009 Guide to Doing Business in Virginia has an article on marketing on a budget. The Virginia Department of Business Assistance has seminars on growing sales. Theatre companies might want to take tips from other business sectors that are creatively trying to market themselves in new, more effective ways.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful, evocative discussion, Dave and Eraserhead.

It's interesting how our present (and temporary) situation is causing so many to reevaluate how they market, or to pursue more creative opportunities in doing so.

For those interested and not on her e-mail blast, it appears that Christine Walters and another colleague are having a small business gathering this coming Tuesday at ComedySportz from 1pm-3pm. Looks to be a supportive gathering in which those experiencing similar challenges can exchange ideas and build morale. (Yay, Christine! What a great idea for her to put forth, especially given the recent news about CSz.)

This could be a great event for theatre companies to attend as well, you think?

Jeffrey Cole said...

Dave, I wholeheartedly agree. Even going back several posts ago to your idea about cross-promoting actors and plays ("From the acclaimed director of -name of popular, recent, money-making show- and fresh from his award-winning role in -name of another show-, -name of well-known actor-..."), I think this practice should be implemented immediately. With the market the way it is and theatre fighting for elbow room at an increasingly crowded table, I think the Richmond community (and the community at large) can use all the juice it can get.

I think Eraserhead also has a good point regarding trailers or some other form of teaser. When still in rehearsal for Hamlet, Joe Carlson and I did a rough (VERY rough) version of the final duel at the Shafer Street Playhouse in front of a packed house. We stopped mid-fight, as we grappled for the swords, and an announcer's voice told the audience that, if they wanted to see how the fight ended, they'd have to come see the show. In my opinion, this is a great way to market theatre.

In a fit of madness, I once contemplated standing on a street corner near VCU and reciting my big monologues, hoping to draw attention to the show. Any bit of promotion is good.

I think the main idea of getting as much information out to as broad a grouping as possible is wonderful. How this is implemented, and whether or not it works, is another story.

Angela said...

The theater trailer idea occured to me as well, as I watched the Acts of Faith preview event. I think it would work well either live or as YouTube video, and would present opportunities for theaters to support each other. (A Swift Creek trailer plays before a Sycamore Rouge show, etc.) As Dave pointed out, theater companies aren't competing with each other so much as they're competing with other draws on people's time and entertainment dollars.

Anonymous said...

Back in 1984, I was part of the first season of Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre in Winchester, and we would go to the downtown open-air mall at lunchtime and do a few numbers from the upcoming show to generate awareness of the new company. I can't think of a similar venue in Richmond, but tap-dancing on cobblestones isn't an experience I'll ever forget.

Grant Mudge said...

Pardon the promo feel here, Dave, but it seems relevant---as examples of video:

Secondly, the RS Facebook Fan page, (and become a fan) which includes a video slideshow of our work:

Barksdale also does tons of video. The theatre companies of course use video. Trailers too. B'dale even won a major award for one, though I can't recall which. Someone remind us?

Sara Marsden said...

Barksdale's commercial, produced by NBC12 won an Emmy. You can see it, if you have not already, on YouTube if you search for Barksdale Theatre. We actually plan to do a great deal more video at Barksdale and Theatre IV. Phil purchased a Flip a couple of weeks ago so we will be doing interviews, backstage madness and other such things. Legally there are a great deal of restrictions when recording an actual show. And often when we can do record it is far too expensive since the AEA fees are pretty hefty.