Posted by: nancykenny | May 10, 2009

What Do You Do?

As I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed my company’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water) at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre. I saw it again today as I filmed archival footage and felt that it had now found it’s groove. Most of my previous nitpicks are now gone and I am proud of the work the cast and crew are doing. What I am saying is that it’s a solid show, both funny and despicable at the same time, and it is well worth seeing.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.

Attendance for the show is definitely not where I would want it to be (though to be fair, I would want sold out houses every night, so let me rephrase that to attendance is not where I expect it to be, which would be at least 50% attendance in a 70 seat venue). As the Marketing Coordinator for the show, this is a hard fact for me to accept. The cast and crew have done their part in producing a good show and it is my responsibility to put bums in seats. Though I’ve worked my ass off, I’m not sure what else I can do. Our budget is incredibly small and I’ve exhausted many a free publicity avenue: we’re in free listings all over town and on the web; our website has been updated; our facebook group and event listing includes photos and reviews; posters and flyers are out…
Unfortunately, while we’ve been able to get some fantastic reviews from the online community (including a new one from (Cult)ure Magazine), the mainstream media have yet to pick us up. Unlike many a theatre centre, Ottawa only has two (sometimes three) active theatre critics. While one made it out to opening night and told me personally that he enjoyed the show, he also informed me that he would not be writing a review since there was “no room” in the paper for it. This is a big blow for a small company like ours which requires all the coverage we can get to raise awareness of our work outside the theatre community.

So, I’ve decided to call for help from all my arts marketing friends in the blogosphere. How do you do it? Do you have any inexpensive (ie. free) suggestions I could use in order to push ticket sales?

I look forward to any advice you might have. In the meantime, because I like them so much, here’s another production shot from pool (no water).

pool (no water) Photo Credit Tim Ginley

pool (no water) Photo Credit Tim Ginley



  1. Nancy,

    I’m involved in two arts organizations and they do a bunch of things.

    A lot of it has to do with word of mouth, which all arts organizations acknowledge, and few understand.

    I’m concert coordinator for an amateur community choir (Musica Viva Singers). We typically get audiences in the 350-450 range with even more tickets sold. All 50 some members are expected to sell tickets and put bums in seats. Our audience size is the envy of many Ottawa choirs, some of which are pro or semi-pro. Our members rattle their networks, some big, some small. My address book has over 2000 entries, over 600 in Ottawa, and Barb’s is even bigger. Barb sends out repeated emails, and choir members customize them and do the same. Barb and I have a spreadsheet of everyone who has bought tickets from us, and what year(s) they did so. We talk to people about our upcoming concert. We always have tickets on hand to sell. Our choir posts beautiful posters around town. The choir has developed a following over time.

    We hold a reception after the concert where our members meet the audience over member prepared goodies. We get feedback about what worked, what didn’t, and above all build a personal relationship with our audience.

    Note that after Saturday’s performance, Kate Smith and Christopher Bedford came out to chat with us.

    I’m also on the board of directors of Third Wall. We have lists of our subscribers and donors. Yes we do emails and snail mail. But we also have a Strawberry Social, and board members talk to friends, donors, and subscribers to sell tickets to the Social.

    We also do followup calls on late donors and late subscribers to pull in donations and subscriptions. We maintain a relationship with our audience. We ask why people renew or don’t renew.

    Our Social is at the swanky Earnscliffe location. People who had never been to a Third Wall production came to the Strawberry Social to wear a frock and shmooze. We made the connection with Earnscliffe with our Top Girls of Ottawa event. We invited successful women in Ottawa to a special performance of “Top Girls”. One of the invitees who came was Claire Cary of Earnscliffe, who loved what she saw. We had special prices for actors for the Strawberry Social, so that the audience could shmooze with them. The audience loves to meet artistic directors and actors.

    Third Wall board members shmooze like crazy. For opening night of “Henry V”, we each had 7 comps available to bring people who didn’t know Third Wall. I made my quota. I’m sure some other board members made their’s as well. I’m sure at least one board member beat me.

    As a company that now has to fill the mainstage of the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, we have to seek professional marketing assistance. But we’ve had good success putting bums in seats in the IGTC Studio, so much of what we do now is applicable to Evolution Theatre.

    Third Wall has an interesting demographic split in its audience. We have a lot of over 50s and a lot of 20-30s. We particularly draw the younger crowd to the play that involves pre-professionals from OSSD. Well, duh! All their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, classmates, former classmates, etc. come to see them. And return to see other Third Wall productions.

    This isn’t rocket science. One year Manitoba Theatre Centre ran a play called “The Wave” at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival that had 15 high school students in the cast. 30 minutes after arriving in Winnipeg, we were asked if we were going to see “The Wave”. They sold out the 300 seat MTC Warehouse every night. MTC remounted the production for the following winter and it did boffo box office.

    Marketing is not merely the responsibility of one person. Whether it be Third Wall or Musica Viva Singers, EVERYBODY networks. It takes time to build an audience, and many hands make light work.

    Yes, I use Facebook and Twitter and email. But above all I talk to people, on the phone and in person. My entire choir does. The board of directors at Third Wall does.

    Does that help, Nancy?


  2. That is actually very helpful. Thank you, Brian!

  3. Hey Nancy. It sounds like you’ve done a very good job selling the show so far (industry average for indie theatre is about 30% BiS), so nice work. And it sounds like you’ve actually been doing the work of two people on the show (and it’s important to make the distinction, because they’re two full-time positions), that of marketer and publicist. Publicity is important, no doubt, but as your story with the critic illustrates beautifully, it’s becoming more and more frustrating by the minute. Here in Vancouver we’ve now got, oh, 2 or 3 main reviewers, and they’re dropping like flies anyhow. It’s time we stopped putting so much importance on a couple of critics to get those bums in seats. It’s time to really concentrate on marketing.

    As far as this show goes, you’ve done all you can do as a publicist, and most of what can be done as a marketer, actually, with one week left in the show. (It always picks up the last week anyway, so don’t worry.) That having been said, there’s stuff you can still do, depending on the time you have available. You can hit the phone and/or you can hit the streets. You can call the other theatre companies in town and personally invite them at a comp or serious discount if they will invite their contact lists to the show. (And, of course, offer them the same for their next show.) You can call special interest groups that have some relationship to the subject matter and sell them on it at a group discount. Call high-school drama departments and see if they’ll organize a field trip for a student discount. You could organize a street team and take to the city with ‘protest’ placards and hand out street cards or coupons. You could announce a Pay-What-You-Can offer on your social media sites with a ‘secret password’. Basically concentrate your efforts on the demographics most likely to come out to killer live events – identify them, contact them, make them feel special, and invite them. That’s about all that’s left at this point, really.

    And remember – and this to me is the most important point – if you tell them about the play and they don’t come that’s totally okay, because when we market our shows we’re not marketing our shows, we’re marketing our industry. And when enough of us tell enough of them how awesome a thing it is that they’re missing, they’ll come. Eventually, they’ll come. You just need to keep showing all that wonderful excitement that you have for it, because I’ve only known you for a short while, and I already know that it’s infectious. Keep it up.

    • And remember – and this to me is the most important point – if you tell them about the play and they don’t come that’s totally okay, because when we market our shows we’re not marketing our shows, we’re marketing our industry. And when enough of us tell enough of them how awesome a thing it is that they’re missing, they’ll come. Eventually, they’ll come. You just need to keep showing all that wonderful excitement that you have for it, because I’ve only known you for a short while, and I already know that it’s infectious. Keep it up.

      That is probably the smartest thing I have ever heard! Thanks Simon!

  4. Hey, Nancy;
    Sorry, I’m just joining this party now, ’cause I was off doing Mother’s Day stuff yesterday.
    I use the cast to do some of this work, as well. It’s tough when it’s a fully pro show, because, honestly, the cast usually doesn’t care as much to be putting out the word when they are getting paid, either way. I know that sounds very cynical, but when people really want to have an audience, they are invested, and will help you with some of the work.
    I’d encourage you to get on to some kind of e-newsletter program, like Constant Contact (I’ve done a blog post on the various types), and start to build up an email list. Have a sign-up box on your website. Marketing using social media is all about having the infrastructure in place, so that when the day comes, you drop the info and it goes.
    I also do three emails for each show I’m working on: one month out, one week out, and one after opening, but before the show closes, to reflect the (hopefully positive) reviews. This email goes to the entire cast and crew, with a request to send it to anyone who might be interested. People will come because a. someone they know is in it, or b. it sounds interesting and proactive (or possibly there will be nudity!).
    I’m really getting into using YouTube. People like stuff that is easy and visual. Simon’s doing some great work with his video listings (, and I’ve had some luck getting my clients on TV lately. I’ve recorded them, encoded it, and uploaded them to YouTube. That link goes on Facebook, and in emails, on the website…
    Good luck. Don’t give up. That’s the only thing that matters. Keep making theatre.

  5. Great idea for a post. I am sure I will be carefully reviewing the comments more than once.

    Others have said this already but it’s worth saying again: the only thing everyone in your company and production can do (Yes, everyone: every job description should include “and assistant marketer and/ or publicist”) is identify who will enjoy the show and who will organize others to come and then give them a reason to come and bring others with them and then to talk about it with others after.

    There all kinds of ways of doing this but making people feel special, important, and missed may be a good angle at this point. “Hey, I haven’t seen you at the show “community mover and shaker X”, I’d love to get your feedback, here are comps/ half-pricies etc.” Of course, be sure they haven’t been yet. Why not ask for feedback from people and, if they haven’t seen it, offer them a reason to attend. Also I’d suggest targeting people who wouldn’t normally expect comps or this kind of attention / invitation. Identify tomorrow’s leaders and make them feel important now and you will have them forever.

    I suspect you’ve already thought about this but the leaders in other segments you should be targeting are dance practitioners, visual artists, galleries, book people, and (especially for this show) photographers. These people will always be a part of your potential audience, so why not build some relationships now. E.g. “Hey, local Ottawa photographer who is very skilled and posts like crazy on media site X, I love your pictures, come see my show on the cheap or for free.”

    Moreover, think long term. You’ve got a good show. It will be worth your while to get people to it even if it comes at a short-term cost. So, consider any loss taken to get audience now as a long-term investment that may pay dividends with the next show and beyond. Don’t do it for the good of the industry, do it for the good of your company and it’s brand. You need to hook people on what your company has to offer and it is only one aspect of the overall industry.

    One last thought: most of the thoughts that come to my mind for me, at this point, are strategic rather than tactical and I get the sense, at this point, you are looking for the latter rather than the former. In keeping with the spirit of the post, after you take a well deserved break, why not organize a face-to-face with local performing arts marketing-concerned folks (i.e not just theatre folks). It would be a great way to create some long-term relationships and create partnerships. And it would be a better time to talk strategy. I’d do it myself, but you’ve got waaay more street cred than I do. If you think it is a good idea I will certainly help you organize it.

  6. […] know about the show, not sell tickets.” I have to say that this is a bit of a change from my current perspective on arts marketing, which is that it’s my job to put bums in […]

  7. […] Don’t more events mean more awareness? The great Simon Ogden once mentioned the following in my blog comments (and I hope you also click on that link because it was a pretty good blog post filled with very […]

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