Posted by: nancykenny | March 4, 2011

The Publicist’s Dilemma (Part Who Knows Now)

I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my marketing skills throughout the last year. The more I keep doing it, the better I get. I’m sure I can hear a collective “duh” from all of you reading this and, somewhere, Malcom Gladwell’s ears are burning. I know it sounds silly, but it always catches me by surprise when I feel like I’ve actually gotten good at something. This weird little “Huh. When did that happen?” kind of thing.

This week, I finished up my final publicity report for Little Martyrs and I was incredibly pleased with the results:

  • Our Media Call was the highest attended for any Evolution Theatre production;
  • We had two television appearances, one of which was an interview;
  • We had two radio spots – one an interview and one a review;
  • We had FIVE print preview articles, including the cover of the Ottawa Citizen’s Arts & Life section with two large photos and online video (and the Citizen never seems to do theatre previews anymore);
  • There were a total of 7 reviews of the production, which ranged from good to great for the production.
  • And this does not include such things as at least 3 weeks on PosterLoop, various community listings, posters and flyers, ect. All in all, I am incredibly proud of the work I did and consider this campaign to be a success!

    That said, if you build it, they… might not always come.

    Though I don’t have any final numbers yet, attendance for the production was not what I would consider to be particularly good. It was, ok at best.

    So that makes me wonder, what more could I have done? What kept people away? Was it the themes of the play? The venue? The cost of tickets? The time of year? The fact that is was new work in a town that is always seeking a “sure thing” (and don’t tell me that new work does well in town because of Fringe of Undercurrents – both of those festivals come with a certain pedigree)?


    Please feel free to discuss in the comment section below.



    1. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was definitely the theme/content that kept me away. Art based on real-life child murders makes me squirm. That’s why I didn’t go.

      It sounds like you did a lot of things very well. That’s very impressive representation from every form of media. Have you thought about surveying the ticket buyers to find out why they came? There might be some answers there to build on and grow your numbers in future.

      Hope that helps.

      By the way, my favourite Evolution show to date was Pool No Water. I really enjoyed that show.

      • The only thing that kept me away was the subject matter. As we discussed after Hard Ways, drama involving abused or murdered children isn’t something I handle well. And because this play was based on relatively recent, true-life events I was especially wary.

        This is just speculation, but I’m wondering if the timing was tricky. There were a lot of shows up in early February. And Undercurrents meant that a contingent of theatre goers had seen multiple shows the two weekends preceding your opening.

        You put together a strong publicity campaign. You’re right to be proud of your efforts.

        • As you probably know, you’re not the first person to tell me that the subject matter was an issue. This brings up so many other questions. I could have complete disregarded any mention of those events in my publicity materials, but would that have been fair to an audience member? On the other hand, we got lots of publicity because of the events, including that super nice preview in the Citizen.

          As for timing, perhaps, but I think timing we’ll always be an issue. Evolution Theatre picked that timeslot specifically because of Undercurrents, since we were positive it would be a success and would perhaps wet the theatre-goers appetite for new work. When we booked out space, no one else had announced they would also be at that time. We knew about OLT, but they definitely have a different audience-base from ours and so we didn’t think it would matter. We then were waiting until December to announce the season at the birthday party. But Plosive came in (exploded?) out of nowhere with Ernest and it was too late for us to change our dates by then. And of course NORT unfortunately doesn’t really communicate with other companies so we didn’t know about them either.

          Personally, I think the fact that there is so much theatre is just great and it shows how much growth there has been in the city over the last couple of years. Then again, I see at least three shows a week, so seeing it all has never been an issue for me.

      • Hey Wayne, thanks for the comments! Though we will be incorporating show surveys for our up coming productions (I didn’t have time to do it for Martyrs, since I was also performing in the show), I’m more curious as to why people are NOT coming – and not just for this production, but theatre in general – though I guess if I knew that, I’d be very rich right now…

        Though I’m biased, I think the themes of the show were handled very well. I think the anticipation of the content was worse than the actual presentation. But again, I’m biased.

        • For what it’s worth, I really appreciated that your publicity campaign was up front about the subject matter.

          As for the timing, I understand that you can’t control other companies’ schedules (especially if they announce their schedules after yours). An abundance of theatre is definitely a good thing, but catching multiple shows a week can be tough for 9 to 5ers, people with young children and mortals who lack Nancy Kenny-ian reserves of stamina. 🙂

    2. Hi Nancy!

      Those are some impressive media hits for Ottawa theatre! How do they compare to other companies or publicity campaigns? Do you have any benchmarks?

      Putting on the marketing hat, based on what benchmarks are you assessing your final ticket sales? Previous Evolution shows? If that’s the case, I’m not sure you would have enough data to really make a strong assessment one way or the other. In my memory, you’ve had three shows in three different venues over three years. Indeed, this latest venue is one that a lot of people didn’t even know existed until a few months ago. Those are apples, oranges, and kiwis not really apt for comparison!

      Now, if you had some data from arts court for the venue in question that might help. Alternatively, if you were able to convince other companies to compile and share their marketing data for Arts Court, then, you might be able to create a decent “Ottawa independent theatre” benchmark for assessment. Without that data, I don’t think you can really know how many tickets you should have expected to sell.

      If you have these numbers, do share! 🙂

      • Such great questions, Sterling! Though I do not have any benchmarks for other companies, we would have to be compared to a company of equivalent means and stature. For instance, the NAC probably get more media hits than we do. Then again, having put together the media books from previous years at the GCTC, I don’t think we were THAT far off.

        Yes, definitely evaluating ticket sales on previous Evolution Theatre shows and you are absolutely right when you say they don’t really compare (you also forgot to mention that there was no show last year, where a lack of active presence could also lead to a drop in sales).

        You’re points actually make me want to contact Arts Court and get ticket sale data from Inseparables, which I believe was the only other play ever produced in that space. I’d also be very curious to know how well local companies do in the larger theatre space. It may take a while, but I promise to share what I can when I get it.

    3. Nancy,

      Like Evolution Theatre, Third Wall has had critical successes that have failed to catch fire at the box office. And TW has also had difficult plays that sold well. For example, I thought “The Empire Builders” would be a tough sell: less than well known author, allegorical rather than realistic story line. It outsold TW’s other two shows of the season. It generated excellent word of mouth. TW didn’t initiate the show. Another theatre company approached TW about a co-production. So “The Empire Builders” tapped two networks for audience. The cast and director had been talking up the play for a few years. Their network brought people who had never seen a TW production.

      For many years, I have told actors not to rely so heavily on reviews. Build word of mouth. Build networks. Build audience. Have you seen John D. Huston’s “A Christmas Carol”? Thousands have. Many of them year after year. Barb and I joke that John’s motto should be: Will talk for coffee. He chats personally with his audience all the time.

      My choir gets audiences that other, better choirs drool over. Man, do we build and maintain audience. Everybody sells, not just publicity. We chat up that audience after (almost) every performance. We prefer venues where we have lots of room for our post-concert reception. We put out a spread for them (ask Sterling). We chat up audience between performances. It’s all hands on deck.

      Third Wall is making a sustained effort to build audience by tapping into networks of people who don’t know TW. An art gallery, a charcuterie, wineries, a wine writer, a church: all of them work to spread the word, about TW, and about each other. Their networks bring new people to TW, and to each other.

      “Little Martyrs” was a gutsy, risky choice. And a tough sell. Like Nadine and Wayne, Barb didn’t want to see it because of the subject matter. I went because of the dynamite cast. But I went alone because I thought it would be a tough sell to find a guest.

      The cast was superb. The set was to die for. I loved the lighting. The direction never distracted me from the story (which is how I like it). You folks worked your asses off.

      And I found the play thought-provoking. I went searching the web afterwards about the subject matter. I didn’t write a review, but I did write about the thoughts that it stirred up in me.

      But I didn’t recommend it to friends. Evolution Theatre got no word of mouth advertising out of me for this one. Why?

      The play itself didn’t grab me, even though the subject matter did. I didn’t care about the characters, in spite of the excellent efforts of the actors and crew. You folks took a chance. It didn’t work for me. This time. Worry not, I’ll come back again. Partly because you take chances.

      The night I went, the audience mostly consisted of what Barb and I call “the usual suspects”. Mostly theatre people. We saw the same thing for “Turn of the Screw”. And “Iron” (that won Margo MacDonald and Ivo Valentik their well-deserved Rideau Awards).

      That says to me that Evolution Theatre needs to build its audience, not just its publicity. The mistake is to rely on the publicist, no matter how talented. It should be all hands on deck. And it should be between plays, not just when there’s a show on. Third Wall, for example, connects with its audience about once a month. And every TW event is FUN, even if the plays are serious.

      Publicity, no matter how well done, can only do so much. The company needs to build a relationship with an audience that it grows and nurtures. Between plays, not just when there’s a show coming. And it’s all hands on deck, not just the publicist.

      I told you I found “Little Martyrs” thought-provoking.


      • Hear, hear! 🙂

      • I always love hearing your responses, Brian. And you are right on all accounts.

        That said, we did want to hold a reception for Martyrs. However funds are (aren’t they always?) an issue. If it comes right down to it, I’d much rather be able to pay for designers than for food and drinks after the show. Since I will definitely be working on outreach and development over the next year in anticipation for the start of our new residency. In fact, we’ve already started working on partnerships with the other resident companies and I am feeling reinvigorated after today’s company meeting.

    4. Hi Nancy,

      I’m new to the Ottawa area and a friend suggested I take a look at your blog. I have some experience in theatre and happened to catch Little Martyrs during it’s run. It was okay. I don’t mean to put down the effort put into the production but it’s something that I’ve come to notice as a trend in the plays I’ve seen in Ottawa since arriving in this city 8 months ago.

      There doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on the quality of the presentation. I am admitting my ignorance, I do not know the ins and outs of Ottawa’s cultural boundaries/limitations. I had a hard to wrapping my head around some of the ticket prices being charged by the theatre companies whose shows I’ve gone to see. It’s hard to fork $40 (or gas money) out for two hours of uninspiring entertainment–Little Martyrs isn’t the show I’m thinking of btw.

      I also happened to catch Third Wall Theatre’s Blackbird back in September. Again I thought it was alright.

      I congratulate you Nancy on your marketing skills as they seemed to help the success of Little Martyrs and granted a new work is a hard sell anywhere (especially in a recession) but judging by the bios I read in all the programs I’ve been handed at the various shows I’ve been to, there seems to be a lot of competent people involved but the quality appears to be stilted.

      Are there apprenticeships or master classes available in the city for actors and tech people? I don’t mean to sound demeaning–I enjoyed the shows I saw for the most part–I just wasn’t wowed by them and I’m confused as to why…

      I also found it interesting how a small collection of actors appeared in various productions by various theatre companies. Is this a result of a small pool of talent or the old cliche of “go with what you know”?

      Third Wall’s production of Blackbird, for example. The play was not one I was familiar with, but I did some research and found out the basic plot information and character descriptions. It sounded good. I found it odd though, that the character of Una was played by a woman who appeared older than what the character was described to be (I mean no offense the actress who was competent but I just thought the casting was a little strange). Is this a result of not having enough talent to fulfill the needs of the shows being produced?

      You had mentioned in your blog that you wondered if the lack of audience attendance was the result of a “new work aversion”, I just wondered if this could also be applied to the artists involved.

      I don’t mean to criticize, I think theatre is vital to the growth and development of a city…I’m just an avid fan hoping to gain a little insight. 🙂


      • Hello (Godot?) and welcome to the Ottawa Theatre community. I am very curious to know where you’re coming from, mostly to know how it compares. Are you a theatre-practitioner or just a fan? I am glad that you are able to share your opinion here and I am always curious to hear what people who come in from the outside seem to think. Sometimes, I think we get too caught up in our own bubble to look at things objectively, myself included. That said, and you are of course at a complete liberty to do so, I am sorry you don’t feel comfortable enough to share your real identity. It does make it hard to pursue a conversation when you don’t know who you are talking to.

        As for some of your questions, no, there aren’t really that many Master classes or Apprenticeships here in Ottawa. It’s one of the reasons I travel so much out of town in order to study. Also, from my experience, every theatre community in the country pretty much goes with the “tried and true”. It is very hard to insert yourself in, but once you’re in, you’re in. I guess.

        I won’t speak on casting choices for other companies as I do not know what goes on behind closed doors, but I would respectfully like to disagree that there isn’t enough talent to fulfill the needs of the shows produced. Now I’m even more curious to know which shows you’ve seen in town over the past 8 months.

        Again, welcome to the community! I do hope you’ll stick around. We need more fans. And who knows, we may just surprise you.

        • Nancy, sorry if my pseudonym was a little off-putting…my name is Jeremy Randall and I moved to Ottawa from Edmonton where as you know the theatre community is quite strong. This change in location could be why my bearings are a little skewed with regards to what I’ve been seeing theatre-wise.

          I am a fan and also an actor (or was prior to illness).

          My interests vary so for example I managed to see both Vimy and Strawberry’s in January at the GCTC, Romeo and Juliet and the Year of Magical Thinking at the NAC, Ernest most recently, The Long Weekend at the Little Theatre…I haven’t got all the programs with me but suffice to say there are more I’ve seen (I try to go at least twice a month to see something). And it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed myself, any chance I get to experience theatre is a great for me, I guess I’m just homesick maybe.

          I hope my questions and comments didn’t offend.

          I appreciate your candor!

          Jeremy (aka Godot)

    5. Welcome to Ottawa Jeremy! It’s always useful to hear what someone from a different community has to say. In my opinion, fresh perspectives are always a good thing!

      • What Wayne said! Welcome! I hope to meet you at some event in the near future.

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