The Show Before The Show

When someone asks me about my first memories of going to the theatre, I immediately think of all the hullabaloo before the show. It was a production in and of itself, mounted over the course of a week or two before the curtain rose. The impression it left on me was that what was to come—the event—was going to be significant. And so before I even knew what the event was, I was looking forward to it.

First, my mom would tell me to “come straight home on Friday because we’re going to the theatre.” I knew it was a big deal by the way she’d emphasize the word, as if to say, “You are one lucky kid.” Later, there’d be an article or picture from a brochure in the mail left on the counter when I got home from school, shamelessly paper-weighted by a cookie. And, finally, I was to don the ceremonial garb reserved only for special occasions: a black crushed-velvet tuxedo. A costume that never failed to inspire the phrase, “Don’t you look smart!” This was an event we wanted to look “smart” for.

All of this lead-up was part of an important ritual. My mother’s promotion of going to the theatre was theatre. A show before the show. And it was effective. Yet I never see theatre companies market shows in a way this fun or exciting. Why are we still relying on ads and posters to sell plays?

Back in the seventies, when artistic producer Bill Glassco opened what is known today as the Tarragon Theatre, he faced several challenges when it came to getting bums in seats. Glassco was concerned, rightly, that Torontonians might be dissuaded from trekking all the way north of Dupont, what was then considered another planet, to see a show performed next to a working rail corridor. Andrea Meeson, a theatre supporter, cooked up the idea with Bill to serve a simple dinner for two dollars in the lobby before the Sunday evening show. Soup, bread, a little cheese or pâté, some fruit, and a cider or coffee. It grew a faithful Sunday night crowd and gained the attention of the press. People started trekking north of the corridor for a fun dinner and a show. It created a bond between the patrons and the theatre. A community, which Tarragon still benefits from today.

I read about that event years ago in a newspaper article framed on the wall of the Tarragon office. The play that was produced is barely mentioned in the article. Because, in the end—and here’s the kicker—the play is only one reason people go to the theatre. I have this theory that subconsciously we go for communion. To have a shared experience with strangers. The play is the point of reference, the excuse we use to hang out together in public. It’s tribal. The event will often bring like-minded people together over their shared appreciation of art, dance, music, sport, religion, fashion—it really doesn’t matter—and once there, they rub shoulders with “their people.” When we’re in a room of strangers all laughing or crying together we’re reminded of our collective humanity. We’re less alone. That’s why movies didn’t die out after TV arrived. That’s why Netflix hasn’t put a dent in theatre box offices. Even with our very own home theatres and endless online entertainment, we still rush out, buy popcorn or a drink, and sit in a dark room together.

When we’re in a room of strangers all laughing or crying together we’re reminded of our collective humanity. We’re less alone.

Yet, nearly fifty years after Tarragon opened and Bill and Andrea were ladling soup to ticket-holders, we still use the play to sell the play. Which, admittedly, seems obvious. After all, traditional advertising practices have always put the product front and centre. This is why we see posters of plays on buses and subways along with perfume, shoes, and the latest jeep. The problem is, we can smell the perfume, we can try on the shoes, we can test drive the jeep, but the play is asking us to go on faith. The posters often feature unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar titles, and quotes taken out of context. The old adage would have it that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what we’re expected to do.

I know these most basic promotional methods do serve a purpose, and I’m interested in looking at what they mean for ticket sales, but what I really want to know is why aren’t we creating more theatre around the theatre?

A friend of mine touring a show this past summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe noted that because of the sheer volume of plays (3314!) one had to be clever about promotion. And on a street already littered with hundreds of actors vying for you to see their show, it was those who created events that got attention, crowds, and, ultimately, audiences. If five plays open the same week, your eyes and ears will go to whatever’s getting the most buzz. Often this buzz is being paid for and manufactured through the various print, radio, broadcast, and digital media. The same media being used by your competitors. But what if instead, or along with it, you stage a piece of theatre in Dundas Square the week before your show opened? Something that relates to the production and would really get people talking, get people excited, snapping pictures and posting on social sites. That’s a lot of immediate and “trending” publicity. That’s real buzz. Not just buzzing in the ears of those who were already going to go, but possibly new audiences who hadn’t considered theatre as an entertainment option.

This type of event marketing is increasingly becoming the new norm. When Coldplay announced their last album, they preceded it with a global scavenger hunt. The band dropped clues online for fans, who then scoured their neighbourhoods for the hidden reward. This created a ton of online buzz and deepened fan loyalty, all at a fraction of their usual promotion costs. Last summer, an indie disaster flick about a viral pathogen got some attention when they handed out flyers for their show on Queen West using actors in hazmat suits. Another Hollywood movie staged a corner of Yonge Street to look like a subway car had crashed through the pavement. At first glance, it looked real. It drew crowds. People started taking pictures, rolling video. When closer inspection revealed it was staged theatre, the crowds grew and everyone was giddily Instagramming the experience.

A good example in the local theatre scene is the 100 Guitars Falling Slowly event that Mirvish held last spring for their production of Once. “We wanted to highlight how music can bring people together,” says John Karastamatis, director of communications at Mirvish Productions, “so we held a free event open to anyone who wanted to learn to play the song “Falling Slowly” on guitar. Over 900 people showed up to play the song with the cast. The result was a truly unique event that captured the spirit of the show by creating a community. It was captured on video, seen by over 140,000 people, and covered by the media.” When Karastamatis and his organizers initially looked into the idea to see if other producers of the musical had done this, they realized they were the first. They weren’t even sure if a hundred people would show up. Turns out, they were off by 900 percent. Give people a unique excuse to come together over a shared experience, and they will literally line up around the block.

Carrie Sager, president of Toronto’s Flip Publicity, has spent the last two decades working to promote performing arts in this city. She helped Cirque du Soleil snag a Guinness World Record by staging their contortion act on the glass floor of the CN Tower’s observation deck, making it the highest performed contortion act in history. Another stunt to promote the Aussie act Tap Dogs had her at the Bata Shoe Museum buying “tappy-taps,” a kind of cheap, makeshift device that would transform any pair of shoes into tap shoes. “We sent them to newspapers and radios stations all over the city. But promotions cost money. Even though they look like these great alternatives to advertising, you really have to be smart and creative about it.”

Unions can be another inhibitor to creative marketing. Equity has concessions for promotion, but IATSE and TMA do not. Sager remembers, “We had this idea to put out a little a red carpet and stanchions at the streetcar stop in front of Roy Thompson Hall and [have a quartet] play people off the streetcar. But it would cost five hundred dollars per musician to do that for an hour… And even if [the musicians] wanted to do it for free they couldn’t because they’d get into trouble with their union.”

These events can also require their own small staff to orchestrate, which, for most theatres, can be cost prohibitive. As Tarragon’s director of marketing and development, Lauren Vandervoort, points out, “We’re such a small staff and already have a lot on our plates, so these bigger events tend to be deprioritized in favour of reaching more massed audiences [through traditional media]…. To be honest, with the high number of plays we do here, and very low number of resources, by the time I’m done getting one show off the ground, I’m already creating materials for the next, and sometimes—like right now—I actually have three shows on the go: one closing, one opening, and one in rehearsals, where I’m prepping house programs, advertisements, subscriber information, etc., etc. And getting to work on next season.” And that’s for a theatre that can afford a staff; many can’t. There are also other factors to consider. Karastamatis asks, “Will the event truly [represent] your show? Will it connect with people or alienate them? Will the effort not be worth the small results?” And when you add the expense of compensating artists and the backstage crew, a clearer picture of the complexities involved emerges.

But what if these costs were covered by the revenue currently going into conventional advertising, which many, including Richard Rose, artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, see as negligible at the box office. “I think it’s pretty rare that an ad actually sells a ticket. [People] go to theatre because of word of mouth, not advertising…. I don’t think [advertising] attracts anybody, it just reminds people. Word of mouth [attracts].” When I push him on how some ads create word of mouth, create a buzz, Rose counters, “It creates a buzz about the ad. The advertising becomes an aesthetic experience unto itself. Just like the Super Bowl ads… Do you think about the game?” Smaller theatre spaces like Videofag, Coal Mine, and Storefront agree and even suggest that advertising for theatre is an outdated exercise. Co-founder of Videofag William Ellis says ads are just, “documentation that something happened… that’s why I’m kind of against posturing.”

So why not redirect resources for advertising back into the greater experience of the night itself? If you enjoyed the whole experience you might not be disappointed with a play that wasn’t to your taste, because you still had a good time, were welcomed and fed, and shared a cultural experience. Which is what you were there for, so you’re more likely to talk about it at a dinner party. After all, you might be less inclined to bring up a play with dark or inappropriate subject matter over cocktails but you could still discuss your enjoyment of the entire experience.

Theatres still operate in a pretty old way of doing things.

Gideon Arthurs, the new CEO of the National Theatre School and former general manager of Tarragon (following a successful leadership of the Toronto Fringe), doesn’t mince words on the topic of promotion: he calls the current lack of investment in the experience of going to the theatre tragic. “Theatres still operate in a pretty old way of doing things,” Arthurs told me on the phone from Montreal. “These days, as every other commercial product knows, your brand is the experience. What happens way too often in theatre is that the artistic product is where all the resources go. Great, we want to support our artists and good work, but then the same audiences come back in fewer and fewer numbers… We don’t pay enough attention to the details of the experience.” Arthurs sees himself in the demographic promoters are trying to attract: he is educated, well employed, has a family, and is interested in culture. But, he said, “If I were a regular-going citizen, here’s what it would take for me to go: I’d have to find a babysitter for fifty bucks, I would have to have dinner for seventy-five bucks (minimum), I’d have to get parking, I’d have to pay another sixty to a hundred dollars for the tickets themselves… So to go out on a Tuesday night to see a play that I’m not sure is good or not… Who’s going to do that more than once?” Arthurs’ suggestion? “The presenting body has to create an experience around going to the show to mitigate the fact that shows sometimes work and sometimes don’t.”

Benjamin Blais of the Storefront Theatre agrees: “What we’re trying to create is this yearning to be involved. When we first started the theatre we would throw all kinds of these crazy parties, so what people were starting to think was, ‘Hey, Storefront does a really great party, I bet they do really great plays. Let’s go there and then we’ll hang out afterwards because last time I was there I had such a good time.’”

Ted Dykstra, co-founder along with Diana Bentley of the Coal Mine, echoes this sentiment. Theatres need to do a better job at convincing people that “a night at a show can actually be fun,” he said. “We want the audience to want what we have. It’s not a question of ‘[theatre] is good for you.’ We spent a lot of time making the lobby a cool experience. People come out, and they enjoy hanging out after. There’s no question that this is part of our success.” That cachet is a part of Coal Mine’s contribution to the community, one they don’t have to try to sell. “The thing is, we haven’t spent a penny!” Dykstra says. “We don’t take any ads out, we don’t do any of that. There’s an ownership that [the audience] feel towards the theatre and that is definitely worth marketing to. It really is about community.”

There’s an ownership towards the theatre. It really is about community.

This idea of community comes back again and again. Each theatre has its own community within the larger community of theatre as a whole. The companies that succeed best seem to tap into aligning audiences with specific plays and giving them an added experience around the play. Maybe it’s wine and cheese, maybe it’s a talkback, maybe it’s a preshow dinner or a collective guitar lesson. Maybe it’s a couple of actors breaking into spontaneous scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire on an actual streetcar. One thing that won’t bring people through the doors: an ad.

It’s interesting to note, among the people I interviewed, how many acknowledged that conventional advertising achieves very little in terms of reaching the community and yet that remains the go-to approach for selling audiences on a play. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine deeper, more primal reasons why we go to theatre in the first place. “When you go to watch a play,” Arthurs tells us, “you’re part of a community, you’re in a shared event—a truly shared event. No play exists without an audience.” Vandervoort, from Tarragon, offers: “In my mind, we’re just scratching the surface here. I think more and more arts organizations in the city are thinking about how we can make the ‘event’ of going to the theatre more of a holistic and welcoming experience.” So maybe we should exploit this need for communion more astutely by selling the experience, not just the play. Create a hullabaloo, the way my mother did when she was whetting my appetite and dressing me up for the theatre.


Written By

Matt can be seen on little screens and bigger screens, and on stages across the country and abroad. He’s written radio plays, screenplays, teleplays, and just plain old plays. He’s won some awards, been nominated for a few others, and outright lost many. He calls Toronto home.