New Feature Alert!

I used to walk around saying that we have to start devoting a full 50% of our efforts into the business side of our productions if we ever hope to reach our goal of a sustainable popular theatre. I no longer believe that to be true. I now think that number is closer to 90%. I look forward to the day when we only have to put half our energy into the non-creative side of the biz.

Towards that end I am pleased to introduce a new column to The Next Stage: The Art of the Business by publicist Rebecca Coleman. That’s right, we’ve got us a real, live publicist to offer her insights on audience building.

In addition to running her own company; Titania Productions, and raising her young son, Rebecca is a Vancouver actor and theatre producer. So without further ado, let’s get down to business…

The Art of the Business – Part I

For a downloadable or streaming audio podcast of this article, click here.

As actors, we spend a great deal of our time training to become masters of our art. We go to theatre school, we read all the books on acting, we train with coaches, and we apprentice. At some point a lot of us decide, often out of frustration, to produce our own work. So we pick a project, put up the show, and then are incredibly disappointed when a mere 20 people (or less) show up every night. You lose money, you lose self esteem, you lose your moxy. You get pissed off—you wonder who is out there supporting theatre, where are your friends, where did all the people go whose shows you have been supporting all these years?

In April, 2001, I had that exact experience for the first time. In February, 2006, I produced my third show. Five Women Wearing the Same Dress did 88% at the box office and turned a profit.

What made the difference? Marketing.

Theatre schools teach us the best acting techniques, but they severely lack in teaching us the business. This column, which will be written on a monthly basis, is focused on that—the business of being an artist. I will offer you tips and tricks from my own experience as a publicist for the past six years. Because quite honestly, nothing makes me happier than going to the theatre and seeing a house full of people I don’t know. It’s the best.

Why are we so resistant to putting time into the business of our work? Well, first of all it’s not sexy. Wouldn’t you much rather be using your time creatively? Sure, of course. You can create all day, but if no one sees it (or ideally, buys it), what’s the point? Secondly, plain old ordinary ignorance. What are the best ways to market yourself? How do you do it? Many artists feel overwhelmed by these questions. And you may not want to hear this, but sometimes you just gotta do it—set aside the time and make yourself sit down and do it. It may not be sexy or creative, but it is so very important.

Where do you begin? Start by asking yourself this question: what is it that makes you (or your company, or your theatre project) unique? On any given night in Vancouver, there is a myriad of choices, and you are not just competing with other theatre offerings. Films, restaurants, live music venues are all competing for your dollar. So why would someone want to come and see your show? It may be a unique staging, a script that hasn’t been produced here before, a rising star, or a hot topic. But you need something that makes you stand out. You will use this “uniqueness” as the basis of all your marketing.

Are you still stumped? No idea what makes you or your company unique? Then the place to start is with market research. This involves putting together a survey and getting it out to at least your family and friends and, ideally, complete strangers. My friend Bart Anderson, who teaches at VFS, has a survey he gives all of his acting students. It includes questions that help to pinpoint what people see you as (age, race, occupation, etc) and what they don’t. (If you want a copy of it, just email me)

If you are lucky enough to be doing a show in the near future include an online link to a survey (you can use sites like Survey Monkey for free) or a hard copy of your survey in the program. Offer to put their name into a draw for a prize if they answer your survey. You can find out tons of information this way, about what makes you unique, what your audience is like, and how to reach them. For more information on how to create surveys for theatre read this article on the Mission Paradox blog.

Until next time….

This One Goes to Eleven: Rebecca Coleman

And of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Put her in the comfy chair!
rebecca.jpg

1.) In one word, describe your present condition:

Buzzing.

2.) With no restrictions, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

It feels very hierarchical to me. There is the nobility, the upper class, if you like, I’m talking Arts Club, Playhouse, Bard. They have the money, the sponsorships, and, for the most part, the audience. They focus on doing marketable, commercial pieces that are not terribly risky. At the opposite end, there’s the small, indie theatre scene. They have no money, and are mostly producing one-offs as a way to showcase themselves. They tend to go with riskier scripts, smaller venues. Somewhere in the middle, the bourgeois, are the more established indie companies that are doing some really great work—both risky and commercially viable. I’m thinking about Rumble, Newworld, See Seven. They are doing some really exciting stuff.

3.) Please explain to us simple theatre folk the difference between Publicity and Marketing.

Marketing is a more general, global term to describe what you are doing to connect with an audience and get them to come and see your show. It can include buying ads, printing posters and handbills, setting up a website, guerrilla marketing (ie: gags, etc.), and, yes, hiring a publicist. Publicity is the fine art of getting you media coverage in the popular media: the daily and weekly papers, radio, TV, blogs—previews and reviews. Buying a 4”x4” ad in the Georgia Straight (advertorial media) will set you back $500, and will barely be noticed. However, a full-page preview in the Province will only cost you the price of a publicist, and will get a lot more attention.

4.) What publicity skills should we develop until the day we can afford our own publicist?

Get a website. If you don’t have the software or the knowledge to do it yourself, I guarantee one of your friends will. Get business cards. They are inexpensive, and they make you look professional. And have them with you all the time, because you never know… Build up a mailing list for the time when you do produce a show, and then you’ve got a vehicle to advertise.

5.) How should we really feel about the critics?

A review, whether good or bad, is still just one person’s opinion. Unfortunately, if it’s negative, and that person is Colin Thomas, it can affect your bottom line. But I think being reviewed, period, says that your company has a certain level of professionalism, and that is never a bad thing. Don’t let bad reviews discourage you. Keep going. Try again.

6.) How is the internet changing the business side of theatre?

I love the internet as a marketing tool! I use it all the time. From websites about the show to Facebook, to e-blitzes, to online listings, I really think that most people these days get their information from the ‘net. Whenever I want to know something, I google it. It’s that simple. And it’s basically free.

7.) What type of material should we be focusing on to build a new audience?

I have to preface my answer to this question by saying that this is my own personal opinion, Rebecca-the-actor, not so much Rebecca-the-publicist. I want to see stuff that is original and is not yet another production of some British sex farce. I recently saw Black Rider for the first time, (again in the interest of full disclosure, Michael Scholar, Jr is a dear friend of mine, he directed me a few years back) and part of why I loved it so much was because there were beautiful, original, theatrical moments in it that surprised me and took my breath away—things I’d never seen on stage before. I love to see new things, but I’ve seen a lot of theatre, so I am maybe a bit jaded and cynical.

8.) How has your work as an actor influenced your business acumen?

The two need to go hand in hand. And I really think that my work as an actor and producer makes me a better publicist. I do a lot of work for companies who have never hired a publicist before, maybe have never even produced anything before. There is no school that can teach you to be a producer. You just gotta get out there and do it. I think I have the right mix of the creative and the business skills, and I get how the process works, because I’ve been there.

9.) As a mother?

Having Michael changed everything. It made everything both more intense and it also forced me to let go of a lot of stuff. First of all, it allowed me to stop obsessing about my “career” and focus on something else, and that was a huge gift. Second, it made me realize how important it is to have passion in life, to have something outside of your child that you can show them is so important to you, as you pursue those goals. I want him to have passion for something in life, and the best way I can do that is by being an example. Third, I have less time to get work done, now, so the time I have to work, I work smarter. Finally, I imagine it’s probably pretty fun to have a parent who is an actor. We read a lot of books, and I do all the voices. We do puppet shows and pretend, and I really don’t care if I look silly. I hope I get to share the stage with him someday. I don’t know if he’ll be an actor, but he seems to be quite musically inclined.

10.) What are your top 3 theatre business reads?

The Intent to Live by Larry Moss: okay, I know this is a book on acting, but I LOVE Larry Moss. And one thing he talks about over and over is work ethic—which can be applied to business as well as acting. He comes from this place of loving the theatre, and after all, isn’t that why we are all here?

A Practical Handbook for the Actor: yes, I know, another book on acting, but I love books that are not theoretical and offer, instead, practical, tangible things you can do. This is a really simple book in that respect.

The Actor’s Survival Kit by Miriam Newhouse and Peter Messaline: this is a Canadian book, and again, has lots of practical, tangible advice. A good basic book, a good place to start.

11.) What’s next?

So much. Dishpig is having a two-week holdover at Havana Feb 12-23, I am handling the publicity for World Theatre Day in March, have been working on a film for the past two years which is now in post, the Beast of Bottomless Lake (both as publicist and actor), Red Square, a new restaurant opening in the next month or so, some corporate stuff, and Orphans, produced by WINK theatre, and directed by my old friend from Newfoundland, Drove at the Firehall in June. Oh—and I am seriously looking at projects to produce again. It’s time.

This One Goes to Eleven: Kirsten Kilburn

I know that there are those of you out there with concerns for the future of our theatre. Rest assured, if it lies in the hands of young artists like Kirsten you have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Ms. Kilburn is a Vancouver stage and screen actor. She opens Twenty-Something Theatre’s one-woman show The Fever by Wallace Shawn at the newly refurbished Beaumont tomorrow (Tuesday, January 29). Tickets are available at the door or at boxoffice@twentysomethingtheatre.com.

kirsten.jpg

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Growing.

2.) Use as many words as you’d like to describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I feel as though we are having a subtle shift in the Vancouver theatre scene. There are more independent companies coming out with either original or lesser known productions that are different from what we usually see from the larger playhouses. Hopefully, we can continue to diversify and create further on what’s happening. As of right now, I feel as though the theatre community can be quite scattered.

3.) What is the major obstacle we have in getting Vancouver’s bums in the seats?

This is a tough one. I’m not sure I could define one thing as the major obstacle. There are many people who don’t consider theatre worthy of an evening out. It’s artsy, fake, not as entertaining as a movie. Living in this city for eight years, I’m always shocked by the number of people I meet who have never seen a play. I feel as though the mentality of the theatre community is more competitive than supportive. (I’m sure there are those who disagree with that statement!) If we could create a more collective feel, perhaps we would be able to open up and make theatre more accessible for everyone. Being willing to create something new and continuously grow, not just create the same type of productions, could draw more people into the seats. Really getting the word out that there is very valid, and worthy entertainment out there on our stages. Maybe by creating a blog?

4.) What do we need more of on Vancouver stages?

Productions that are willing to take a risk; to try something innovative and different. Continuing to produce the same kind of shows isn’t going to draw more people to the theatres, it just perpetuates the assumptions they have already made.

5.) What do you need above all else from your director?

An open mind. Moving through a creative process requires everyone involved to be open to new ideas and possibilities. Working with a director who has a vision of what they would like to see happen on stage, but feels confident enough to allow the piece to evolve and change is a gift. As an actor, I feel infinitely more comfortable and able when working with someone who takes the time to listen and process with you; guiding you in a certain direction without diminishing your creative process.

island-and-stuff-055.jpg


6.) What’s the best advice on acting that you’ve ever received?

Always be open to change. A good one for acting and life, I think!

7.) Which three actors, living or dead, would you like to have drinks with, and why?

River Phoenix, because he was so brilliant and real. And I have been in love with him as long as I can remember. Is that a bad reason? Kate Winslet, because she has managed to have an incredible career and a seemingly balanced life. She is someone who is always so interesting to watch. Judy Garland. Such a complicated life, yet so beautiful.

8.) How do you first approach creating a role?

It depends on the role. I was trained in the traditional theatre sense, which is to approach a role by doing a very thorough script analysis. Create a background for your character, their likes, dislikes, quirks, habits, and so forth. And to write it all down. Also, to break down a script and find the different beats; sections where there’s a shift in emotion or topic. As I’ve grown and experienced different techniques, I’ve learned to use personalization as a great tool in building emotion and life in a character. Following one’s instinct and trusting the emotional journey is what allows me to really be present in my work. Creating the background of a character is extremely important, but thinking about what you’ve written down doesn’t work when you’re on stage. Knowing all those things, then letting them go and taking the plunge into the story. That’s what’s working for me right now.

9.) What’s your fondest theatrical memory?

Moving to a new school in grade two and auditioning for the musical “Danny the Dark Green Dinosaur”. I got the lead (yes, I was a boy dinosaur)! I didn’t make any friends very quickly, but it was so worth it. Ahhh, my first taste of getting the lead. Sweet, sweet victory!

10.) What are your top 3 reads for the aspiring actor?

True and False by David Mamet. This book should be read by everyone involved in theatre and film. Sanford Meisner’s On Acting. Some great exercises in this book. The Intent to Live by Larry Moss. Very inspirational. Also, if you can find it, Free to Act by Warren Robertson, one of the most unique and wonderful acting coaches I have worked with.

11.) What’s next?

A break! To Cuba. Then I’m looking at doing another play in May. And finishing my voice-over animation component! So much fun to stand in a booth and be fifty-two different people!

Mission Paradox Establishes Theatre Brain Trust

One of my greatest new discoveries out here hacking through the tangled jungle of the theatreweb is a blog by Adam Thurman called Mission Paradox, a site devoted entirely to arts marketing and publicity. It is essential reading for all of us, with a pragmatic yet completely artistic take on the business side of the business. Mr. Thurman has introduced a new feature on the blog called Share Some Good Ideas which is, in a word, brilliant. It’s an open forum to accumulate a grab bag of indie theatre fundraising and marketing ideas. Please hop on over and contribute any good ideas you might have had or used towards promoting your company. It sounds like the beginning of a book that I would like to have on my desk.

Controversy in Canadian Theatre. No, Seriously.

08_main_rachelcorrie.jpg

Near the beginning of last year a big ol’ Toronto theatre organization, The Canadian Stage Company (billed as Canada’s largest not-for-profit contemporary theatre co.) gave a “political” play called My Name is Rachel Corrie some no-such-thing-as-bad publicity by canceling its planned production in their 07/08 season. Artistic Producer Martin Bragg dropped it from the line-up for one of two possible reasons: a.) members of CanStage’s board indicated that they thought the play may offend people, specifically Jewish people, or b.) Mr. Bragg attended an off-Broadway staging of it that was so bad that he declared that he didn’t like it any more. “It didn’t seem as powerful on the stage as it did on the page” declared Mr. Bragg. Really? Charges of antisemitism have dogged the play, in addition to CanStage the original New York company and a Miami company canceled planned mountings. Meanwhile, Canadian theatre had a bona-fide controversy on its hands.

As if that in itself isn’t awesome enough, a Vancouver grassroots theatre company is mounting MNiRC at the Havana starting tonight and running to Feb. 9. Neworld Theatre, in a co-production with Montreal’s Teesri Duniya Theatre, isn’t shrinking from any potential backlash to this play here, neither is the Havana itself, despite negative reaction which included an email that read: “Too bad Havana restaurant and theatre has decided to get involved in a political play that has no artistic interests but the fact that it serves to expose pro-Palestinian propaganda.” The emailer further promised to boycott the theatre and the restaurant that it resides in. Oh, snap.

No artistic interests? It’s a play, weirdo. Yeesh. Rachel Corrie was a young American peace activist and writer who went to the Gaza Strip to support Palestinians whose homes were being demolished, and in 2003 at the age of 23 was crushed beneath an Israeli bulldozer that was advancing on the home of a Palestinian doctor. The play is a one-woman show adapted from her own writing in journals and emails home from Rafah by Alan Rickman (cooler they do not come) and Guardian journalist Katherine Viner. It is selections from the personal writings of this woman on her experience, so how can it be judged propagandist? Do these people really believe theatre-goers to be unable to anatomize art and formulate our own opinions? Isn’t that the very definition of art? Try and keep me from seeing this play.

Meanwhile, back over in the T-dot, Theatre Panik mounts the Toronto premier of My Name is Rachel Corrie in May. Some of those shows are already sold out.

This One Goes to Eleven: Sabrina Evertt

A graduate of the theatre program at UVic, Sabrina has a solid academic footing in both directing and costume design. She is the artistic producer of Twenty-Something Theatre, a new, energetic Vancouver company that is already notable for its excellent taste in established material. Their next production is Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, opening January 29th at the Beaumont Studios.

sabrina_headshot.jpg

1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Driven

2.) In more than one word, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

The Vancouver theatre scene is a complicated one. I really believe that the issues concerning the Vancouver theatre scene generally reflect the issues that Vancouver is dealing with as a whole. Vancouver is not yet a BIG city in the way we think of New York, London or even Toronto. People resist change, and in much the same way that Vancouverites are resisting the amount of growth that is happening in this city (with condos being built, housing prices going up, fancy new transit systems being built, the 2010 Olympics), the established theatre practitioners in this city resist change as well.

For so long the theatre community and the audiences available to go and see theatre were comparatively small, so for these established theatres and theatre practitioners who have managed to gather a steady following I can understand how they don’t want to let go or risk the chance of losing what they have fought so hard to build. When I lived in London I had the great opportunity to hear Trevor Nunn speak and he said there is nothing worth doing if risk isn’t involved. The higher the risk the bigger the pay-off, consequently: the higher the risk the harder we may fall; however, it is from the great failures that we learn. Status quo takes us nowhere.

And that is sort of how I see the Vancouver theatre scene. It is happy with the status quo. You’ve got your established theatre who cater mainly to an older, loyal audience. Then you’ve got your alternative theatre who do very exciting but very different work. You’ve got a few festivals with the Fringe and PUSH, but where is the theatre for the young, average Joe? These are the audiences of the future so why aren’t we thinking about how we can appeal to them?

3.) What is the long-term vision for Twenty-Something?

Long term I would like to be able to produce a full-season of shows to continue giving more and more opportunities to young artists.

4.) What criteria do you use for choosing material?

Firstly, it must be a great play, and I understand that what makes a play great is subjective, but it must be, in my opinion, solid writing. Secondly, the majority of roles must be in our target demographic (approx 18-35). Thirdly, it must have issues that reflect the lives of this demographic and then society as a whole.

Then for me personally if I am to direct the production it must have some new element that interests me, that I haven’t done before or that I will learn from.

5.) What can we be doing better to popularize theatre for a twenty-something demographic?

This is “THE QUESTION” isn’t it?! Truthfully, I don’t know if I have anymore insight into this one than anybody else, but I will give it go.

The easy answer is to make going to the theatre an “it” thing to do for your average twenty-something demographic. Let me just clarify what I mean by average. I am talking about the everyone and anyone in the twenty-something demographic: the ones who listen to The Beat, who shop at places like Aritizia or Lululemon, who eat at Earls or Cactus Club, who go to the clubs on Granville, who go to see the big blockbuster movies, etc. These average twenty-somethings are looking for fun, but to them a night at the theatre does not equal fun. I’m not saying we need to pander to our instant gratification generation but I do think we can find a balance between commercialism and artistic integrity. I think we can make theatre fun and thought-provoking. How do we do this? By putting on high-quality productions that appeal to their lives, and most importantly market the theatre in the same way we market movies, or restaurants, or nightclubs. Somehow we need to make it hot, exciting, and the place to be. That could be a start.

6.) How well did your academic theatre training prepare you for running a company?

No training program is perfect but I feel that I developed a lot of skills that have become indispensable, especially discipline. Often when we think of artists we don’t think of discipline as an immediate tool, but it is necessary because in order to ever get things done (and done well) an artist must be disciplined.

7.) Costume design is often one of the last things considered in indie productions. Any thoughts on how to approach this component?

Well, first of all, costume design wouldn’t be one of the last things to be considered. Costume design is important because it immediately supports the characters in the story being told. It helps an actor find his/her character. And when it comes right down to it if the actors are not believable as their characters then the audience won’t suspend their disbelief. No matter the production, I personally believe design, all design, should be one of the first things to be considered. The design of a production supports the story and the visual story should mold seamlessly together with the action. This overall vision for the piece, in my opinion, should be the very first thing to be considered.

8.) Who are your major influences?

You would think this would be an easy one to answer, but for me not so much, because I am influenced by so many things. I try to read and go to see as many plays/productions as possible. I travel as much as I can and am often highly influenced by the places I travel, too. The people I meet. The plays and productions I see while I am there. I am influenced by my friends & family. I’m definitely influenced by other theatre practitioners whether it be old professors/instructors & mentors and/or other directors, actors and designers, etc. In many ways I am a like a giant sponge and I just soak up as much as possible from wherever I can. That probably sounded cheesy but, oh well, its true.

9.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

I would like to see the Vancouver stages take bigger risks and do something that is daring and new and contemporary and relevant. I would like to see something that reflects the fact that we live in a cosmopolitan city. I would like to see some Canadian theatre that isn’t just about the prairies or the backwater experience or the Yukon goldmine. We aren’t just a bunch of hicks & outsiders. Why can’t we write plays and/or produce plays that reflect this?

10.) What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Oh gosh…this is a tough one to narrow down. Ok I’m just going to attack this one from a purely directing standpoint.

1) True & False by David Mamet
2) A Sense of Direction by William Ball
3) The Empty Space by Peter Brook

11.) What’s next?

Up next for Twenty-Something is the summer show and at the moment I am pretty sure, it is not 100% definite quite yet, that we are going to be doing SubUrbia by Eric Bogosian.