Selling at the fringes

A new approach to theatre marketing from a Canadian sellout

By guest blogger Ian Mackenzie

I cringe when I hear theatre people say the word “marketing.” It’s like when you hear your grandma say “Facebook” – you know she’s heard of it, but you can be damn sure she’s got no idea how to use it.

I mean, here is a group of otherwise creative and talented people whose best idea for a marketing campaign is printing 1,000 postcards – 500 of which never get handed out. Or email “campaigns” that have the sole effect of guilting friends and family into coming to the show. And have you ever been to a theatre company’s website? Don’t bother. There’s nothing there for you except headshots, vanity copy and half-hearted mission statements.

How bad is theatre marketing? Theatre marketing is so bad it’s not even visible enough to be obnoxious.

There are three good reasons for this dismal state of affairs:

First and foremost is that most independent theatre companies are run by people who are primarily interesting in acting or directing, and those people generally went through acting and directing programs at school. Check out the performance curriculum for one of Canada’s most respected theatre schools, Humber. Lot’s of acting classes. But nothing about marketing or management. Certainly no course called, “Running your own independent theatre company – 101.”

What’s the thinking here? That all these actors are streaming out of these programs into high-paying theatre actor jobs? That ain’t happening. What is happening is that many of these actors and directors are graduating from school and in the absence of decent career opportunities in their fields, they are starting their own independent theatre companies – an undertaking for which they have absolutely no training. It’s a setup.

The second major problem is that artists have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into thinking that business = Walmart; that “business” is somehow fundamentally evil; and that the great artists throughout history existed on some astral plane above personal and professional finance.

And while that works fine while you’re still in school, romanticized notions of penniless playwrights fall apart when it comes time to pull together funding for your next show. So out come the complaints about lack of public funding. About how people don’t care about theatre. About how hard this industry is. About how there’s nowhere to rehearse and lights cost too much.

Here’s something they ought to teach at theatre school: If your business (i.e., your theatre company) doesn’t have enough money to make its product, then your business model is broken and you need to fix it.

Third – independent theatre companies are terrible at communicating their “big idea.” What’s the big idea behind your work? How do you feel about factory farming? HIV in Africa? Prison rape? Racism within families? Heroin? Ghosts? Flowers? Electricity? Cancer? Cotton candy? Blindness?

If you can’t tell me who the enemy is in a single sentence, you have lost my attention, and not even a marketing genius like Seth Godin is going to be able to help you sell me your product. How could he when you haven’t even figured out what it is you have to sell?

I’m not telling you how to be an artist . . . I am the proverbial parrot in the blender, and I see you there with your finger on the “purée” button. Stop. Step away from the blender. Take a deep breath. Let’s rethink this whole thing.

Here’s my three-step plan for independent theatre companies who want to make money and increase their influence:

1) Bring in the specialists.
It takes a team of specialists to run a successful theatre. Here, for example, are the staff positions at one of Toronto’s most successful independent theatre companies:

  • Artistic Director
  • General Manager
  • Administrator
  • Publicity & Marketing Director
  • Director of Development
  • Director of Education & Outreach
  • Literary Manager
  • Assistant to the Artistic Director
  • Outreach & Marketing Associate, Group Sales
  • House & Box Office Manager
  • Production Manager
  • Technical Director
  • Wardrobe Head
  • Props Head
  • Carpentry Head
  • Mainspace Technician
  • Extra Space Technician
  • Building Manager

Maybe your company doesn’t need all these positions filled, but it sure as hell needs some of them. Talk to people outside the actor/director circles and see if you can lure them to the job on the promise that theatre work will feed their soul. You might be surprised how many lawyers and accounts and marketers come running. Seriously. Once you’ve got them, hang on to them by keeping your natural flakiness in check – and let them help you grow your business.

2) Embrace capitalism.
Money is good – if you do good things with it. Business is good – if your business is focused on doing good things. And theatre is a good thing, right? “We need it to see ourselves.” That’s what Daniel MacIvor says.

This is about more than you and your world. Part of the reason capitalism has become such a clusterfuck is because artists have allowed themselves to be nudged out of positions of influence. Capitalism needs empowered artists working from the inside to help guide it. This notion that theatre is not a capitalist pursuit does a disservice to both capitalism and theatre – and by extension humanity and everything else under this sun. Reject this notion. Embrace capitalism. Make money. Build your theatre. It’s our only hope.

3) Know your enemy.
The elevator pitch is not a cliché. Why do you make theatre? Why did you start a theatre company? Why is your work important? What is your work about? Why should I care?

If you haven’t answered these questions clearly in your mind, your independent theatre company is dead in the water. I’m not telling you what the answer should be, just that – if you have any interest in selling your wares – you’d better have an answer.

That’s it. Three steps. Not all theatre companies are guilty of all of these inadequacies. But collectively we’re doing something very wrong. We are allowing ourselves to be pushed to the periphery of our own story. That’s bad. We are not victims. And theatre is not a charity case.

So who the fuck am I? I’m the guy with the $125 watch. I’m the guy with the soul job in theatre. I don’t know anything about acting, or directing. I don’t even know that much about marketing. But I do know bad news when I see it. And theatre marketing? Bad news.

I hope this helps.

Ian Mackenzie is a Toronto-based writer and Director of Marketing for Praxis Theatre.


  1. Great post! I am not sure what is wrong with marketing. I think marketing in itself is not bad. It is based in community and if done well marketing is communicating to that community.

    I think theater has done marketing poorly in a Web 2.0 world. Like many business it needs to find a way to integrate social media and viral marketing. I am an actor who works in search engine marketing. The theater is complaining that the young people are not coming to show. I see the theaters not communicating (or marketing) to that audience.

    The theater as a whole needs to embrace Web 2.0, but when it comes to educational theater and dealing with young audiences this is key! The young audiences of today are 2.0. The web for them is not 2.0 because many of them did not interact with the web before there was myspace, facebook, IM, twitter, etc.

  2. First up – I don’t know how this technology works entirely – but props to Simon for going to China – but putting his blog on auto pilot with content from guest posters.

    Great piece Ian,

    I agree with you about all the fundamentals but would like to quibble with the the details in your suggestions #s 1 and 2:

    #1: Organizing multiple people, who will almost certainly be working for free is always a clusterfuck. I think it would be better to take that list of positions you provided and set up amongst core members of a company who is going to do what on that list. Then it’ll get done and you won’t always be begging for favours and trying to get 12 people to meet at the same time on email. You can ask people for advice if they don’t know how rto do stuff off the top.

    #2: Yes, money makes the world go round. Yes, without funding you can’t do shit. Shakespeare needed it, Stanislavsky needed it, even Brecht needed it, i get it. But the mechanics and economics of theatre, and the fact that your most successful product can still only be produced in a small amount of iterations, means that this is not a good profession to go into if you are looking to make money. Yes try to make money, yes understand that you will make less money than almost everyone you know. (You can feel good about this on the nights you go out with you dancer and poet friends.)

  3. Mike – You say you agree on the fundamentals of my argument and then go on to disagree about the fundamentals.

    Your point #1 – that all the specialists jobs should be divided up among non-specialists in the company – is directly counter to my point. Dividing the jobs up among non-specialists is what we’ve been doing. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. It’s not a sustainable business model.

    And to your second point – again, I disagree. Lots of people make lots of money on theatre. There’s no good reason it can’t be a profitable career.

  4. Hi Ian,

    Not true. Here’s how i agree with your fundamentals.

    #1 I agree these things have to be done, I agree that a company needs to be set up with a an infrastructure that allows for responsibility, accountability, and for all the bases to be covered. I think that this may seem obvious from your perspective, but is not high on the list of what a lot of people think about when they start a theatre company.

    #2 I agree that we should “embrace capitalism” by accepting that we work in a capitalist market and that there are certain principals that apply to participating in this model. 2 Billion people watched The US/China Olympic basketball game yesterday. How many times would you have to sell out the Lincoln Center to reach that many people? By virtue of the way capitalism functions and some of the core characteristics of our art form, we will always be at a disadvantage in terms of profit potential. Better to accept this, move forward, and not be perpetually disappointed.

  5. Hi there – VERY interesting piece… you clearly know of which you speak.

    I wanted to address your first point as it resonated strongly with me on a personal level, as I am the unicorn that you make reference to – I am the producer of Cart/Horse Theatre. I have never taken a single acting class nor have any aspirations to set foot on stage. I am truly interested in offering my professional skills towards the advancement of this company and the work we choose to present. (and if anyone’s looking to hire someone like this full time, my day job won’t be missed!)

    Humber College does indeed offer a program in Arts Administration and Cultural Management. As a proud alum, I can say that it does offer applicable instruction and insights by people actively working in the cultural field. (It is not theatre specific however, recognizing that the course is for the arts in general – but it is geared to be a strong skills-based training)
    I truly think that it offers artistically minded individuals – and the arts community as a whole – a well-rounded and vital ‘tool box’ of skills.

  6. Hi Megan,

    You are a unicorn. I believe independent theatre needs many more dedicated producers such as yourself.

    What kind of jobs have your fellow graduates from Humber’s arts admin program gone on to do? I ask because, you’re right, there are good arts admin programs out there – but precious few of their graduates seem to be working in independent theatre. Is that your observation as well? If so, where are they working?

    BTW. Cart/Horse Theatre’s one-man show, “Rum and Vodka”, was great at this year’s Toronto Fringe. Nice work.

  7. *leaps to her feet, applauding heartily*

    HERE HERE!!!!

    I have often said that small theatre companies seem to have an ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach to theatre. Clearly, this approach doesn’t work.

    When I was in University we did have a course called Theatrical Organization, but thinking back, I don’t think it ever touched on marketing. It was more how to make grant applicatons, how to structure a theatre, how to do a budget, etc etc. Plus that was 10 years ago, so I only have a vague memory of it.

    So, Ian, Megan (G), I think the three of us should launch a crusade for better marketing and outreach in theatre…

  8. And really, to point #2, it’s not even really about making money as far as I’m concerned, it’s more that theatre without an audience is just masturbation.

    Drama is ephemera, and it can’t be auctioned on a secondary market once we’re dead. If we don’t get it in front of people, we’re not doing our job.

  9. I agree whole-heartedly with the idea of theatre schools teaching students some business and administration skills, I also think the theatre community, particularly in Toronto is somewhat of a culture of despair and defeatism. We need to move beyond this.

    However, not all art is marketable or potentially as profitable as other capitalist products, even with an air tight business model. We created arts funding in this country for precisely that reason. As a society, we decided that certain artistic endeavors regardless of their potential for making money were valuable and contributed to the health of our communities. Europe seems to get this better than us, the States less so, but perhaps they have a more vibrant entrepreneurial spirit than Canadians.

    With the exception of the Mirvishes almost all of Toronto’s more successful theatre companies rely on a certain amount of public funding. Ask Derek Chua if he is raking in the dollars from his two hit shows this year, which were almost entirely sold out runs.

  10. Well Ian, I also graduated from that Humber arts admin program but I’ve never gotten a job from it. There just aren’t too many theatre companies that can afford to hire an administrator. However, I am using my knowledge for my own company, which was the reason I took it in the first place.

    Mike does have a point about the manpower issue. Part of the reason we didn’t get our marketing act together for our show last year was relying too much on people donated their time. The upshot is that you end up on their timetable instead of your own.

    Having said that, if you know of top notch marketers who will donate time to sell my company, I’m interested.

    And there is the time issue. I’m trying my best to do this web 2.0 thing, but it does take time away from other things that I need to feed my soul.

    But your points are completely valid. I’m just trying to figure out application.

  11. Brilliant post Ian!

    It amazes me how difficult it is to find information about theatre in Toronto, let alone in smaller Ontario centres. I don’t know about the rest of Canada, I imagine it’s no different.

    I admit to being a total whore, commercial to the core. When I write something I want people to read it, when I make a website I want people to visit it and to ‘buy’ whatever product or service the site is selling.

    Theatre seems quite intimidating, something for the ‘cool kids’, a place where ‘outsiders’ aren’t really welcome. Combine the intimidation factor with the lack of easily available information about what’s on and it’s no wonder that there aren’t more bums in seats.

    A couple of suggestions for independent theatres companies considering using volunteers for marketing and publicity-

    You know a ton of people. They know a ton of people. Network! Talk to friends from school – not theatre grads – who are just starting their careers, have great ideas and a lot of energy. Get them involved. It’s unlikely that they get to spread their wings in their day jobs. They’ll welcome the opportunity.

    Talk to your parents and to their friends and to your friends’ parents. Lots of people with established careers would welcome the challenge.

    Pick someone for something and let them run with it. Don’t involve them in internal politics, don’t expect them to go to committee meetings. If they don’t deliver, don’t use them again.

    You know a ton of people. Network.

    If you have an independent theatre company and you need a website, let me know. I may be interested in making one for you.


  12. It’s almost too bad I live in New York. I’d love to do marketing materials for indie theaters, especially since I’m interested in doing non-traditional marketing.

  13. Great post Ian. Other than the swearing, very astute. As a former theater professional and present owner of an advertising agency, I concur with much of what you’ve stated and also offered up as solutions.

    Independent theater needs more access to business and vice versa. The trick, in my view, is attention span: many companies reach out to advertisers and marketers for help, but quickly lose interest and return to the internal matters of writing, rehearsing, and arguing over the poster.

    What’s needed in my humble opinion is to make the business of theatre an integral part of internal focus, rather than a wayward son.

    Hire someone (not a frustrated actor!) who’s passionate about theatre and marketing, and give them the position of Producer rather than relegating them to Bob Office Manager or PR/Front of House.

    Can’t afford the salary? Offer them a modest percentage of your gross box office to incent growth. Can’t find someone? Establish a relations with Guelph, McMaster or any other University with a marketing program and set up an intern program. Does your company have a board? Get a business owner on that board. (And that guy from the gym who works at Nestle. And that cousins who works at an ad agency, and so on.)

    If you want results, ask yourself who in your company is playing the role of David Mirvish or Garth Drabinskly (before he was consumed by the darks side). Stop paying, lip service and give someone a seat at the table at the beginning of a season/production, along side your TD and AD.

    And for God’s sake, raise the price of the bloody concessions! Have you been to movie lately?


    Dave Hamilton
    Grip Limited, Toronto

  14. Ian said:This notion that theatre is not a capitalist pursuit does a disservice to both capitalism and theatre – and by extension humanity and everything else under this sun.

    What an absurd statement.

    If I pursue theatre as I do poetry or the other quests for art or knowledge in life, how exactly is that a disservice to humanity?

  15. Umm I’ve been thinking this over, and mainly my problem is similar to Nick’s. Capitalism is like the weather, it can help you or it can hurt you. It always plays a part in how work is produced, but it should not be the reason it’s produced.

    Here’s my best money making idea for the theatre:

    Mean Girls – The Musical

    It would make a killing. When I teach teenagers 1/2 of the girls bring in monologues from that film. The High School Musical franchise is expanding exponentially, and the most successful production at the box office this year in Toronto is Dirty Dancing The Musical. I’m telling you, if they produced it, they would come. It would clean up.

    It would also suck the big one, be royal waste of everyone’s time, and would probably make us collectively stupider as a species.

  16. Thanks all for the insightful comments on this thread.

    A couple of responses:

    Nick, I think you’re misreading the quote. I’m talking about theatre’s relationship to business – and a particular “notion” within artist circles that theatre and business are somehow diametrically opposed. It’s that notion that does the disservice to humanity . . . not the art forms themselves.

    And Mike. I think you’re using a slippery slope argument here. You’re basically saying that if a theatre company starts thinking about the business side of their operation, they’ll eventually lose all artistic integrity and end up making mindless Broadway musicals. That’s a big leap.

    (BTW. Mean Girls is a great film.)

    Dave Hamilton’s comment sums it up best for me: “. . . make the business of theatre an integral part of internal focus, rather than a wayward son.”

    That, in a nutshell, is what I’m advocating.

  17. Great post!

    It’s such a contradiction that the theatre itself is about communicating to an audience. Yet surprisingly there seems to be very little communication going on off the stage. In fact it’s practically non-existent.

    This lack of a company’s ability to communicate with it’s audience is what continually holds the theatre back. There are so many opportunities to educate the audience. To build a relationship. To start people talking.

    What happens instead? Just an email to ‘buy tickets now.’

  18. I received a diploma in Musical Instrument Repair from Keyano College. To complete this program we were required to take a series of business courses that was designed to give us the skills to open a business. These courses included basic writing skills, accounting, computers and ended with us having to write a business proposal.

    This was my third time through a post secondary arts program ( music and drama). Gaining a knowledge of business was instrumental in gain employment in the instrument repair field. After I acquire a bunch of experience I will be starting my own business. There is no way I would understand the complexities involved in this endeavor without taking these courses.

    If something like this had been offered during my undergraduate schooling I would probably be in some sort of management in the arts instead of starting over at age 50+.

    Too bad this course and all the other Arts program have been cut at Keyano and is happening at too many institutions in our country.

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