HIVE 3 and the re-branding of theatre

A crowd of the usual suspects were having a #2amt twitter round table the other day on the general topic of labels and What the Heck is ‘Indie Theatre’ Anyway? Questions being posed were like such: what is it exactly that ‘independent’ means? Independent of what? And where’s the delineation between hobbyist, amateur, semi-professional, pro-am, etc.? Really it’s about “how do we want to peg our company to the audience, to investors, on grant applications?” And are you trying to move up to the next level, whatever that is? It’s a great conversation, and an essential one from a marketing perspective; we need to be able to tell people what it is we’re selling them when we sell it to them. (Great post by Travis here, talking specificity.) This is an issue of public perception. This is an issue of industry branding.

I piped up with this:

Now, colleagues of mine will recognize this as a personal pet chew toy. And the one that usually generates the most amount of consternation. “Theatre”, “Play”, “Sacred Space”; these sort of terms are our darlings, full as we are of pride in the history and uniqueness of our craft. I would wager that a great deal of us toil in the impossibilium of theatre in part because we love the underdog nature of the thing these days. We get it, we love it, we’re unique because of it. Which means that we believe most people – or rather, most of the people out there whose hearts and minds and money we could get at – literally don’t know what they’re missing.

But the hard, cold truth is out there. When you say something to someone like “hey, do you like theatre? You should check out this play that I’m in” to your average uninitiated 19-35 year old, this is what pops right into the forefront of their brain:

…or maybe something like this:

…or maybe even this:

Which is all fine and dandy, but for the kids today whose absence from the stalls we’re forever bemoaning, it just ain’t going to sell. So to get these creaky images out of the minds of the GP, we going to have to re-brand. I know this sounds like heresy for a lot of theatre lovers, but be patient with me for a minute. Besides, if most of the movies at the multiplex for the last 20 years were Merchant Ivory, film would have to re-brand too.

The Red Curtains and Comedy/Tragedy masks imagery of theatre remains pervasive, and that’s a detriment to our appeal. We must at least be aware that it’s the slot we get stuck in out there in the larger community. As Nick says…

Right? So how do we change the context? How many of us even want to change the context? It just might mean the letting go of some imagery and language that we hold very dear. And clearly my theatre isn’t the same as everyone else’s theatre. Yet the question persists: how should we, as an industry, label ourselves to shed the shadow of irrelevancy?

Perhaps we could institute a system of clearer labels for the type of theatre we, as individual companies, offer. If we’re all lumped together in the consciousness of the community under the umbrella term “theatre”, how can we be clearer about the specific live experience that we offer? Video stores compartmentalize the art of film by genre, iTunes sells to us by genre, I suppose we could add some system of content labeling to our marketing, ie: Drama, Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Classical, Musical, Avante-Garde, Multi-Media, Devised, New York in the 60s, etc, etc…but that’s not really it, is it? Most companies do a pretty good job of conveying which of these categories they sit in through their postering and ad copy anyway, and the non-theatre goer still has no more impetus to give theatre a go than before. It’s an experience that we’re trying to convey, not a style.

Without a doubt the theatrical event here in Vancouver that is doing the best job of sexing up the concept of live experience is HIVE, up right now in its third incarnation. Check out the trailer:

How curious about the thing does that make you? And clearly they’re not shying away from the word ‘theatre’, it’s liberally sprinkled throughout the clip. What they are doing is exploding stereotypes and preconceptions, essentially saying “this ain’t your granddaddy’s theatre!”. Apart from the trusty Fringe (which hosts shows that oscillate between marvelous and off-putting), the HIVE shows have pushed independent theatre further into the untapped audience of Vancouver than anything else in our history. And the brilliance of the thing is that it’s comprised of bite-sized samplers for the real McCoy, the perfect way to entice people into testing the water; the first step in full theatrical conversion. Arts Marketing brilliance. And it’s working, it looks like it’s sold out already.

The next step in our mission to turn Vancouver into a rabid theatre town has to be about this, I think. Establishing a common consciousness about how our art form is thought of by those that aren’t…well, us, and convincing them it’s not that thing that they’re thinking it is. And then blowing their minds wide open.

Update: Travis continues the conversation here. It’s worth a read for the Jai-Alai reference alone.

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  1. There’s a new theater company in Iowa that doesn’t have the word “Theatre” in their name. They’re the “Red Door Ensemble” and what they do is outside of what is traditional theater in Iowa. (See: Red velvet curtains.) Looking at the audience, most of the people there were in their twenties.

    So, with rebranding, do you maybe go for a word like “ensemble” if the theater has an ensemble, or do you just not have a word associated with theater?

  2. It’s worth looking back at the performance art movement of the 1970s-1980s to see one past strain of rebranding theater. Spalding Gray, Karen Finley, The Wooster Group, and Laurie Anderson were all making theatrical performances that took place mostly at conventional theater venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but they were designed for an audience beyond traditional theater.

    Last week in a 2 am. essay, I linked to this Blue Man Group commercial that covers similar territory:

  3. Eric – That ad was hilarious, and completely to the point. I think there are a huge array of companies putting on theatre that would change the mind of the populace if they could only get them to take a chance on them. I’d love to know how those groups from the 70s were marketing themselves.

    Monica – Great question. I think we need to put together a questionnaire full of stuff like that and start finding the folks that wouldn’t be caught dead in the theatre and asking for their thoughts. What kind of language would make them curious enough to know more?

  4. I love the idea of a wholesale rebranding of the entire (independent) theatre industry?

    How much money do you think you would you need to rebrand theatre in Canada?

    Would $10,000,000 be enough resources to radically shift people’s perception of the form in this country?

    Like “Got Milk” wasn’t for a single brand of milk, it was for milk generally.

    What’s theatre’s “Got Milk?”

  5. Hm…but was the milk industry ready for a change in public perception? I’m guessing yes. Theatre as an industry has to be ready for the radical before we start spending the 10 large, and let’s face it, there’s subsets of theatre that love the curtains n’ masks.

  6. Wow. Nice! Sarah, you just made my day. Wonderful counter-points.

    Couple of thoughts:

    Declining sales during an ad campaign don’t necessarily mean the campaign was a failure. If you’re Big Milk, for example, and you’re seeing an decline in sales due to fundamentally shifting consumer behaviour, it’s not enough to throw up your hands and say, “Ok, we’re losing. Let’s give up.”

    You dig deep. Spend (smart) money. Get the right people in the room. And try to fix the problem as best you can – even if all you can do is slow the decline.

    As for Greg Sandow’s hand-wringing about what such a campaign might look like for theatre (and the difficulty of getting all stakeholders to agree on the message)? We don’t need all theatre makers to agree on the message. We just need one person (or small group of people) to craft a message so persuasive it will compel consumers toward our product and inspire our peer manufacturers to opt in.

    What I’m not hearing (and to be fair, I stopped listening about a year ago), is a compelling solution. There’s lots of talk of what’s wrong and how we got here, and calls to action, and cries for help . . . but who’s got the big idea to get us out of this mess?

    I’m thinking the answer lies is rejecting the false dichotomy between ads and art.

    Simon and others have written a lot about a new style marketing for theatre. And a new approach is sorely needed. There are many good strategies for such outlined in the very pages of this online magazine.

    And we seem to agree that our product needs an overhaul, too.

    Ultimately, if what we’re looking for is broader audiences, we need to make work that has broader appeal. And that doesn’t mean “Phantom of the Opera” – it means catering to the highest common denominator with stories we want to tell and they want to hear.

    So the great unifying theatre ad is a piece of theatre – like “Avatar” is an ad for 3D films.

    So, the great unifying theatre ad – “Got theatre?”

    Hell no. But the idea of a halo campaign for the craft needs a serioud second and third glance.

    One final tanget: This predicament reminds me of the comics industry. Why is it that comic book store shelves are filled with male power fantasy stories? Why did that one genre become the dominant? (Scott McCloud’s “Reinventing Comics” answers those questions, btw.)

    For theatre: How did we get stuck telling the kinds of stories that we seem stuck telling? It’s not that those stores are bad, or unworthly. It’s that the form has so much more potential than that, and yet its practitioners have become stuck in the apparatus of production.

    More genre theatre? (Per Simon’s suggestion.) Probably a step in the right direction.

    I’m guessing this comment makes me sound shrill and a little unfocused . . . at least I’m in good company.

    Rereading this comment before posting . . . I don’t know, I feel like I said all this three years ago – probably better than I just argued it here. How do we keep interested in the face of such a glacial grind to improving this industry?

  7. Goddamn Ian, you’ve been sorely missed out here. This comment should be a post.

    “How do we keep interested in the face of such a glacial grind to improving this industry?”

    It’s going to take a deep and abiding passion. And you did say it, and I’ve said it, and there are others who are saying it now because of 3 years ago. It’s a heavy ball that needs to be kept up in the air, and we’ve only just begun, I’m afraid.

    But again, it’s not the theatre artists that have been making theatre for a while that are going to change, and change the game. It’s the crew coming up behind them. They’re the ones we have to reach. They’re the ones that are going to get the Avatar marketing references.

    And they will find us because they are good with the internet thing. We just have to keep talking.

  8. “How do we keep interested in the face of such a glacial grind to improving this industry?”

    Felt I had to jump in here as HIVE producer. You want to guess how many leaders in our Vancouver theatre community are coming to HIVE3? And by leaders I suppose I mean ADs and GMs that aren’t part of HIVE3.

    We’re packing ’em in, their average age is tops 30, probably lower, and they are spending an average of $40 on show and drinks.

    You’d think people maybe other than the audience would be interested in this.

  9. Sorry Amiel, do you mean leaders in the community are being inspired by H3 and bringing it back to their companies?

  10. Ah, gotcha. I suppose it was too much to ask for.

    My great hope is these under-30s are the future leaders of the industry. The independent industry, to be precise. The key is to keep the product this much fun, sexy and always forward-moving.

    The form must be advanced, or not at all. From door to door.

  11. We’re in a similar boat in Calgary. It seems to me the problem isn’t doing work that attracts the under 35 crowd, we can do that, and established companies know how to bring in the 35+ crowd, but the holy grail is the work that will bring both of those groups into the same room. To tag onto the Avatar reference someone made earlier, the reason that’s the highest grossing film(and maybe even “art-product”) ever is that it had no one demographic. Ten year olds and seventy year olds, and everyone in between saw that flick. People were the demographic.

    The trick is how to be something to allot of people without becoming grossly diluted.

  12. Damn Col, that’s huge. Mandating material that appeals to, well, everybody is a magnificent goal. What would that look like? You’re talking about work that gives credit to the old guard for not needing safe and familiar (which I think a huge chunk of them do, and aren’t being offered it), and that assumes a younger audience is smarter than they’re given credit for. And packaged in such a way that’s going to appeal to them both.

    That really is the Holy Grail.

  13. Ok. Yes, we give up on this round and hope for the next gen?

    I don’t know if the holy grail of something in theatre that appeals to everyone is actually the right kind of goal.

    And isn’t the best marketing the product itself?

    The HIVE3 marketing budget was slightly over $0.

  14. Perhaps that could be amended to ‘the holy grail from an income perspective’. I don’t think it’s an appeal to everyone Amiel, that would be impossible I suppose, but I do think we tend to think that generationally audiences want different things from their entertainment, and that may be a mistake. Perhaps the sensibilities of these two broadly defined groups aren’t as far apart as we think.

    However, reaching them both with a marketing program is another matter. It’s tough enough to target one demographic at a time before a show, never mind spreading it even thinner.

    And we certainly don’t give up, it’s the next gen we have to do all the work for. Imagine if our predecessors had done the work you guys are doing 40 years ago? How much further ahead (read popular with the masses) than we are now? My great fear, and one of the main reasons for this site, is that some kid playwright in 20 years is going to hate me for not making steps to create an industry for him to work in.

    Never give up, never surrender, as they say on Galaxy Quest.

  15. Hey Simon,

    Great conversation, Simon. I just wanted to jump in on your point about the previous generation. I think we do them a great dis-service by assuming that they did nothing to build up the theatre community here in Vancouver.

    I think the problem is that what was created by that generation was, broadly speaking, not translated into bricks and mortar (with the exception of the Arts Club and perhaps Pacific Theatre). Yes, it’s my old hobby-horse about the lack of infrastructure.

    I’m afraid I’m not well informed enough to comment on why their efforts didn’t translate into more tangible results, although I suspect we all know the answer: resources.

    When I talk to people of a certain vintage who were in Toronto in the seventies, my jaw drops when I hear the amounts of support they were provided with. There was a political will at that time, in that place to turn Toronto from a puritan backwater into a vibrant cultural centre – and it worked.

    That political will, for whatever reason, never happened here (and probably should have occurred in the 1980s). Why was there never that political will? Well, I think we can see the mirror of it our own times. They had their own Kevin Krugers/Gorden Campbells to deal with.

    Could they have done more, perhaps. But don’t forget they too were looking for water in a desert.

  16. Hey Andrew, good to see you last night. I’d love to hear how your show went, I tried to get in but y’all were full!

    Great comment, thank you. It certainly has got me interested in doing some research into the previous generations political arts climate. I think that’s important information in the current battle.

    But I’m still pissed. Here’s what I do know about our industry. It has a rich history here of producing regional work that can be considered both ground-breaking and varied in style. We have the respect of the rest of Canadian theatre because of this. Great theatre has been made here for 50 years, at the very least. And yet outside of my theatre friends, we’re not a regularly considered entertainment option to anyone I know. And I ask people about it literally every day. (Speaking of old hobby-horses.)

    The vast majority of those people who live in Vancouver that we would consider our perfect demographic (somewhat educated 19-35 year-olds with an entertainment budget and a ken for social events) are unreached by our marketing. We’re bad at marketing. We were bad at marketing 50 years ago and we’re still bad at it (but getting better, incrementally.). I don’t think we’ve effectively branded ourselves away from the kind of theatre experience that our demo would never go to.

    Now, the government support in question may have been able to contribute to the improvement of that. But it still takes a skill set of business practices that our artists in general – and independent theatre especially – has yet to put at a premium. Govt support isn’t about doing that work for us, it’s about giving us the financial means to do it (equity fees, theatre rentals, our time, on and on). But community outreach and awareness building doesn’t necessarily cost much money. And with the rise of the internet as a marketing tool – and I know you know this all too well – these days it costs nearly nothing. And that’s where our forebears let us down. Too much time making art and not enough time selling it. That’s the root of my peevishness. But I know they were doing the best they could, you’re totally right, I use this trope to emphasize the dire need for us to focus on audience building as we go forward with the work. To put on shows that our audience wants to see, and then to bring them in and treat them like gold.

    I recently talked to a 28 year-old carpenter from Winnipeg at my bar that told me about the play he took his girlfriend to. Says they go all the time when there’s nothing at the movie theatre. That’s what I want for Vancouver.

  17. Hi Simon,

    Working on HIVE has been a blast.

    I agree with you that theatre in Vancouver does a poor job of marketing itself. MachineFair has had good audience numbers for our two shows last year, I think, in part because of the efforts we put into marketing. The first thing I do when a production is locked down is get publicity photos done and I think that helps set the tone for the rest of production. When I’m hired as a publicist, it is also the first thing I ask my clients to sort out.

    Publicity is often one of the things that gets cut back when budgets are tight. This is a totally understandable decision from the art side – and these are artists making the decisions – you want the art to be as good as it possibly can but unfortunately it can bite you on the ass when it comes to the run.

    With the internet, marketing needn’t be as expensive as it once was (you can forgo the print ads, for example) but it is time-consuming and I think people need to schedule that time in when ramping up for a show.

    One point, to bring it back to infrastructure. Part of the problem in marketing theatre generally in Vancouver is that theatre is, with the exception of the Arts Club and Playhouse, largely invisible on the landscape of the city. The Cultch, the Firehall and Roundhouse have diverse programming and are not tied directly to the personality of one company (the Firehall being perhaps the closest of the three).

    None of larger independents have their own theatre space. So, when it comes to marketing a show they have to start again from scratch. There is no where in the city that says “this is the Electric Company” for example. Can you imagine how cool a space they would run if they had one? Can you imagine how much easier it would be for them to reach the demographic you outlined if there was a location on the map?

    I’m not saying that the Electrics should go out and get a building for themselves (it is a mammoth undertaking), I’m just citing them as an example of what might happen.

    Making the task harder in Vancouver, of course, is the price of land. Why build theatres when you can put up condo towers? And this then brings us back to marketing/advocating. Why has the theatre community never championed the creation of a small black box theatre on the ground floor of a condo tower?

  18. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! (Now you’ve gone and got me all excited.) This is exactly where I’m at Andrew, this is THE big idea. Imagine a space like the DMC during HIVE, but all the time. A group of companies sharing space and resources. Marketing the space itself as a creative and contemporary destination, instead of relying on a myriad of little single-show marketing efforts. Running an indie theatre space like an indie music label, developing talent. Mentoring new artists and companies. Great food, great drinks, great music, great live art. Welcoming the community like maitre d’s and hosting their experience.

    That’s a model to aim for. That’s what I want to build.

  19. A few things to consider:

    The two premiere theatre festivals in Vancouver, PuSh and the Fringe, both do near capacity attendance. So the marketing, branding, whatever you want to call it, is not an across the board failure.

    Looking at the demographic at shows at PuSh like “The Show Must Go On” or “Best Before” or “White Cabin” I saw an ideal range, from young to old. The Fringe, where much of the best “playwriting” in the city takes place, has a decidedly young audience but also includes many people in their 50s and up.

    I like festivals. They’re good places to see theatre. I like getting immersed in theatre in this way.

    Many “independent” companies, such as Neworld or Electric Company, do excellent box office. So do some dance companies, like Kidd Pivot.

    PuSh is not a theatre festival. It’s a “performance” festival. There’s your branding issue solved. Unless by theatre you exclusively mean “drama.”

    People don’t go to the Playhouse (50% capacity crowds of people mostly in their late 40s and up) because it’s boring. People go to Arts Club musicals because they are branded by Disney.

    The start up for a Disney musical on Broadway is about 40 million dollars.

    I want to be accessible but I don’t do “entertainment”. I leave that to Hollywood and the Arts Club.

    How many people is ideal? For what kind of theatre?

    If you do Jazz like Kenny G., many people will buy your record. If you do Jazz like Roland Kirk, your audience will be much smaller.

    I would rather have an audience of 1 than be Kenny G.

    Sometimes I eat at McDonalds. It’s accessible and has a broad demographic. Sometimes I watch Syndicated musicals at the Arts Club. My stomach hurts after, and I have to poo something bad.

    Is the audience good enough? Is the art you are making good enough?

    I hope I never see another production of Glass Menagerie. I hope it is never produced again in this city for 100 years.

    You wrote a play. Maybe you had help from a dramaturg. Maybe it received support from arts funding agencies. Is it as good as the best plays you’ve ever read? If not, why put it on? Is your art good enough?

  20. Hey Alex. That is a whole lot of stuff to consider, all right. Thanks for the comment, and well said it is.

    It should be noted that I’m not making the assertion that all the individual components that comprise our wonderful theatre scene here are bad at marketing. Some are geniuses at it. I’m saying that the industry as a whole has failed to make significant inroads into the public consciousness for the amount of time that we’ve been doing it. We – the industry – have an audience, but it’s still too small. And a great deal of that audience gets its fix for the most part in festivals, the Fringe being the big one for certain. Just like the city is rabid for Jazz during the TD Canada Trust Jazz Festival, yet won’t sustain a vibrant live Jazz scene the rest of the year.

    The Fringe Organization, after 25 years, has developed good marketing skills. The individual crews that comprise each year’s Fringe, not so much. This is the problem that I think needs to be addressed, how to get Jane and Joe Vancouver actively searching for us the rest of the year, instead of just heading down to the festival. Or perhaps, how can we better use the festivals as a way of promoting individual efforts year round. I do, however, understand that this is a tall order for everyone who Fringes. It’s good conversation fodder though.

    And I’m right there with you about the Arts Club and the Playhouse and how they reflect on the type of entertainment we as independents offer. That’s the pivot of my idea here, we need to position ourselves as something other than big house theatre, because that’s who we get lumped in with.

    They have their audience. Let’s find ours.

  21. I agree with Andrew and the question of space and identity. We don’t have a sufficient mid-size producing company with its own space. And real estate makes paying just for a rehearsal hall hugely expensive.

    As for condo towers theatres recall the early 80’s example of this success:

    There was an excellent little space in Vancouver called City Stage run by Ray Michael (namesake of the award.) A black box theatre–it was an intimate and fun place to be right in the downtown core. It was built through a program of bonus allowances for the developer. Now, I believe the space is a McDonalds.

  22. Been thinking a lot about these subjects myself. Though I’ve got to admit the Hive advertisement was not at all intriguing to me, and I’m in the presumably target market: a 30 year old working professionally in theatre.

    One consistent problem I see, and this video typifies it, has to do with presentation of theatre in other media: when you photograph and record video of theatre it invariably LOOKS STUPID! And taking a “cutting-edge” graphic design sort of angle to present what you’re doing onstage often tends to only further cloud what it is you’re actually presenting.

    I’m not sure what the answer is either, but I’m excited to find other people asking the same questions…

    My personal research lately has been to look back towards the silent film era and early days of Hollywood, when the cinema was still riffing directly from the stage, when movies were just single acts out of a day’s vaudeville offerings.

    While I hate the tragedy-comedy masks, I love the red curtains, the ghost light – all the old musty creepy/freaky elements of traditional theatre. There’s something to be said for NOT jettisoning all that good old stuff that makes theatre what it is simply in the name of re-branding!

  23. Tim, I totally agree. As producer and member of the marketing committee for Hive I can say that none of us were really happy with the Hive marketing in itself. The “buzz”, the bee image, our website, etc, none of it was anything we were overly enthusiastic about, but we also didn’t want to spend any money. it was one of those things where the template was there, we filled in new info, but as the budget was tighter this time around, we didn’t have the Magnetic North Theatre Fest marketing machine, behind us, we just wanted to spend as much of the money as we could on the art in the performance itself.

    This is why I wonder if we are talking about 2 separate things: 1) marketing of theatre, which could be vastly improved to help reach new audiences, and 2) what the actual art is – are we doing shows that people want to attend.

  24. “And taking a “cutting-edge” graphic design sort of angle to present what you’re doing onstage often tends to only further cloud what it is you’re actually presenting”

    This is something that’s been a pet issue of mine for a while Tim, and you’ve summed up my feelings about it well. Filmed theatre looks terrible to non-theatre people, and if you jazz it up it ceases to resemble the product. I think the marketing question is “how can we capture their interest without setting them up for disappointment?”

    All that I can think of right now is to your point Ami, when we get them in, however we get them in, the product has to be unbelievable. Earth-shatteringly good. Good enough to make them want to go out to somebody else’s play. And then that one has to be just as good. Then they’ve got a bar set, and will come back after a disapointment or two.

    Easy enough, right? (Eek.) We’ve got to keep pushing each other. Our industry has to be kept accountable for the quality of its content, because we’re all in this together. We need one big audience, not a bunch of little audiences for individual companies.

  25. Hey this is a great conversation. Thanks for all the kudos guys. We actually struggle as much with marketing as small theatre comapnies (on a larger scale). We are constantly trying to figure out how to ge the audiences that Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto get. The Fringe festivals or small theatre in those places isn’t markeitng themselves any differently or better than we are here. Perhaps its a little hokier even. The prairie Fringe fests tend to go with themes like Hawaii or the Wild West or James Bond (there was a 00Fringe campaign in 2007), like some type of high school graduation party. Maybe pretending theatre is a James Bond movie is the answer. I can’t do it though and somehow, I’m guessing if we did go this route in Vancouver all you would end up with is a bunch of pissed off James Bond fans.

    Infrastructure is definitely a factor. I lived in Montreal for 6 years and you can feel that money they spent in the 60s making syure Quebecois culture was built like a brick shithouse. It’s the audiences that they built then that are really alive and well now.

    Maybe we won’t get to see the real change because it is a generation away from funding that is a millenium away…Still worth the work though.

    The Fringe is open for collaboration when it comes to building the future (or maybe a building), making shit happen, and building audiences. Let’s keep talking.

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