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:
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.