Today’s post will be hosted from Toronto

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During a visit to China this past Summer I managed to fill a bunch of otherwise-blank space here on TNS through the generosity of a bunch of very smart and agreeable guest bloggers. Among their number was Ian Mackenzie, the in-house marketer for Toronto’s Praxis Theatre, and long-time author of the Canadian super-blog; Theatre is Territory. Response to Ian’s post was instant and lively, and generated some of the best comment conversation The Next Stage has ever seen. If you haven’t read it and you’re involved in independent theatre in any way, please do so post-haste, it’s simply mandatory reading.

After the piece ran, Ian asked me to return the favour, you can read the results of that little request over on the Praxis site today.

I love this idea of guest posting, I think it might make us converse outside of our normal at-home comfort zones, and open up new ideas to a different audience. And it’s kind of like inviting company over for good conversation. A little more formal, and a little more challenging.

If anyone out there in the theatre blog galaxy, either blogger or reader, feels that they would like to have a chat with the audience of The Next Stage, please drop me a line either in the comments below or directly to me at vanstage(at)gmail(dot)com. We’d love to have you over.

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.

Highlights from today’s Canadian theatrosphere

Hot day on the Great White North theatre blog tundra today (it’s…alive!), a day worthy of a round-up. Check out these great posts:

Pitch-hitting blogger Evan Webber over at Chris Dupuis’ Time and Space sums up his TO Fringe experience. Heading into the festival with a mission to determine the answer to the question “what do people like” from their indie theatre, Evan comes out the other end with some great observations.

“From this angle, what people like (and what I like too) are performances in which the ambition to communicate is desperate and huge, shows that ask a lot.”

Read on for more of that…

Marketer/blog master Ian Mackenzie has sourced out a video that takes 18 minutes to address 87% of the discussion on the theatrenets. Author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point) discusses the origin of diverse consumer product choice and the importance of a varied market, and Ian grafts it onto theatre. Brilliant.

“What theatre can learn from spaghetti sauce”…

And over at Michael Rubenfeld’s Summerworks blog, a bona fide brouhaha erupts in the comments section of a festival promotional video that brings out Toronto theatre’s serious side. And they call us No-Fun City.

Click for a lesson in how to get internet conversations about theatre started…

Praxis Service Announcement

Dear Gentle Reader:

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to stop by and visit the site. Readership has been steadily increasing for the last little while, and the number of you that are checking us out regularly is both humbling and exciting. We are most appreciative and would welcome any comments or feedback on the site and what you’d like to see more (or less) of in the future.

And if you like what you encounter down here at The ol’ Next Stage, may I modestly suggest stopping by the sites of some other good Canadian folk blogging away across the country, working hard to stimulate good conversation on the progressive world of theatre.

Praxis Theatre’s resident marketing guru Ian Mackenzie (know in the Canadian quadrant of the theatrosphere as the “Blogfather”) has, after exhaustive research, compiled a comprehensive list of Great White Northern theatre blogs on his site Theatre is Territory. Have a stroll around the list and hey, if you’re in any way inspired to start a theatre blog of your own, there’s lots of room in the pool…

Someday – and that day may never come – I will call upon you to do an interview for me…

The Value of Theatre, Summarized

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Yesterday’s theatrenet roundtable on the value of theatre was the best and most vigorous use of this form of discussion that I’ve seen yet. Well done, Slay, and thanks. We should be doing this once a month. Maybe take turns throwing out the month’s topic? For those of you who missed it or are new to wading through the tangle of this particular web, Ian at Theatre is Territory has dutifully corralled some highlights from various participants’ dialogues and provided links to the full articles, click here for the day’s Coles notes. They’re some of the most thought-provoking opinions I’ve yet read on the subject of our thang.

…any questions?

“The revolution in theatre needs to happen at the business end of the stick: an army of Arts Admin rebels so furious with the injustice of the current creaking theatre apparatus that they lead the march to a new model. A model that empowers artists to ask the kinds of questions we need artists to be asking. And theatre can retake its rightful place as a valued moral compass for the communities it serves.” – Ian Mackenzie

There it is ladies and gentlemen, three sentences that answer any questions you may have regarding how to move ourselves forward. They are lifted from a Theatre is Territory comment thread discussing Praxis Theatre’s 101 Sentences About Theatre series. Please check out the rest of the comment here, Ian’s wisdom on our future is simply essential reading.