“Why didn’t I know about your show? I had a stroke. But I’m only here because
two mutual connections mentioned your show to me. One is an actor, and the other is a lady who teaches Film Making. But otherwise, I never would have known. Why?” an audience member asked at my last talkback, implying that despite his recent stroke and ongoing rehab, without his connections in the theater/film world (thank you, Raul Delarosa and Nicole Trotter!), he would never have known.
How did he not know? My feelings exactly! But what can I say?
Got me thinking about the show I saw last night, 140 Lbs: How Beauty Killed My Mother, a powerful and beautiful solo show at The Marsh, San Francisco this week, 5 consecutive evenings. (Last show 5:30 tonite! Don’t miss it! Or catch in your city, she's about to do a national tour.) Waiting for the show to begin, the person sitting next to me asked, "Why are you here? How did you hear about this show?" I'm a "Marshian", she's a woman of color, boom. I'm there. But afterwards, I found myself thinking about those questions.
Last night’s house was sold out, with, rarity of rarity in the theater world, an audience of mostly millennials, and majority people of color! That was different! Though I try to see most of the shows featuring African American and Native American stories and actors, (and I’m going back to the original Broadway premier of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enough and James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope to the more recent Ain’t Too Proud to Beg at Berkeley Rep), no matter how popular or acclaimed the show, other than at The African American Shakespeare Company, I cannot remember being one of more than a handful in any audience. And can often count the number of non grey heads in the house.
140 lbs was written and performed by Susan Lieu, a millennial, daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, raised in SF now living in Seattle. It seemed, from both my seatmate and the reception afterwards, that most in the audience were from her community and knew Lieu personally. Fabulous, and lucky her! Found myself wondering if her first generation immigrant experience was part of the glue. (A glue people speak of my communities having lost with genocide, integration and the northern migration. But more on that another time.) But was there something else?
Word of mouth is the most effective. But a critical mass of people is needed to effectively spread the word or critical influencers. That’s why commercial brands start their promotions with huge, publicity garnishing, star and influencer studded galas with generous swag bags. Or opening nights include theater/film and social glitterati.
But for time limited theater productions, in a small non profit theater with an advertising budget close to zero, promotion becomes a lot more challenging. So it becomes a shared task, requiring effort from both the artist and theater.
Certainly our best first audience is friends and family. But to fill a house night after night takes so much more!
So, how do you reach your potential audience? How does a show find its following? How does a show get legs?
Theaters depend heavily on their mailing lists, e and snail mail. And those go a long way. But what if they don’t have your name? How can you be reached? And if you are an artist, what if your show might appeal to first time theater goers? Or a niche market? One of the longest running Bay Area hits, Brian Copeland’s Waiting Period, about depression, really picked up momentum when psychologists and psychiatrists who saw it began talking it up, referring patients and colleagues. But how do to get that critical mass of interested people to the theater in the first place?
For the solo performer, that is a huge issue. The Marsh, despite a shoe string budget, handles some of the heavy lifting through their newsletters and Facebook and their first rate publicist, Carla Befera & Company, which handles press outreach. Befera & Co wrote the press releases, arranged a number of radio interviews for me, reached out to critics, directed a number of news placements, helped me choose new production images and probably much more about which I have no clue. Thank you, Carla, Sydney and associates!!
But a pitch is not a guarantee of placement. And with The Marsh offering 5-8 shows at any given time, there is a pick and choose element that is challenging for any individual show. If your show opens when a critic is on vacation, you loose. If you open at the same time as bigger names, uphill battle.
My experience of the Fringe Festivals long before my show opened at The Marsh was instructive in that realm. At a Fringe Festival, anywhere between 70 and 200 shows come to town for 10-14 days with a ready, eager audience. Though some die hard audience members compete to rack up “most shows seen”, even leaving a show before the end to rush to the next, most know they will see no more than a dozen shows, so look for help to sort through the offerings. By the second weekend, word of mouth carries the day, but for the first weekend, advance press makes a huge difference (and hopefully, your show is scheduled for both first and second weekends). But advance press tends to cover the Fringe Stars (regulars who have created popular or critically well received shows multiple years), local actors shows, shows arriving with great reviews from other Fringes, the topical shows (think Trump the Musical), and the edgy (some say, the “bright, shiny objects”). And that may be enough to fill the theater early. The extravaganzas, the huge cast musical and circus shows, have huge friends and family base to fill the early seats. (Any show can become a break out hit, of course, but some say the best way to die on the Fringe Circuit is to have a show about an illness, like breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, or stroke! Thankfully, SF audiences do not shy from challenging material.)
So, my first fringes, with no advance press, everything was on me. And that meant writing and often sending out my own press release, networking and cold calling, talking to other artists about show, working to cross promote our shows, talking and handing out postcards to patrons in every line (“Flyering the line”), talking to shopkeepers and barristas, putting up posters etc, etc, etc!
It does feel like a luxury to have a publicist to lay a foundation! But much of the ongoing outreach falls on the artist.
As at the fringes, it begins with fellow artists, here at home, the ones with whom I have been writing and workshopping my piece. Then, I reach out to friends, family, and contacts. But obstacle 1: I’m an introvert; my rolodex is not that deep. Obstacle 2: I'm an introvert. Self promotion is exhausting. More than one friend (thank God for extroverts!) has put in a plug for my show when we are together, then elbowed me, indicating I need to step up and promote myself! Obstacle 3: I spent my career essentially in one job in a closed system, Kaiser, without a lot of interaction with other medical groups. Many people who taught me and many colleagues have retired, and without personal contact info (or defunct aol emails), hard to locate.
The local version of postering and flyering the lines is Theater Bay Area’s (TBA) well oiled distribution network for the North Bay, Peninsula, SF city and East Bay. Once a month by region, they leave stacks of flyers and hang posters at theaters and off site venues (like coffee houses, laundromats). So we artists choose which regions to paper, purchase the flyers and posters, and pay TBA to distribute them.
Done. Next task: find specific target audiences, people who might resonate with show.
Here again, my prior theatre festival experience was helpful. Bringing the show to cities where I knew no one required advance outreach. At the suggestion of a fellow performer with a quirky show, I hired a freelancer via Upwork, a global freelance website (I could write a whole post on that!), to mine contact information for people in target groups, like stroke coordinators, speech and language therapists, nursing and medical students, neurologists, etc . Then I emailed, cold called and networked. I spoke at Stroke Support groups and classes. I gave a pitch every class I attended at my gym. Every day, I push beyond my comfort zone to spread the word.
Of course, in the meantime, I’m using social media, straddling the line between informing and oversaturating, posting on Facebook, Instagram, more rarely on Linkedin, sending notes and flyers by snail mail to key players, enlisting the stroke and brain injury non profits I've been involved with to help spread the word.
As it happens, I had spoken to the stroke coordinator and to a stroke support group at the facility where the audience member was treated. I’d left flyers. Staff members had come to my show and sent other staff to see it. Others treated at the facility said they came to the show because one of the staff had told them not to miss it. So, how did he not know about my show? Maybe theater and creative people are more tuned into sharing??? What can I say? Know I gave it my best shot to reach the people who might find my show.
As you’ve probably surmised, the hardest thing for me about performing has been the need for relentless, shameless self-promotion. And yet, I persist. Because I have seen too many great shows by talented artists fail to “catch on” or find their audience, because many of us love the creation, but cringe at the promo.
So to all of you who have come to my show, who have told a friend about my show, shared flyers, posted reviews, given me shout outs on social media, thank you. Thank you! THANK YOU!
And to any of you who have any promo tips secrets, please do share!!! And you theatergoers: what compels you to the theater? What makes the difference between hearing about a show and going? How do you choose most of the shows you see?