Getting the word out and the patrons in: a large concert hallhalf-empty is a dispiriting experience. A 100-seat space half-empty is a tragedy.
From 1986 to 2006 I helmed a mid-size arts organization in Coral Gables, FL. At the time of its birth in December 1986, our budget for our new theatre – which we named just that: New Theatre — was little over $3,000. By June of 2006, when I passed the crown and the headaches that it covers to my successor, our annual budget hovered around $600,000 in cash and $400,000 in kind (free marketing, free legal advice, free graphic design, heavily discounted printing, etc.)
From being a one-man show at the onset we grew to a three-person full-time staff plus a handful of independent contractors and part-timers. The pay was abysmally-low, but the working conditions were decent and the intangible spiritual and artistic rewards incalculable.
At New Theatre we developed some relatively new concepts (this was the 1980s) among them a flexible season pass. We called it a flexi-ticket and it proved to be an effective tool for audience building. During my tenure, the organization grew to be 60% subscribed. In simple terms that meant that out of the 2600 seats we had to sell during a twenty-three performance/five week run of a play, 78 were assured of having bottoms on them, performance after performance.
New Theatre quickly became a professional, year-round company, affiliated with Actors Equity Association and working on a SPT tier 4 Contract. We produced over 120 plays during my 20 years at the helm, averaging six per year. Roughly two-thirds of our plays received their world premieres under our banner. In 2002 we brought home the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the play Ana in the Tropics by the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz.
The play then won the coveted Best New American Play award from the American Association of Theatre Critics and a Tony nomination for Best New Play after its Broadway run. Ana in the Tropics became the most-performed American play in America during 2003.
These modest accomplishments took time to build – time and effort and elbow grease. They took building a following. They took many grants from the City of Coral Gables, the Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Theatre Communications Group, The New York Drama League, American Express, The Knight Foundation and many, many $25 contributions from individuals on a fixed income.
After moving to Cincinnati at the end of 2009, I took a good look around the Queen City and went to many concerts, plays, operas and ballet performances. I found an astonishing level of quality all around. Not only were the large “usual suspects” – the CSO, the Cincinnati Opera, the May Festival and the Playhouse in the Park — living up to their national and even international reputations, but the small and mid-sized organizations were turning out impressive locally-produced work, and presenting some world-class artists. But I was disturbed to see distressingly small audiences wherever I went. Music Hall half-empty is a dispiriting experience. A 100-seat space half-empty is a tragedy.
At a wonderful concert of an Early Music group that my wife and I attended in a little church in Clifton on a Saturday night in November there were perhaps thirty people in the audience, if that. Elsewhere, at a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello on a Sunday afternoon there was a listless audience of less than forty people in attendance.
When I asked my students in an Opera History class if they had ever heard of this or that small arts organization, not one hand went up. These were not twenty-something’s but senior citizens with plenty of disposable income and time in their hands. They were attendees at CCM, at the Ensemble Theatre. Some even drove south to Kentucky for performances at NKU and north to Dayton for concerts and operas. But they were, sad to say, unaware of the existence of a dozen or so worthwhile small arts organizations that lack the marketing dollars that make our largest arts organizations household words.
Protest as I did, nobody could explain why they had not – to a person – ever heard of some or most of the small and mid-sized artistic treasures that this city has to offer. Why?
The lay of the land
How do we do it? Dwindling down audiences…funding drying up…the economy in the dumps…general apathy and not much awareness of who and what and why and where we are. Is there anything we can do to insure our survival?
Large arts organizations all over the country are trying to re-invent the wheel while their deficits accumulate and their audiences continue to age and cease to attend. We are not yet sinking and ready to join our voices in a chorus of Nearer, my God, to Thee. Not yet, but there’s a great big iceberg heading our way and if we don’t do something fast, it’s going to hit us.
At a crossroads
Preaching to the baby-boomer choir and to the ones of the generation before it is OK, but that choir is not going to sing forever. And then…what? Where is our future audience?
The seniors…the over-fifty…sixty…seventy crowd…They’re our bread-and-butter audience. But they are maxed out. How many times have we heard “That day I can’t…I’m going to the Symphony…” ”I’m sorry but I have season tickets to the Playhouse, the Symphony, the Opera and the May Festival…I just can’t do any more!”
So, what do we do? We redouble our efforts. That does not mean by the way, increase our spending. I’m talking about doing it on a shoestring with freebies and favors, with the internet, with email and with a good dose of passion. Our immediate and most urgent initiative must be to make a noise. “Hey, we’re here! How come you’ve never heard of us? Are you new in Cincinnati?” That must include politicians, grant-makers, friends, neighbors, your kids and their kids.
Visitors – the untapped audience
Cincinnati is becoming more and more of a business and tourist destination. Conventions are held in downtown Cincinnati every year. You may not need to bother with the Plumbing Suppliers of America convention. But you could score with College Teachers of Romance Languages or a P&G reunion.
One evening my wife and I were going to a special occasion dinner at Orchids and there had been a fire at the Brazilian restaurant located elsewhere in the building. While we stood waiting for the all-clear and thirty minutes late for our reservation we struck up a conversation with two Spanish language teachers – Latin Americans both of them – who asked me if there was anything cultural going on that evening that I would care to recommend. I cared to but couldn’t. No word was out on anything that June weekend.
Stacking printed card-size mailers in the lobby racks in hotels…Hand-delivering press packets to convention managers and giving them a face-to-face overview of what’s available that season, then giving them several tickets to one of your events… Combining your brochures with those of other groups for more volume and greater impact… And all for the cost of the printing!
Talk to hotel concierges. They can be your best friends. Talk to the folks at the Chamber of Commerce. They may not be all that excited about an all-Stockhausen concert, but a mixed sampler of lighter fare may just hook them. And if they don’t use the tickets and instead give them to their secretaries you’ve still scored.
Your board of directors
Don’t stop talking. Get one board member with the gift of gab to address the luncheon at xyz.
Get everybody’s attention. Get your board members to get their associates’ and friends’ business cards. Get those email addresses. Build awareness. Get cards printed with your season’s titles in back and your board member’s name and email on the front. Spread the word!
Enlist, draft, coerce and kidnap if need be but build your army of helpers. Avoid being a control freak! You can’t do it all. Get your board in gear and get those board members to get the word out. They will probably do a much better job than you can. You are the artist. Stick to what you do best.
Have a board member coordinate a visit by a group from a local high school – the School for the Performing Arts would be a good place to start. Invite them to come to an event or to a rehearsal. Get photographs or a video of the event.
Get your board individually involved. Motivate them by entrusting them with significant tasks that they might perform much better than you, the artist. Empower them! Do not generalize. Make specific assignments for each board member. Get the lawyer in your board to target the Bar. Get your socialite board member to host a tea or cocktail party or soiree at her place. Have an actor or musician or two attend and give a 15 to 30 minute performance and stay on for a q and a.
Oh and don’t bother with committees. Most committees end up being one person working and two watching. It does not take three people to screw on a light bulb.
Beef up your website. Post videos of events. Get a media student from CCM to make you his or her project. Emails, Facebook and Twitter are good but one needs to go beyond them.
Jazz up your website. Add sound! Get those images moving! Once set up there is no extra cost for a better website, and the returns are terrific.
Fill your website with back-stories on whoever your composer or playwright du jour is. Be classy but edgy. Rossini’s Sins of my Old Age is full of scatological humor. Go for it! Shostakovich? That’s heavy! So play up the heavy! Post all kinds of stuff about him…his troubles with Stalin… Are you producing a play by a gay playwright? You’d be insane not to hook up with your local LGBT group.
Go behind the scenes… Do quick interviews with audience members as they exit. Post them.
Hook up with an internet analytic that can give you vital information about who is visiting your website and what their preferences are. Seniors, believe it or not, are heavy users of the internet.
Don’t kill trees. Paper marketing has gone out of fashion. So has newspaper advertising. Word of mouth is free. Word that so and so is the featured soloist is enough to bring his or her followers. But you have to let people know. Your musicians, your actors, your dancers are your brand. The internet is your friend.
Make one-to-one contact with the media people. So the network affiliates won’t give you the time of day? Maybe the cable folks will. Your local PBS will. Radio will. One good radio talk show spot is worth ten of those quickies TV stations throw at arts organizations at the end of sports and the weather.
Your local music or theatre critic can’t do all your marketing for you and reviews are useless since they come after the event. Pitch a preview. If there is in it anything remotely connected with another area – anything from lifestyles or food or health or whatever – find the connection and use it. If your playwright or composer or soloist is a hometown girl or boy, you’ve got a natural connection waiting to work for you.
Use niche advertising. In my own theatre we kicked off the 2001 season in June – months before 9-11 – with the South Florida premiere of Margaret Edson’s Wit, a powerful play about a college professor who specializes in the poetry of John Donne who’s fighting and finally succumbs to terminal cancer. Not exactly your Broadway fluffy matinee stuff.
Our actress shaved her head to play the role and we created all our marketing – posters, program cover, flyers – around her image. We then tied-in with the League Against Cancer and its Hispanic counterpart, La Liga Contra el Cancer and gave them two free performances. We then got a full page on the Arts and Leisure section of the Miami Herald. We sold out the entire run of 30 performances and had to extend it.
After or before an event, is there a place to get a bite to eat? Do you have a tie-in with an eatery? Explore that.
Create a CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. Be humorous. Take the starch out of your ART. Call your choir The Usual Suspects or The Culture Vultures or the Bar Rocks or the Light Motifs…Come up with something better than those if you find these corny.
Reward your groupies with invitations to special parties where you can play to them and court them for a donation or a subscription renewal. Have a musician or an actor in hand to explain the process of rehearsing a piece.
Do NOT even remotely consider spending a penny on this. Get each of your board members to commit to an annual contribution of $$$$. Four figures is the standard, three a fallback, two better than none. If they want to do instead a party at their place, that can function in lieu of their cash donation.
Chill! Lay back! Cool it! Relax! It’s a concert, not a funeral! It’s a play…you know, as in the verb to play. Break the ice! Talk to the audience in laymen terms…Speaking about the Adagio in the second movement as having an elegiac quality might be good for the Oxford Dictionary of Music but it will fly over the heads of your mostly non-pro audience.
Instead be factual and interesting. Explain that Adagio means slow and dig deeper and tell them why Puccini wrote his Chrysanthemums for the funeral of the Duke of Savoy. Doing Shakespeare or David Mamet? Dig out the skeletons in their closets and use them to illustrate the humanity of these great writers.
Let some quirks enter your hallowed halls and see how many barriers crumble. If you’re doing Kurt Weill clad your orchestral ensemble in vintage clothing and turn your performance space into a Kabaret in Berlin, around 1920.
Why must all classical music concerts follow the same practices that were in vogue 200 years ago? Liszt turned the piano to its side so that his audience could marvel at his great profile. Why not set the audience around the musicians? The Greeks did that some 2,500 years ago. Shakespeare did it 500 years ago. Invite your audience into the 21st century. It’s a nice place to visit. Maybe they’ll stay.
Coordinate, communicate and cooperate
The three Cs of a successful arts organization are your keys to survival.
If you’re planning a fund-raiser why not make a phone call to the marketing person at the CSO, the Opera, and…whoever and double-check that they are not doing one on the same evening. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get a larger crowd at your event.
Communicate with your colleagues big and small. They’re neither the enemy nor the competition. They are fellow passengers on a boat that’s starting to take water. Together you can plug-up the
Has anybody thought of doing an arts sampler involving all the little guys? What if you offered a sampler pass with an admission to each of four or more “undiscovered” arts organizations. Cross-overs from and to music and theater and dance are a good thing.
Be generous. Donating a pair of tickets to another arts organization is a good deed and good marketing.
None of us have the magic silver bullet. We don’t have many answers but mostly some ideas that hopefully will crack open some new windows and open up unexpected vistas.
Rafael de Acha © 2016