The Open Book Project: Conclusions
The cast has taken their final bow. I’ve sat down and talked about the entire marketing campaign with the producers to find out what they thought worked and didn’t. I’ve even mapped out what I would do differently to promote this show if I had a time machine and could go back a few months armed with what I now know. It’s time for my final conclusions about the Open Book Project.
When I first announced this project, I talked about what sort of production I was looking for. I didn’t want to work on something that was already going to have a sell out crowd without my involvement. In truth I really wanted a project that was going to be challenging to market. If you’ve read the last few weeks of the Open Book Project, then you know that I found exactly that.
Acting Up Production’s presentation of Edward Albee’s At Home At the Zoo is certainly the most challenging marketing assignment I’ve ever taken on. In spite of the high caliber of talent both onstage and off, this show is a tough sell.
AUP is only in their third season, and they don’t have a home theatre. This show has a small cast of three, limiting the number of “friends and family” tickets that would be sold. The material in the show is not particularly uplifting, and almost certainly makes some audiences uncomfortable.
The competition from other entertainment options over these few weeks was also very high. The opening weekend of the show on October 25 was up against most Halloween events. Over the course of the three weekends there were big names in town that pull a crowd like Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LuPone, and John Lithgow. There was also more immediate competition from other Indianapolis theatres doing very well received productions of shows like Rancho Mirage and The Illiad.
The run had 8 public performances scheduled. I can sum up ticket sales pretty easily like this: if everyone who came to see the show over the entire run had shown up on the same night, there still would have been empty seats.
Now the box office take did get progressively stronger each weekend, and the gross ticket sales for the final weekend eclipsed the first two combined. That’s normal when the quality of work is high, but still good to see since the formal reviews of the show were at best neutral. (The informal reviews via word of mouth were much more positive.)
I think one of the biggest things I got wrong in my approach to this show was overestimating the draw that Albee’s new act would be. I personally found it fascinating that he thought The Zoo Story, largely cemented in the canon of American theatre, was incomplete. The idea that he felt it was only half the story – and felt it so strongly that he will no longer allow the original work to be performed without the new act captured my interest.
I think the new act ended up pushing people away.
Sadly in this case, I appear to be in the minority here in Indianapolis. Instead I think the new act ended up pushing people away.
Perhaps people would have been more interested had the new act occurred after the events of The Zoo Story rather than before? Conjecture aside, the marketing heavily emphasized the addition of this new material, and that message didn’t seem to resonate.
I had a few drinks with Brian and Beth of AUP after the production had closed. I was very interested to hear their take on the marketing of this production. First we acknowledged that all three of us had both hoped for and (honestly) expected larger crowds.
When you are a young theatre you start out promoting to friends, family, and other people in the local theatre community. And when you are a young theatre that’s a relatively small group of people. There are two obvious ways reach outside of those circles.
- Get coverage in a new media outlet
- Pay for advertising
Media coverage is great to have, but many of the factors that go into story selection are out of your control. Try to have an impact on the community and make it as easy as possible on the journalists to get the information they need, but beyond that it’s pretty much out of your hands.
Advertising is expensive. Once you know what you’re doing it can be very effective and profitable, but there is a learning curve. Which channels do you advertise in, when do run, and how do you craft a message that converts? While you are figuring these details out for your market (usually through trial and error) you can drop a serious chunk of change.
For financial reasons with this production, paid advertising wasn’t a practical option for promotion.
One of the things I was most interested to find out from Brian and Beth was what parts of the marketing plan they had liked. Which tactics and elements of the process were they planning on incorporating into the promotion of their future productions?
The marketing calendar as an approach was a big hit
The marketing calendar as an approach was a big hit, which makes perfect sense to me. The last week or two leading up to open are critical for marketing activity, and when people on your team are wearing multiple hats this is exactly when they’re being pulled in ten directions at once. The marketing calendar allows you to plan out this period ahead when you do have time.
Interestingly Brian mentioned that the illustrated pull quotes were something he liked. I don’t honestly don’t know if the pull quotes were much of a draw in this production, in part just because I don’t feel like the actual quotes were very compelling. Regardless of how effective there were here, though, I do love them as a tactic in general.
After the opening weekend when it became clear that the marketing up to that point hadn’t resonated, I recognized another audience that was ideally suited for how we were positioning this show. We were presenting a show that was going to make you think. Perhaps the reason The Zoo Story has become so popular in academic settings is because it invites (demands?) conversation.
After listening to the first talk back, I realized that this is exactly the type of discussion that attracts people to book clubs. The problem is it was too late to reach those groups. Book clubs are informally organized, and typically don’t meet more than once a month.
If I had a time machine, I would have gone after this audience months before we opened. How do you go after book clubs?
The first challenge is locating them. There are a few places to go online.
Once you’ve gone after the low hanging fruit that are good places to find any niche audience, it’s time to look for the specific places that are unique to your niche audience. I jotted down a few ideas for reaching the book club crowd, but this list is certainly not comprehensive:
- get a table at local book fairs
- bulletin boards at local book stores (in Indy we even still have a few Barnes & Noble locations)
- advertising on Goodreads (you can filter by location and other criteria)
- swag bags at local art shows
The key is getting in front of them months before the show.
So when I find the people who are in book clubs, then what? I would want a post card that highlighted the talk backs scheduled for the show. The format would be very similar to a direct mail piece. None of the ideas above involve sending mail, although if we had a larger budget and could get a targeted list that’s another option.
I want to extend a deep thank you to Beth and Brian at Acting Up Productions. They kindly allowed me to impose my ideas on the marketing of one of their productions. Throughout the process they were even more generous with their time which I’m sure was in very short supply.
I’m very much looking forward to the marketing of their next few productions as they have a chance to refine these tactics and customize them to fit the personality of their company.