Theatre IS Elitist!

Luke John Emmett

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

Theatre is elitist. There, I’ve said it.
 
It’s out there and now I will try and explain what I mean and justify such a deliberately provocative headline before I get an influx of angry slapping jazz hands heading in my direction.
 
I have been writing and re-writing this post since the Theatre 2016 Conference (for more info see here) earlier this year. I wrote a blog post on the conference itself which gives a bit more of the context of my arguments (see here for more info).
 
The biggest issue with Theatre 2016 was that it was headlined as a conference for anyone who cares about the future of theatre. But the majority of people could not afford to go along and attend and no live video stream was made available meaning the event was closed off to those “lucky enough” to be able to attend. Those of us who were there did all we could to share info via Twitter so that others could keep track of what was being said.
 
When a conference organised by members of the theatre community out-prices many other members of the community you know we have a massive problem.
 
It’s therefore no surprise that many people have been speaking out about the cost of theatre tickets recently. There have been some shocking examples – Elf The Musical had top price tickets at around £140. Theatre is still seen as a luxury and not something for everyone and I find that a massive shame.
 
So what is the answer? Arts subsidy is becoming less and less. Local authorities are cutting arts budgets left right and centre and costs of creating productions and ensuring everyone is paid properly are ever-increasing.
 
Are discounted or cheaper tickets really the answer?
 
I spoke to one lady who was the Marketing Manager of a large theatre. She said that they tried offering cheaper/discounted tickets for productions. In her experience they gained very few new audience members. Instead what happened was that those who would normally pay top-whack instead snapped up the cheaper tickets. I would argue that perhaps it wasn’t marketed or handled as well as it could have been to attract those audiences, and manage who could book the tickets they claimed these deals were for.
 
One theatre where it has been successful is in Sheffield where they have opened up their dress rehearsals for the cost of £1 per ticket. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it’s great that people get the chance to see a show in an affordable way. It’s good for the actors to have an audience before they officially open. But, why should people who want to see productions be forced to see a dress rehearsal and not a real performance just because they cannot afford it. It feels slightly derogatory to me.
 
John Tusa in his fabulous book “Pain in the Arts” comments: “Never think that audiences are less intelligent, less curious, less informed than yourself. They aren’t. Never patronise them, never sell them short, never seek the lowest common denominator, avoid the middle ground, eschew easy attempts at bribery by cheap offers. Trust them and they will trust you, and may even come to surprise you.”
 
The biggest problem is that our larger organisations are very closed off. They have become something of a “club” for the white middle-classes and can prove quite impenetrable to those of us who are not members of “the club” yet. I say this as someone who has floated very much on the fringes of “the club” for many years. I’ve dipped my toes in their somewhat murky waters but more often than not you find many more doors are closed than opened.
 
This unfortunately leads to several inevitabilities. The main one is very little ever changes. When you have the same people in the same roles they tend to do things the way that they have always done them. Without fresh views and voices coming through things have a tendency to remain the same. A large percentage of those running our theatres are business managers. They are great at looking at what makes money or a secure investment but have very little interest in a dialogue with the communities that surround their theatres. As long as they are producing products that sell they are happy.
 
Another common practice is the add-on of community engagement programmes that are slapped on the side of large production houses because they need to be seen to be engaging the community more. They have numerous degrees of success. Many of them tend to only ever engage with the same few people though. The only way in my opinion that these programmes truly have an impact is if community is embedded throughout the entirety of the organisation and all its policies. Only by putting the community at the heart of an organisation can you truly engage with it.
 
There are a few theatres that have very successfully managed this. I think of Home in Manchester where the community were involved with every step of the planning of the organisation. Because their approach was to actively include the community in its programming decisions and workshop decisions the community felt like they were part of the theatre and that their opinions mattered which have proved massively beneficial with a diverse audience in attendance at productions there.
 
Sheena Wrigley again at the Theatre 2016 conference commented that we should “dismantle regional theatres and put them back together again”, and I think she’s right. It would cause some chaos initially but if things could be rebuilt with a more diverse make-up of people then things would begin to change. If you do not have people with new views or open to new ideas things will always remain the same. This of course will never happen but it’s an interesting idea and concept.
 
I really hate organisations that try to create top-down community programmes. They do not work. What right have you to tell communities what they should and should not be interested in doing? Why not instead work with those communities to see what it is that they want or need. Get members of those communities on your boards, speaking at your meetings, making decisions about your outreach programmes. The more buy-in you get from individuals from communities the better engaged the communities will become.
 
A large part of the problem is that our audiences and the make-up of our organisations only represents those who are creating or producing the work. It’s the old employing people for a job psychological mind-set. Psychologists have proven we are much more likely to employ people who resemble ourselves in some way. That subconsciously we are always looking for people similar to us. It is human nature and a very difficult thing to fight against. Using horrific stereotypes but look at the groups school children form. You have the "cool kids" who are perhaps into sports, the "cool girls", the bullies, the bullied and the general oddballs. We naturally flock towards groups that we feel comfortable within, groups that contain qualities that we recognise within ourselves.
 
If those people aren’t represented by the organisations and by the productions on stage then it can be an immediate barrier to making those people feel like theatre is relevant or accessible to them.
 
The theatre buildings themselves can be a barrier. We are lucky. We spend most of our time in theatres and the experience has become normal to us. Try and imagine what it feels like for someone who has never attended before. I’ve had conversations with people who say they won’t attend the theatre because they do not know how they are supposed to act, what they are supposed to wear, what they are allowed to do once they are in there, “are you supposed to talk with a posh voice?” These are all totally fair comments. Our playhouses are incredibly grand structures with elaborate decorations. They look rich and glorious but this can also be intimidating. Do we ever tell people what they should expect when attending a theatre production? Do you know of any venues who specifically say on their website what you should expect when attending? Things like turning mobile phones off. The fact that the lights will go down at the start. All basic stuff which we take for granted but that some people really do not know about. I tend to dress fairly casually myself and actively attend theatre in a hoodie, jeans and trainers much to the disgust of some audience members who take great delight in tutting at me because of it. So it’s as much about educating our audiences as it is our organisations.
 
Some shows have really helped to attract new audiences to theatres. The ones that immediately spring to mind are American Idiot and Harry Potter. For me I found it really encouraging that at the performance of American Idiot I watched in the West End that the majority of the audience were young Greenday fans, wearing hoodies and thoroughly embracing the show and experience. Harry Potter is one show I’m currently split over. I think it’s great that it has attracted a wide variety of new people to the theatre. But it has become something of an exclusive event, for those who can afford to see it. The sad reality is that the show will never be fully accessible to all those who loved the books and the films. Many people will never get to experience this production because they cannot afford it. The producers have taken some steps to try and help this situation by releasing a number of tickets every Friday at a cheaper rate but I still feel more could be done.
 
My final point is on education and the arts. A lot of articles have surfaced recently in the Stage Newspaper and Guardian about the rising cost of drama training and the decline in young people taking the arts at GCSE and A-level. I think the problem is more general than theatre and my personal opinion is that anyone who wants an education should be entitled to one. It should not just be those who have money that can afford to attend educational training of any kind. I think as an industry we need to do more to address the drop in take up of drama GCSEs and help highlight the many benefits to young people being interested in theatre. The worry is that if we don’t, our organisations will continue to contain only those who went to the same few named drama schools and could afford to be there. We can only promote and create true diversity in the future if we have a diverse range of people studying and interested in drama.
 
Young people are the future of theatre and at the moment we are failing them and the communities they come from. We all have a responsibility to help make theatre more accessible and things will only begin to change if we keep on putting pressure on those who make the decisions. Now more than ever we need to work together to fight for the future of our industry and be the changes we wish to see.
 
Stella Duffy and her work with Fun Palaces constantly reminds me of something. Not all theatre happens within buildings. Perhaps it's time to remember the roots of where we have all come from. The essence of storytelling as a community. Sharing ideas and knowledge through tales created to inspire, to challenge and to reflect the world in which we live not just the world of those who run “the Club”. If those of us on the fringes are excluded from the story then the industry will be worse off for it. And when the playhouses are empty because the next generation was excluded from entry I hope you'll come and join us on the outside, where we will welcome you as equals, because our door is always open to you.

How Do We Market Ourselves In The Arts? – Part 2

Luke John Emmett

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

~~~~~~

Welcome to the second article in this series. In the first one (view it here) we looked at the basics of press releases and some hints and tips on Social Media.

In this article I’m going to share a few more hints and tips that I’ve picked up along the way and I hope they will prove useful to you.

Twitter vs Facebook

I’m always asked the question: “Which is the most effective Social Media platform to use?” and in all honesty there is not a simple and quick answer to that. It depends on a lot of variables such as:

-          What are you sharing? Is it an article, link to buy tickets, a funny photos, rehearsal pictures, a job advert?

-          Who are your target audience?

-          How many people do you want to reach with your post?

-          How much do you want them to engage with it?

And there are probably at least another ten potential questions you can add to that. A lot of it really is trial and error but here are a few tips from my own experience:

Twitter:

- Great for short concise bits of information that get a message across in a succinct way.

- Sharing images works well and generates a lot of retweets.

- Good for engaging with other users and getting content shared (retweeted).

- Great for getting quick answers or responses from people.

- The average life of a tweet is roughly 30 seconds – for that reason some people can miss what you post. That is why you sometimes see accounts tweeting the same thing at different times of the day. This helps increase the engagement of what you tweet.

Facebook:

- Great for posting more in-depth information.

- You can make posts look exciting by displaying multiple images and if you’re clever can design one image split into several to advantage of their new advertising displays.

- Easy to boost posts to reach certain audiences.

- Great to set up events and share content with others.

- Audiences can be limited thanks to Facebook’s ever-changing algorithms – without guidance it can be hard to reach the people you want to reach (more tips on that to follow).

Some of the basics:

Do not link Facebook and Twitter accounts together. You may think it will save you time but it’s incredibly lazy and looks incredibly messy. When you allow Facebook to post to Twitter you inevitably have more than 130 characters and it looks terrible on your Twitter news feed when you see half a Facebook post displayed with a link to your Facebook page. Yes a majority of people are on Twitter and Facebook now but they tend to use both for very different things and keep them separate. Getting people to follow you on Facebook from Twitter can be difficult and vice-versa.

From the opposite side of that don’t post from Twitter to Facebook. You end up with short posts when you can say more and any @ mentions you use will also show up on your Facebook feed and drive everyone crazy.

Tailor your posts for each and spend a bit of time getting them to look nice. If you want to publish the same post on both platforms consider using a scheduling programme like Hootsuite which allows you to write content and schedule it for publishing on a number of platforms at once, and also gives you the opportunity to edit them and make them slightly different to suit the different platforms. An application such as Hootsuite can also save you a lot of time in the long run. If you spend one afternoon lining up and scheduling content to go out at different times during the week it then frees up the rest of your week to interact with users and respond to any messages or requests that come back in.

Think about when you are posting on social media. The time you post and even the day can have an impact on how many people interact with your content. For example – do not publish things at 3am in the morning – very few people will be awake and the content you’ve posted will be wasted. Monday mornings are also a bad time to post content – everyone gets back to work after the weekend and spends most of their time trawling through email inboxes or figuring out what they need to catch up on during the week. Wednesday afternoons tend to be a good time to get interactions. It’s midweek and everyone is getting on top of their work by then and people have more time to relax and look and social media. Also think about what times of day you see people staring at their phones the most – during the journey to and from work can be a good time to catch those who use public transport and also during the lunchtime period. Another time to avoid posting content about family shows is during school run times and also the weekend. Getting interactions during the day on the weekend can be incredibly hard work – a lot of people are out and about as families and not sat staring at their phones – late afternoon and early evening are good or early morning if you want to try and get them along to see a show that day.

Double check everything you post. Make sure all the links work, dates and times are correct and venues are correct. There is nothing worse than publishing something and everyone sharing it only to discover there is a mistake in it. (Trust me I’ve been there and done it too many times!).

Some tips on promoting productions:

Think about what you are trying to say. You think your show is great (well let’s hope you do!), but it’s not enough to just tell everyone “rehearsals are going great it’s going to be amazing you should all come and see it”. That generally won’t sell you many tickets. Of course you’re going to say that. What you need to do is show us why it is great and give us a reason to want to come and see it. It is no longer enough to just rely on one form of advertising and marketing. Different audiences get their information in different ways and you may need to think outside the box.

Videos

It is very easy to create simple videos which capture an essence of the show. You could do short interviews with the cast, show brief snippets of scenes, short extracts of songs, add in some rehearsal photos. Anything that teases your audience and gives them a taste of what they can expect when they come and see you. YouTube and Vimeo are incredibly easy to upload and share content from. There are some copyright issues you need to look into but a lot of rights holders will allow you to publish material as long as it’s removed again after the production finishes (if in doubt check with whoever holds the rights to the production).

Photos

Interesting and high quality rehearsal shots are great. It gives your audience a sense of something coming together and happening. Go for quality rather than quantity though. You do not need to post hundreds of them just enough to give a flavour of what you’re doing.

Flyers and Posters

Everyone keeps saying that printed media is dead – this is rubbish! A lot of people still like to have something physical that they can take home with them that has all of the information on. A lot of people I know pin them to their fridges or notice boards etc. Think very carefully about the design of your flyers and posters. If they look cheap and nasty then that is the impression you are giving of your production. Use high quality images and where possible easy to read text. With flyers there is no excuse for not producing double-sided ones. The front should be a clear poster image and the back should contain blurb and how to get tickets. It costs peanuts to get these printed these days and there is nothing worse than picking up a flyer and wanting to know more only to turn it over to find a blank page – that immediately puts me off a production as I feel it’s lazy. Also make sure you include Facebook and Twitter accounts and the hashtag you are using for your show. That way people can start interacting with you immediately. Keeping it consistent across all mediums is important and will help you further down the line.

Websites

It is incredibly easy and cheap to set up a basic website these days and you can embed Twitter, Facebook and YouTube on to most platforms with relative ease. Make sure the site is clean, gives all the information and is up-to-date. It will generally be the first place people look for more information.

Hashtags

Both Twitter and Facebook support hashtags. Do some research before setting a hashtag – do a search on it and make sure no-one else is using it otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of content that gets in the way of your message. Hashtags are a great way of grouping lots of posts about one item together in an easy to read and search way. Make sure you include your hashtag on all of your promotional material.

Advertise

Ask other shows and venues if you can advertise in their programmes. There is no reason why an audience from one venue won’t go to another venue to see a production. Likewise (and this is cheeky) but turning up after another production finishes and handing out flyers is not a bad idea. Generally I would say ask the other venue first – but there is nothing to stop you handing out flyers for your production on the street to crowds exiting from another show, as long as you’re not on the property of the venue there is very little they can do to stop you doing this.

Show T-shirts

If you are clever these can be more than just a nice reminder of the production. If you include your website address, hashtag and company logo on show t-shirts then your company are wearing advertising for you.

Flashmobs and Brief Performances

This works well for musicals. Arranging for a small group to turn up in costume or matching show t-shirts and performing extracts or flyering at other events or locations around the area of your show can help spread the word. Allowing people a brief glimpse of what is to come breaks down a few of the rehearsal room barriers. Especially if you can video it or get people to share what they thought about it on social media or using your hashtag.

Banners, Posters and Flyers

Banners are relatively cheap and easy to get made now. Get them up and around the area surrounding your venue and if you can by other venues as well. You should aim to get at least one piece of advertising per street in a city centre. Make sure people are constantly reminded that your production is coming up.

Local Media

Get them involved. As many different forms as you can. Radio, newspapers, magazines, online blog sites, what’s on listing sites. The more places you can get your show listed the better. Especially if it’s a community production really push the benefits to the community of the show. It’s hard work but keep on badgering local press until you get a response.

Facebook Hint:

Facebook are constantly changing how the stories you see on your newsfeed are handled. Recently they made a change which had a detrimental effect to pages and means that a lot of people can’t see what you post in their newsfeeds. In reality it’s because Facebook want you to spend money advertising and boosting posts with them. There is a way around this though and here’s how to do it. I’ll use On Stage’s Facebook page as an example. What you need to get your friends to do is go to your Facebook Page and on the top right you will see it says “Liked” with a blue tick. Hover over this and you’ll get a few different options (see picture 1).

Get your friends to click “See First” – this will mean that your pages posts are displayed at the top of their newsfeeds. If you wondered why you hadn’t been seeing posts from one of the pages you follow then this is why. It’s a great way of keeping track of the pages and info that you really want to see.

They can also if they wish turn on notifications so that every time you post they will be notified – this can become irritating though.

And there ends the second installment. I hope it has been useful. If you have any questions then feel free to Tweet me and I’ll do my best to answer them for you. I’m by no means an expert but the items above seem to have worked for me in the past and I hope you find them useful too. I would love to hear what you have found effective and what works for you and your company.

Any questions or comments please get in touch - Tweet me at: @lukejohnemmett

How do we market ourselves in the arts? Part 1

Luke John Emmett

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
  • @LukeJohnEmmett

For an industry where we are constantly in the spotlight why is it we find it so hard to talk about ourselves and sell what it is we have to offer? I run a grassroots organisation which aims to promote all theatre within a small area of England. We have been approached on many occasions over the last four and half years to help local companies promote their shows. I thought it might be useful to share some of the hints and tips we have learnt with you and perhaps help you to promote yourselves and your work more effectively. Do we have all the answers? No… we can just tell you what has worked well for us. Some of the ideas will have more of an impact than others – it’s up to you to try them out and see what works for you. If there is anything we think we have missed then please do let us know and we’ll add it to the list. This article will appear in several parts as it’s a huge subject to try and condense to a few short articles.

Press Releases

We are currently working in partnership with our local newspaper to help them collate arts coverage and organise reviews for productions. It’s a massive job but it has allowed us to see a wide variety of different press release examples – some are brilliant others just cannot be used. We have produced a template with some guidelines here http://theatrebath.co.uk/press-release-best-practice/ which you are more than welcome to use as a guide – we are UK based so there may be some differences depending on where you are from.

Firstly what makes a good press release?

A good press release covers the basics – Who, What, When, Where and Why. This is the bare minimum you should cover in a press release.

Try and find an interesting angle to add more depth to the story. A press release shouldn’t just be “this is us – this is what we’re doing”. Find an edge. If you are a place of education perhaps you have students which have been offered places at Drama Schools or have been offered professional roles. Finding a common interest story will make local media more likely to use your story as it will appeal to a wider audience of readers. Perhaps you are collecting for a local charity or to raise awareness about a campaign. Perhaps you are the first company in your area to perform this particular piece? There is always some angle you can come at the story from that makes it more interesting.

Do not just send over the show blurb, dates, venue and times. This is a listings release and not a press release. It’s boring and no-one will want to read it.

Include at least one quote from the director, producer or cast members. Inspire us. Why are you excited about putting this production on and why should people come and see it? If you cannot show us that you are excited about the production then why should we get excited about it?

Ensure you have good, professional quality, high resolution publicity images for the show. Far too often we get sent low resolution images, images that have been badly edited in Photoshop or copies of posters or flyers. Great – but we cannot use them. Bright, crisp images jump out from the page and draw readers in. The images are a representation of your production – if they are bad or low quality that is what our expectations of your show become. Try and get some basic costume together and take the photos at an interesting location that fits the piece. Even better if you can take them on the actual set of the show (but we appreciate this is not always possible). Obviously many email hosts do not allow you to send lots of large image files with an email. That is fine. Upload them to something like Dropbox and send us a link. Make sure you label all of the photographs clearly with who is in them (usually from left to right), what characters they play or roles in the production and most importantly – please credit your photographer. It’s completely okay to send us a list of photo numbers with this information written next to it if the title becomes too long to save as an image. Just make sure it is clear and easy for us to find this information. Make sure the images you create are in a common format – jpegs of at least 300dpi resolution are preferred.

The final point on press releases, (and this is our biggest irk), please, PLEASE, send us your releases either in the body of an email or as an attached word document. Please do not send them as a PDF with images embedded. It makes extracting the text so much harder for us. You have to appreciate that newspapers and media companies receive a vast amount of releases daily and we want to be able to extract the information as quickly and easily as possible. Personally I skip over PDFs that have come in and leave them until I have had time to crack them open and extract the text. Send us info in the correct format and it makes everyone’s lives so much easier. By all means attach a PDF as well if you want to show how something should be displayed but make sure we can access the text easily as well.

Social Media:

Does your company have social media accounts? If not, why not?

Social media has become a huge part of everyone’s daily lives. It is quick, easy and free to share content to a wide audience of people anywhere in the world.

We recommend at the very least setting up a Facebook Page and a Twitter account as the minimum. You can very quickly get lots of follows and likes by getting your members to subscribe to you and share with their friends. We currently have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Linked-In, Flickr and Periscope to name a few. Don’t go mad though – start small and you can build the others up later when the need arises.

A few key things:

Branding – your social media accounts are advertising what you do and making sure they look good and all match is important. Keep the brand consistent.

Facebook Pages:

Don’t just upload any old photo as your page cover photo. Try and design a photo that fits the cover perfectly and says something about you. Dimensions of the cover photo are constantly changing but a quick Google search will find you the most recent size and even some editable templates you can download. Facebook compresses every image you upload to it so make sure your cover photo is less than 100k in size or it will start to distort and pixelate it.

Profile picture – if you are an organisation it’s a good idea to use your logo or something that is instantly recognisable as you. Again – designing something that fits the actual dimensions means that everything looks tidy and clean (do an internet search to find these).

Twitter:

There are fewer customisations available on Twitter (at the moment) but ensuring you have a good and easily identifiable profile picture and cover image are again important.

Finding your voice

A theatrical term if ever we heard one! What voice do you want your social media pages to have? What is the atmosphere you are trying to create with them? What sort of interactions are you looking for?

You can tell a lot about a company by how they respond and interact with other users on their social media accounts. Personally we go for casual, fun, chatty and occasionally a little bit tongue-in-cheek. This works well for us and we often get good responses and strike up conversations and interactions with other users. The accounts should be an extension of yourself and your brand – perhaps you can even shape the chatter to fit in with the current production you are producing? Replying in the lyrics of songs or quotes can be quite fun (if not done too often).

It’s not all about you…

Sorry dears but it really isn’t. The best social media accounts interact with other users, share their info, share silly photos which are in some way loosely related to what they do and wish each other good luck for shows and productions. That’s a massive one for the theatre industry. If you support other companies in your area and they support you then they will be more likely to help share your info in the future and it creates a unity and a strong online network of support. It also says a lot about you as a company. It is totally okay to share local info on your feeds, particularly if they are issues that are having an impact on your local community. Showing support for others goes a long way and is often returned – as long as this fits with the style of voice that you are using.

Most companies who fail at social media are those that have nothing important to say other than information about themselves. It gets boring to see and read and people will just skip over it.

That’s a few of the basics – there is lots more to cover but that’s enough to get you started for now. Look out for my next article which will go into more detail about how to get the best out of your social media accounts and how to build up a loyal following.