This is my last post in this series. MinnesotaPlaylist.com intended this series to be an in-depth look at grassroots marketing for theater, and it may not seem like I've talked much about that. But I think, at its essence, that's all I've been talking about. "Grassroots," to me, means growing success from the people, the audience, and leaving corporations and foundations to play catch up. For better or for worse, this kind of success involves actually being popular, and having a business plan that is actually sustainable—without relying on unearned income.
And a communications plan is not a business plan. Long ago, I learned what was once the standard mnemonic device for marketing. I have no idea if it's still used, and it's been years since I've heard it referred to. Does anyone remember the six P's of marketing? Product, production, price, place, publics, and promotion. Sometimes they're slightly different, but the framework is still the same. "Product" is the thing you're selling, "production" is how much of it you can make, "price" is how much it costs to buy, "place" is where it can be purchased or consumed, "publics" (or "people") are who wants it, and "promotion" (or "publicity") is how you let your publics know about it.
But the critical lesson I learned at the time is that promotion can't really be effective until after the other five P's are addressed. That is, you can't promote until you've got the thing that you're promoting right. And I think that's where theater falters. I've been in more than one budget meeting where the numbers pretty clearly show that the path to solvency is to do fewer shows. ("Y'know, if we did no shows, we might break even!") You don't need an MBA to realize this is a flawed business model; promotion and publicity can't make much of a dent in a problem like this.
We act as though we assume that a theater can't be self-sustaining, so we don't even think about it. We know that ticket revenue can't pay all the bills, so we scrimp and save and lean on our families and friends for donations and apply for funding and hope that one day we'll get a grant that will allow us to get paid for our work. It used to be that theater paid.
But that was before movies were art and HBO starting producing television that was as good as movies and before recorded music sounded better than live and before everything you need for entertainment except food and drink could be downloaded from the internet. The world is different now, and it's time to move beyond a view that the Arts—i.e. art forms that are no longer broadly popular—must be preserved and supported simply because they are no longer broadly popular.
I believe that what we do can be popular enough to be self-sustaining. And I believe that being popular does not mean compromising artistic quality.
Some of my thoughts along these lines have appeared in previous posts. Some of what needs fixing goes beyond any one theater. But some ideas can start with one small company, starting simply with math: Is there a way for your art to make you a living, without resorting to unearned revenue? If you can't figure out how, think harder. Think about how to get fans who aren't already theatergoers, and if that seems too hard, think about what you're doing to make it hard. Think about the six P's as marketing tools first, and budget items second. Think about lowering prices, rather than raising them. Consider if your quest for more and more affordable spaces is making it harder for our audiences to find you. Think about how much your ability (or lack thereof) to generate new work month after month affects your fan base development.
Think about growing the pie. The first step to becoming more popular is getting in front of more people. A lot more people, not ten more people per night. Look skeptically at your assumptions about your art and throw those assumptions out the window if they're not helping. Theater may have become (in many people's eyes) an arcane, rarified art form, yet a great character, a compelling story, a good joke remain fresh and relevant. There's clearly a disconnect; figure out where it is.
I've presented some thoughts over these few past articles about where I think that disconnect is. I've tried to describe what I think are some of the barriers we place in the way of true audience engagement. I've done my best to make a case that greater access and lower risk are the keys to building audience, but that we must think creatively about what our art is if we're really going to change the landscape. I believe that the difference between museum-piece art and living art is self-sustainability, and that determined, creative nurturing of our audience(s)—the real grassroots—will give us life. There's nothing about our art that can't be living.
Note: My sincere hope for this series is to spark a debate, where healthy discussion might open our eyes to new possibilities. So, I'd love to hear your comments. And if you'd rather not do that publicly, feel free to contact me at [email protected]