The other day I was in a room with a bunch of other arts organizations. We were all there receiving money from the city but beyond that the only thing we all had in common was a Philadelphia location and some connection to the arts in some way.
A woman came up to me and introduced herself as the director of an arts education program in the northwest area of the city. We started chatting about our work. After hearing about the great things she was doing with the kids she interacts with I told her a bit about the theater work I’ve been making. She hadn’t heard of Swim Pony (not really a surprise) or the giant Festival in the fall that used to be called Live Arts (that one I found a bit more surprising) in which I would be presenting my next show The Ballad of Joe Hill. I told her a bit about the show – its music, history and spectacular location at Eastern State Penitentiary.
At the end of the conversation she said, “That sounds awesome. I totally want to see that show! How do I find out about it?”
“Uh… Well… You can… go to my website. In August. Maybe July. Or, look… for it… Live Arts, I mean, Fringe Arts, I mean, The festival… they always have a lot of marketing. You’ll see big signs and stuff on bus stops. I assume my show will have one, I think. Or get on my mailing list. And I promise I won’t send you a lot of spam. No really. And our facebook page! Please like us. And here’s my card! Take it!!”
Does this sound familiar to you?
Audiences are weird magical unicorns.
I really believe that my work is pretty great. And I think if people knew that it was out there, a lot of them would come. Every time I do a show, especially a funkier, out of a theater, more experimental thing, the people who come that ARE NOT other artists are the ones the most enthusiastic. And there is a small core of those people that come to Swim Pony shows, sometimes emailing me to see what’s up with us when it’s been a while since anything has been presented. But these folks are the rarity. (How did I even find them in the first place?)
So when I’m having trouble funding people, I don’t really think it’s the fault of the show, but of me getting that show to the people that might see it. I think this because every week my partner and I also sit at home on Saturday and wonder where to look to find something awesome to do. And when we don’t want that to be theater, which we know about because it’s our profession, WE HAVE NO IDEA WHERE TO LOOK.
The problem, I don’t think, is that there’s no one out there making stuff that’s weird and awesome. I think the problem is we spend so much time and energy making it that we can’t think about a lot else. And the super frustrating part is that right at the moment when we need to me THE MOST inwardly focused, THE MOST inside the process and devoted only to the work is EXACTLY the time when we need to be getting the word out about the thing.
And on top of that, in this time when people are bombarded with so much information, it is so difficult to be the thing that pops out in people’s minds long enough. I don’t think it’s cost. I don’t think it’s the difficulty of leaving one’s house. I think it’s getting the information that you are an interesting experience into the viewspace of that person that might come.
Facebook invites are over, yes? We all still create them, but we’re all ignoring them when they pop up in our notification tab in the upper left corner. There was a time when responding “yes” to an invite meant that you’d actually be there, but that time is over.
Reviews are no guarantee either. In fact, some of the shows for which I’ve had the best reviews of my life, I’ve had three people in the audience. One show, the first on which I spent a significant amount of my budget on a marketing firm had AMAZING press coverage and still couldn’t get butts in seats to save our life. In fact, the only times in which I’ve really had houses that counted in terms of size were when I’ve cozied into the audiences of another marketing machine: a festival, a theater company that’s been around, an event like a first Friday that’s got a built in base.
And because so few of us self producers really know how this brave new world of devising companies making a show or two a year can really keep someone’s attention, we’re all sort of schizophrenically operating on a variety of marketing platforms at the same time. We’re all trying whatever way we can to reach someone. A lot of us become PR machines – schmoozers to the highest degree constantly handing our stuff to anyone that comes near – and some just give up and plead irrelevance. A few luck into a snowball of awareness that gives some real and consistent support.
I don’t know what else to say about this other than that it is one tough nut to crack. I don’t know where to turn and it’s something that I’m increasingly aware will make the difference in my long-term success.
How do I find you people? There are a million and a half of you in the city proper and another five mil in the surround metro areas. If I could get just one half of one percent of those folks to see my show I’d have 30,000 people as my audience.
How do I get to you and you to me?
I know you’re out there.