The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #11 Publicity…

#11. Publicity…. or getting those B.I.S. (butts in seats)

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

You’re probably thinking: Shouldn’t Anna be ready to start rehearsing this play already? And the answer is: Yes. In fact we are in rehearsals. But before they began, the publicity wheels had started to turn, so we’re going back.

Planning on how you’ll get the word out about your show needs to begin early—before casting and before you even secure your theatre; about the same time as you decide to self-produce your play. If you can afford to pay a professional, that person would be called the publicist. And if you think you’ll be able to get the best critics to see your show and have a sold-out run without one, I hope you’ll finish reading this post before you make your decision.

Getting audiences is NOT easy—not even for the bigger “better” theatres. If you have a star—and I mean STAR—in your cast, that’s one thing. But I see promotional material all the time saying something like: “A New Play by Elena T. Ruggiero,” (who?) “Starring Robert Urianisk” (who?) “as seen on Little Blip Theory, Cosmic Family… “ The point is, theatres try to pump up non-stars to star status hoping you’ll come see their shows. It sometimes works, by the way, so kudos for effort. But unless you have a real star in your show, I think you’re going to need help getting your show reviewed (hopefully positively) so you can use those reviews to pull in audiences. If your show gets some great notices from the more important media outlets—even without a star—you’ll most likely be able to put “butts in seats” (B.I.S.).

In Los Angeles, there are only a handful of publicists considered “worth it” in small theatre. That’s because their fees are a good portion of your budget. Our publicist, Lucy Pollak charges about $3,000 but she was worth it. Lucy and I started talking about Villa Thrilla 6-8 months before we began casting. That was lucky for me because had it been 2 months out, she couldn’t have taken the job. As it was, she already had shows lined up for the same time frame. Some publicists, like some designers, can handle 2-4 shows at a time. But ask your prospective publicist how many other shows he/she will be working on concurrently with yours. There is a point at which she can no longer handle the needs of all her clients You definitely want to avoid your publicist having two openings on the same night.

Getting the press to notice you is huge and made easier by having a good, reputable publicist who has solid relationships with critics. If, however, you are lucky enough to have Cate Blanchett or Stephen Tobolowsky in your play, chances are you could draft a press release yourself and people would come.

Be realistic–how much effort do you want to put into selling your show?—this on top of rewriting during the rehearsal period, not to mention all your other production duties. Take off your playwright hat for a minute, and look at your play as a package. Would you–if you knew nothing about your show and knew no one in it nor who’d seen/liked it—select your show to see out of the hundreds of offerings on a given night? And that’s just theatre offerings. How many times have you said to yourself, “Ahhhh, I’ll just stay home and watch TV”? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll likely realize you need help to make your show stand out somehow. That’s the publicist’s job.

Here’s a list of what a good theatre publicist will help you with:

  1. Brainstorm how to publicize your show and come up with a pitch or pitches to sell it to local and (when appropriate) national media outlets—TV, newspapers, online blogs, radio stations, magazines etc.;
  2. Assist and give input about actor and director choices, letting you know if any of your options have some cache or marketability in your area;
  3. Call key critics early, hoping to get them to calendar your opening night. Your publicist may not be able to get a certain critic to come, but she’ll at least be able to get that person on the phone;
  4. Draft your press release and disseminate to any and all critics and media outlets. Then follow up by phone and email;
  5. Arrange for a production still photographer to shoot a dress rehearsal, get those photos out to media;
  6. Help plan and hype opening night and opening night party;
  7. Choosing graphics and advertising buys—online and in trades and local papers;
  8. Get you, your cast or members of your team interviews—online, on radio, TV and trades;
  9. Put press kits together to give to critics when they arrive to see your show;
  10. Coordinate with your ticketing services and house manager to ensure when critics reserve seats (for free) those seats are booked out and not subsequently sold;
  11. Assist with social media promotion. Lucy was not particularly savvy in this area but our talented Associate Producer, Jerusha Aimee Liu was. Jerusha built the Villa Thrilla website, Tweeted and also Facebooked for the show. This is becoming more and more important as social media becomes more prevalent and accepted.

As mentioned in a previous post, Villa Thrilla, was hampered by several factors in getting audiences: We had no stars nor did we have a recognizable name for the writer, producer or director so the show was a hard sell. Nor could we get anyone to review the show on opening night; perhaps because 16 other shows opened in LA on the same evening. Realistically, though—had there been only 8, we still would have been way down any critic’s priority list. There’s so much good theatre to choose from here. Even after opening, we had a hard time getting certain critics to in. The top ones, the most trusted ones, never came.

And as the reviews we did get came in, though most were very good, they did not, unfortunately, carry much weight. See anyone can start a website and call himself a critic. We also had one really bad review from a recognizable website/blog. This is my sour grapes story but I knew we were in trouble when I saw a particular man enter the theatre one day and was told he was a critic. He truly was among the most miserable looking people I’ve ever seen. Scowling, angry at the world—or perhaps just angry with his boss for sending to see our no-name play on a lovely Sunday afternoon. What a perfect choice to review a farce! Not. There was no way—if this guy’s face was any indication—that he would find anything positive to say. And he didn’t!

So, to sum up: If you’re going to self-produce your show—given all the work that entails—you probably want people to see it. Before you get too far into it, assess how difficult it will be to get audiences, bearing in mind things like the appeal of your subject matter/cast, location of your theatre, parking and even the local restaurants. Do you want to spend time promoting your show in addition to everything else you’re doing? If no, think about hiring a publicist. If, on the other hand, you think you can get butts in seats with no help from a professional, more power to you. May you fill your house every night with enthusiastic audiences!

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