Friday, June 7, 2013

Page to Stage Recap: Sequins, the Season and the Art of Critiquing (Part II)

Our June Page to Stage had some very special guests (read about them in Part I).

What was meant to be simply a look at the past season and the upcoming season turned into a fascinating discussion of marketing, social media and the role of the theatre critic. It might have been one of the best Page to Stage events we’ve ever had (sorry if you missed it). Luckily we’ve got this two-part blog series to get you all caught up!

In our last blog post we gave an intro to our guests and a summary of their comments about Signature's 23rd Season, which is drawing to a close, and 24th Season, which will begin shortly. Today we’ll recap all of their other remarks, and we hope you’ll enjoy their interesting insights as much as we did.

As we began discussing Hunter and Maggie’s professional backgrounds, it came out that Hunter recently joined the American Theatre Critics Association. Which, of course, led to some great questions from our audience and our host (David Zobell, Education Director):

What impact do reviews have on ticket sales?
Maggie explained that reviews don’t have quite the same significance as they had in the past. One example she cited was Arena Stage’s 1999 production of Guys and Dolls. The show got great reviews. One in particular called the show “theatre nirvana.” The day that review came out Arena did $75,000 in ticket sales, which was an insane amount at that time. Reviews no longer have the same lift; a bad review can kill you, but a good review will only help you a little. It turns out that your audience is actually your most powerful marketing tool.

Hunter cited research that was done regarding what gets casual theatre attendees (aka your Average Joe) to see come see a show and apparently word of mouth is key. Case in point: Signature’s production of Dreamgirls started to steadily sell more tickets once the house had been filled once or twice (even resulting in an extension).

So why do we need theatre critics?
Not everyone has a neighbor, co-worker or friend that’s seen the latest production. That’s where the critic comes in – they take the place of (or augment) a friend/neighbor/colleague’s opinion. However, some critics today tend to write more of a “consumer report” (aka thumbs up/thumbs down, go/don’t go) rather than a piece of actual critical analysis. In Hunter’s opinion, a review should ideally be “a portal to understanding the show’s relationship to the audience.”

What constitutes a well-written review?
Both Maggie and Hunter agree that a well-written review acknowledges the artistry of a production. It is constructive and gives credit where credit is due without necessarily tearing down or building up a show. Maggie brought up Charles Isherwood’s review of last season’s rep pieces The Hollow and The Boy Detective Fails. While Isherwood didn’t necessarily love the shows, he gave Signature full credit for the difficulty of the task they were trying to achieve, showing support for the institution.

Intermixed with the above discussion on theatre critics and reviews was an equally fascinating look at the theatre’s relationship with social media.

Social media has changed theatre marketing. It augments public relations and is a great low-cost alternative to traditional marketing channels, but its use means the secrets of the rehearsal room are no longer secret and the line between being a representative of an institution and expressing personal feelings is easily blurred. Signature, like many other arts organizations, is in a “learn as you go” mode when it comes to social media. Every day is an experiment – sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t.

A particularly memorable comment of the evening was something along the lines of, "If a marketing director tells you they know how to harness social media, they're probably lying."

The trick of social media marketing is that you have to remember that everything you’re posting is an announcement. You don’t have the option of being selective in who sees what you post. Because of this, it’s easy for a theatre company to run into trouble. Maggie talked about the dilemma of not wanting artists to feel like they are beholden to some sort of party line, but at the same time recognizing that as artists they are often looked to as representatives of the theatre or the show for which they are working.

By this point we had reached the end of our hour with Maggie and Hunter (much to the audience’s dismay). David chose to end the night with the question, “What are the joys of working at Signature?”

Hunter was quick to respond with, “The staff is always singing,” which Maggie readily confirmed.

But in all seriousness, Hunter remarked that he appreciates being in a space where people are focused, but still creative and where co-workers care about one another. Maggie loves the work in general and also getting to work with Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

“It’s not always sunshine and roses,” she admitted, but both she and Eric care about the culture of Signature. Maggie is proud of Signature in the Schools and Overtures, as well as every Signature production: “It’s so worth it when you see a show!” She loves feeling connected to the organization and its mission.

A frequent audience member piped in, “There’s no doubt you guys care about the theatre and us.”

Amen to that.
The cast of The Boy Detective Fails.
Credit: Suchman


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