Beyond Broadway: Selling Out

There are some writers of the Old School (and I admit there was a time when this included me) who feel like self-promotion is a little gross. After all, those of us with real talent just need to create great work, right? Then we’ll be discovered, and someone else will do all of the promotion for us.

“I think the tipping point is different today than it was even ten years ago. Then, you could put on a show, and your friends and family could go see it, and they would go tell other people, and you’d get the ball rolling that way. But today, partly due to technology, there are so many entertainment options available”—and, might I add, so many more writers with access to the same audience you’re reaching for—“that if one person told me, ‘Hey, I saw this really great show,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I see great shows all the time.’ It’s not that rare or precious for somebody to do good work. Today, you’ll never be able to get to that tipping point unless you reach beyond people you already know.”

That’s Clay Mabbitt. “I’m an actor, and somewhat of a singer, too.” Based in Indianapolis, he’s also the man behind the Sold Out Run blog and podcast, and an expert on marketing for community and regional theaters.

Clay Mabitt. (Photo c/o Clay.)

Clay Mabbitt. (Photo c/o Clay.)

I got in touch with Clay because three common challenges keep emerging in my conversations with writers across the country: the need to find potential writing partners, the need to connect with theaters that might produce your work, and the need to engage with fans. To me, those all sound like marketing issues.

“Marketing has two parts. The first part is identifying who’s going to love what you’re creating. And then, the second part is showing them why they’re going to love it.”

Well, I’m sure absolutely everyone is going to love my show, so that should be easy enough.

“Instead of thinking in broad terms of the faceless crowd, you’ve got to figure out who those people are. It will be different for every writer, and it might be different for every show that they write. But you look at what’s unique with that story. If you’re writing Next to Normal, you reach out to people who have family or friends who have dealt with the same mental issues those characters go through.”

Ok. But even if I know specific people would like my show, how am I supposed to reach them?

“If you can possibly get away from guessing, do so. Sit down with someone you know in your real life, a friend or family member who’s in that group, take them out to lunch and ask them what do they do all day, where do they go, where do they consume media. You ask them, what did you do last weekend? And they tell you, I went to this concert. Oh, ok. How’d you find out about that? Well, it was in the paper, or, my friend Bob told me about it, or… You work backwards and find out how they were introduced to the idea in the first place.”

Keep in mind, it’s not just about knowing where those people are, but where they are making decisions. “Your audience might be people who are in their 50s or 60s, and you can find a lot of data that says they’re on Facebook. But, by and large, they’re only on Facebook to connect with their family and friends. They don’t like pages, they don’t like businesses on Facebook. So even though they’re there, they’re not in a buying mentality.”

Ok. Once I know how to reach those people, how do I help them know they’ll love my work?

“Look at what are the strengths of your show. At the script level, you’re probably looking at the characters or the events of the plot.” Or I guess if there’s a theme that resonates. And the music, of course. “If you’ve got good music, you reach out to people who like good music.”

And if this sounds like advice that just applies to someone with a production trying to attract an audience, you need to think more broadly.

“Those are the same things you would use to go after a venue. When you approach a venue, if you’re saying this is the unique thing about this script that is going to attract an audience, that’s really what a venue wants.”

In fact, these principles apply whenever you have a message to get out, whether you have a staged reading or you need to find yourself a skilled bookwriter.

Because, ultimately, marketing is not about “selling out”—except, hopefully, in the sense of selling all available tickets. It’s about finding the best way to communicate what you have to offer to the people who are most interested in hearing about it. And that’s something that we all need to do.


What is your favorite musical?

I like Wicked. I wish I had something older, so it seems like I’m not so influenced by trends. But the fact is, Wicked really is my favorite musical. Before Wicked, I would have said the first musical that I was ever in in high school, and that was Pippin.

What is a dream project of yours?

As an actor, I would love to play Salieri in Amadeus.

As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?

I have two answers. One is loving the people that you’re working with. Loving that you’re working with them. And the other one is having the financial freedom to say yes or no to a project based on the artistic merit or what you want to do. Never taking a role because you need the money, or never saying no to a role because it’s not enough money. The “role” could really mean whatever aspect of the project, whether it’s writing, or acting, or whatever.

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