Giving Them What They Want: Engaging Regional Theatres Before and After the Show

(To begin this week, if you have not read the most recent article by Drew Gasparini and an archived favorite post by Georgia Stitt, do yourself a favor and read them – absorb them. There may be no more important message for new writers, theatre-goers, and artists of all types than these two pieces. They have inspired me this week in unimaginable ways – not only to continue to create but to devote my time to the things which matter in every precious moment.)

Several years ago, I bought a ticket to a non-equity tour of Jonathan Larson’s seminal show RENT. As is the case with many of my generation (and generations which followed), I felt an ownership of this show. It was OUR show – a new generation of musical theatre folk claiming Broadway for their own. So I will admit I was decidedly judgmental going in. (How dare they presume to touch my beloved show, right?) What I discovered was a new generation of artists embracing Larson’s work and giving ME a new view of the piece that was so definitive to my career. Who knew? The lesson I learned? Trust the material! If it affects me, it will likely stand the test of time and affect new generations of writers, actors and audience members. Second lesson learned? Theatre professionals (like myself) are often the worst audience members. It is our business, after all, and we often have trouble sitting back and reveling in the magic of the theatre that drew us there in the first place. What we long for is a connection to the material that often extends beyond the show itself.

Why do I mention this? I believe regional theatres can provide unique opportunities and experiences for audience members surrounding new musicals that other tried and true shows cannot offer. Beyond the show itself, regional theaters can provide a variety of engagement experiences that cost nothing (or very little) to offer, but the bang for the buck can be extraordinary. With that in mind, I wanted to offer a list of outreach events that can enhance a production of a new work and at the same time, provide invaluable (and all-important) marketing. If you are a theatre presenting a new musical, consider these options. If you are a new musical writer, offer these events up to your host theatre.

At an open day, the wardrobe department of the Royal Exchange Theatre show how costumes can be used, re-used, and hired out. (Photo: David Hawgood; licensed for reuse)

At an open day, the wardrobe department of the Royal Exchange Theatre show how costumes can be used, re-used, and hired out. (Photo: David Hawgood; licensed for reuse)

  1. TALKBACKS – This may be the simplest and easiest way to engage audiences. Whether it is pre- or post-show, audiences want and need to engage with the creators in a real, visceral way. Consider this: If you are doing INTO THE WOODS, it is unlikely Sondheim is traveling to your city to talk to your audiences, right? However, new musical writers are seeking establishment and future productions and audiences, so a chance to talk to your subscribers is highly attractive. Take advantage! Can’t afford to fly in and house creators? Use Skype! It’s free, easy and serves the same purpose – and your patrons will likely love the involvement of technology.
  2. WORKSHOPS – Among your audience members, there are likely aspiring playwrights and songwriters. I have had great success promoting workshops on dramaturgy and songwriting led by the creators of our upcoming musical. And one step further? Connect with your local university theatre program. Your workshop acts as a coveted master class for their students and will easily translate into ticket sales once the show opens.
  3. CABARETS AND CONCERTS – If your creators are in town for any length of time working with your production, invite them to perform a small cabaret at a local coffee shop or bar. It gives locals a chance to meet the new writers AND gives writers a chance to test new material with willing and able cast members. Added benefit? Coffee shop/bar regulars get a chance to shatter any pre-conceived notions of what “musical theatre” is – and that is always beneficial to the cause.
  4. INVITED REHEARSALS – How many of your audience members would love an insider’s look at how a production comes together? During tech week, invite a select group of influential locals to attend and encourage cell phone and social media use during the rehearsal (Oh! The Humanity!) What you get is an energized crowd – already excited they are “in the know” before anyone else – who will create free social media marketing of the kind that simply cannot be bought! One step further? Stage a photo op at the end of rehearsal and encourage all the Twitter/Facebook/Instagram opportunities you can to be the FIRST to release a photo from your production. What you essentially end up with is not ONE photo press release – but one for every person in your invited audience. It’s a marketing goldmine!

These are just four possible options – but there are countless others. Create your own unique experience utilizing all the tools at your disposal. You will find, as I have, new musical writers love meeting the public and the students – and in almost all cases, they are very good with them in meaningful, inspiring, and energizing ways.

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