You don't want to do all of that work and have no one come see it. Publicity begins even before your auditions, and there a wide variety of options to consider. Which methods are right for you?
Too many of us have had the experience of sitting around reading a magazine when the expected stampede of actors never materialized. Don't simply assume that actors will show up because you're holding auditions. You have to get the word out. Click here to visit our Casting section, where we'll discuss not only how to publicize your auditions, but what to do when your auditions fail to yield what you need.
There are many, many ways to publicize a show: newspapers, magazines, radio, the internet (websites, email and social media), even television in some cases, as well as posters, flyers, postcards and good, old-fashioned word of mouth. Deciding on which methods are right for you depends on your budget and your staffing--often, in the case of a school or small community or professional show, the publicity staff may be...you.
Below, we'll take a more specific look at each publicity avenue, so that you can evaluate whether it's a good fit for your production. Flyers/Posters
While we will address what makes a good poster elsewhere, the idea of distributing flyers or postering in your area is often a good one. Try to identify high traffic locations, or places that might draw people who are likely to attend theatre. Some possibilities:
1. Other theatre companies. Many theatres will allow flyers for other shows, whether that's a table, a bulletin board or, if you're lucky, perhaps they'll even stuff a flyer in their program if you'll stuff one of theirs in yours.
2. Coffeehouses and cafes. Again, they may have a place for flyers, or even allow you to hang a poster in a window.
3. Other local businesses. Many will allow you to hang a poster in their window, particularly if they're a locally owned business.
Below, we'll take a more specific look at each publicity avenue, so that you can evaluate whether it's a good fit for your production.
1. Most newspapers have calendar listings that are separate from their feature articles. Deadlines to submit may be as much as 6 weeks in advance, but you'll have to check with each specific paper for their guidelines. These are typically very basic: title/author of the show, venue, dates and times, ticket prices, contact phone/email/website and potentially a very short blurb about the play.
2. Feature coverage. In this case, you'll typically send a press release (see elsewhere in the Publicity section), and the newspaper will either tweak your press release and publish it, or they'll assign a reporter, who will come out and do an interview.
3. Reviews. While there's no way to guarantee a reviewer will come, it doesn't hurt to send a specific invitation to reviewers, offering them and a guest complimentary tickets to come to the show. Reviews are generally only for community or professional productions, though in some areas, the local newspapers may review university productions. Of course, inviting university newspapers review your local community or professional production can be a great idea, particularly if you'd like to attract students to the show.
4. Newspaper advertising. While the former 3 options were free, this one will cost. Is it worth it? Sometimes, sometimes not. Some newspapers have a "guide to the arts" type section, which allows for paid ads much like the slightly larger listings in the Yellow Pages. If you can get a calendar listing without paying, obviously that's better, though some newspapers--primarily small, local ones--will tend to give preference when it comes to sending reviewers or doing feature articles to groups that also buy advertising space.
Keep in mind as well, when it comes to newspapers, that while print circulation is largely shrinking, many newspapers have an increasingly strong online presence.
These tend to have deadlines months in advance, but some magazines may cover upcoming cultural events. Look for magazines that cover your particular region--for example, Los Angeles or Philadelphia magazines. Most likely you're looking at a calendar listing, unless your show is very high profile and the sort of thing that will resonate with their audience.
1. Like newspapers and their calendar sections, many radio stations also publicize upcoming community events. Go to their websites for guidelines.
2. If your school or university has a radio station, that's a perfect place to publicize your show. Typically, they'll be happy to help you for free, and often, members of the surrounding community tune in. Many university stations, for example, are among the more listened-to stations in their areas. There may even be an opportunity to go on someone's show as a featured guest for a few minutes and talk up your upcoming production.
3. As with newspapers, it's always better to take advantage of the free publicity, but if that's not enough, you could do a 30-second ad, for example. Of course, that means recording your radio spot (which could involve some time and expense).
Television advertising tends to be fairly expensive and far beyond the budget of all but major commercial productions, but often, it’s possible to get coverage of your upcoming production on the local network news. Your production may be a good candidate for either an arts or community-based story. Look for an angle that will interest the local news station. For example, the Springfield Academy of Arts and Academics (A3) production of Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions by Jonathan Dorf got news coverage on two major network affiliates in the Springfield/Eugene (OR) area because not only was it a world premiere and the very first production in a brand new theater space, but it also addressed a topic (bullying) that was extremely relevant to teens—and Dorf was in residence for the production. Click here for a link to television coverage of the world premiere of Dorf's High School (non) Musical, which A3 staged the next year.
If your theatre or school has a mailing list (e.g. boosters, parents, subscribers, past patrons), postcards are a good way to send a tangible reminder of your production or season. A postcard can sit on a coffee table or be pinned by a magnet to the refrigerator, whereas it's easy for an email to get lost in an inbox, intercepted by a spam filter, or just deleted. But postcards certainly cost more than emails (and take more time to prepare), as you need to design them, get them printed and then mail them. Consider making your postcard a variation on the poster design (which makes sense both artistically and from a time/money perspective), and if you don't have a local printer who will give you a reasonable price, try a reputable online service like Overnight Prints or Vistaprint. Of course, with a local printer, you might try trading a program ad for discounted printing.
1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, etc) are covered in their own special section elsewhere in Publicity.
2. Websites. If you're at a theatre, make sure your show is listed under upcoming productions when the previous show(s) is running, and then moved to the current productions slot immediately after. If you're doing a school or university production, is your show listed in a featured position, and not just on the drama club page? Also, look for sites that showcase upcoming local events or performing arts events, and see if they'll list your show. Don't have a website? We'll cover that in its own section as part of Publicity.
3. Email. If you don't already have one, start an email list. If you're at a theatre company, make sure there's a sign-up out there in the lobby--and a place on your website--where people can join your email list. Don't overdo the emails, but do keep them informed of upcoming events. Make sure that all emails are sent out using a method that protects the privacy of those on your list. No one should EVER be able to see their names or email addresses. That means if you're using your own personal email to send out mailings, be sure to use blind cc (bcc), which hides the addresses of the recipients.
The so-called social media, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and others, present opportunities to amplify your word-of-mouth publicity--since word-of-mouth now can travel at the speed of the internet.
At this point, MySpace seems to be considerably less relevant to most people, so I would focus on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which is a little different in that perhaps it's not technically "social media," but many people intertwine Facebook and YouTube accounts, and it can certainly be a great way for word of your project to "go viral."
On Facebook, you have several possibilities:
1. You can talk about the show on your status and try to keep your friends engaged about it.
2. You can create a "fan" page for the show and invite friends to become fans. Encourage everyone else involved in the production to do likewise. Be sure to provide status updates regularly, and have at least a poster or publicity image--the more the merrier.
3. When the show gets closer, create an "event" and invite people to it. Be sure to set it as an open event, so anyone can invite people.
On Twitter, you can either tweet about the show from your personal account and encourage others doing so to tweet as well, or set up a Twitter account for the show and send out updates from there.
A number of theatre companies have made teaser videos from upcoming shows and placed them on YouTube. Think of them as similar to movie trailers (though the editing may not be quite as involved), and they could range from excerpts from a few scenes with actual spoken language, to images from the play set to music. Be sure to get all appropriate permissions before proceeding with any video work or using a song that is under copyright.
Creating a website is a great way to market a play or a theatre group. But it's not without some time and expense, so consider whether it's worth the investment first.
If you're producing a single show for a limited run, you're better off creating Facebook fan or event pages. They're free, and given the production's limited lifespan, they'll give you a better bang for your proverbial buck.
But if your production is one that you expect to have a longer life, a website may be a good idea, and if you want to promote your theatre organization as a whole, it's a must. Great, you say. I want to create a website. Now what?
Step 1: Select a domain. Websites must have unique addresses (i.e. domains), so you need to find one for your show or organization that is both available and well-suited to your group. It might be an exact match for your show or group, or some shortened or abbreviated version. For example, High School (non) Musical has the full title, www.highschoolnonmusical.com for its domain, whereas Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions is www.thankyouforflushing.com, a shorter version. But the Society for Directors and Choreographers is www.sdcweb.org, a mix of initials and the addition of "web," probably because www.sdc.org was already taken by an internet services company in New Mexico. One can register a domain on its own (there is an annual registration fee), but I recommend you read Step 2 and do these steps together. But if you want to do the domain registration on its own or perhaps register multiple domains and you want a reliable registrar for the extra ones, try GoDaddy.com.
Step 2: Select your web host. If the domain name is a name on the mailbox, the hosting is the house that stands behind that mailbox. YouthPLAYS and the collection of sites I maintain (more than a half-dozen in all) are all hosted very reliably and have been for some time through Bluehost. We highly recommend them for their reliability, unlimited storage space, unlimited traffic, unlimited domain hosting and 24-7 phone support. At $6.95/month with a prepaid plan, they're a very good deal—especially since you can host as many domains as you want for that same price; you pay only the cost of domain registrations for each domain after the first one. (My additional domains are registered at GoDaddy, and that's worked out just fine.)
Is there free hosting out there? Yes, there is. Your disk space and traffic will be limited, and some free hosting companies will place ads on your sites. Also, beware that with free, you often get what you pay for. We have no particular recommendations among the free hosting sites, as we haven't tried them. But if your budget is tight, or you have a simple, low traffic site, a free site could be worth exploring.
Step 3: Design the Site. At this point, most hosting companies offer basic design software as part of their control panels. So if all you need is a simple site with basic information about your group (i.e. about us, upcoming shows, location, how to order tickets), that should suffice. If you need something more complicated—for example, a site on which you can purchase tickets—you'll likely need a web designer. Those can be expensive, though you may want to check out vWorker.com (formerly Rentacoder.com). It's a reputable company that I've used many, many times. If you want your site designed, you post a job, and then programmers/designers from all over the world submit their bids. All of them have ratings, very much like Ebay, and you can see what past clients have said about their work, look at portfolios, etc. When you choose a worker, your money is escrowed, and won't be released until the job is done to your satisfaction.
Step 4: "Go Live." When everything is ready, you or your designer will make the site "live," so that the public can see it. Keep in mind that it will take a few weeks for search engines to pick it up. Also, now that it's live, start looking for resource sites that list sites like yours. For example, Curtain Rising is a comprehensive listing of theatres worldwide. Why not get your company listed there?
Probably the greatest concern for producers is getting people in the door to see the show. Today there are many entertainment choices competing for the attention of the audience, and it takes some planning for your show to stand out from the crowd.
The best way to get your show to stand out is to have a powerful visual image that grabs the viewer's attention and describes your show without having to resort to many more words than the title. A great poster heightens excitement and enthusiasm for your show for both your audience and your cast and crew.
In the advertising business this is known as the "key image." Linda Schupack, the head of marketing at AMC TV, (the company that produces the hit TV series Mad Men) explains that central to the marketing of that show was the key image. The first year, she said, “we knew the show was enigmatic. We had a cast of unknowns. How do we represent what the show is about?”
This is the dilemma that also faces a theatre producer, especially if you are producing a new show. If you are producing a famous show then that show will usually have a key image. We all know the eyes from Cats, the mask from Phantom, and the rights to use these images may be acquired when you purchase the production license. Those images alone contain a wealth of information because the shows are so famous, but with a newer show you will probably have to create a key image of your own.
There is a famous story that when Trevor Nunn, Cameron Mackintosh and the creative team of Cats first saw the Cats poster design in 1981 there was an intake of breath, an agonizing pause and then complete approval. According to Sofie Mason of The Stage Magazine: "Many across the theatre industry agree that this was the seminal moment when theatre posters moved away from the representational to the iconic and the first global brand was born."
The Cats poster has been described as follows: "Its deceptively simple design presents a cat's eyes with silhouettes of dancers for pupils. Instantly recognizable, it also hints at what you will experience in the theatre - the mysteriousness within the eyes peering out of the darkness, and the dancers reflected in them."
That is precisely what a key image is designed to do.
John Snelson, author of a book on Andrew Lloyd Webber, noted: “Theatre posters moved away from telling us what a show was about to telling us what it was like. One white mask and a red rose on a black background told us that this Phantom of the Opera was not so much horror story as gothic romance.”
However there is still a role for old-fashioned representational imagery in theatre posters, especially if you don't have a sophisticated advertising company running the campaign. If you are a school or amateur group, then representational imagery is the easiest way to go and it still works. Death of a Salesman has effectively used for many years the haunting image of a weary salesman with his back to the viewer, head bowed, carrying two suitcases. This simple image conjures up the weight of the world that this tragic character seems to be carrying on his shoulders.
The best key images instantly depict the style of the show (comedy, tragedy, musical), and hopefully something of the content. A good title helps, but usually a producer has little control over that. However another part of the imagery a producer may have control over is the typeface (font) used in the title. The Broadway marquee style of typeface used for the A Chorus Line poster is very different to the typewriter font used in Deathtrap, or the rough stenciled typeface of Rent, but each sends out a visual message about the style or content of the show.
The less well known a show is, the more information you must put into the key image and typeface. The original poster of Rent contained 11 photos of cast members showing the various characters along with the title. Today just the title and typeface are often used as the rest of the imagery is now known by the audience and the title/typeface alone can conjure up all the other images.
The tagline - the line that is sometimes under the title on a poster - is also important, but has less impact than the image, and not all shows use taglines. The idea behind a tagline is to create a memorable phrase that will sum up the tone and premise of the show. Rent uses: "no day but today", perhaps as an ironic counterpoint to Cats: "now and forever". The movies are famous for their taglines, and most people know exactly which title is being referred to when they hear the tagline: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." or, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." A good tagline can complement the image, although if the image is unremarkable few people will even get to the tagline, so the image is the primary attention grabber.
You should also adapt the key image to the local theatre audience. Some plays have both drama and comedy, and a gritty urban theatre company may want to emphasize the drama, while a commercial dinner theatre may want to focus on the comedy. This is all perfectly normal, as long as you don't sell a show as a comedy when there or only a couple of laughs in the whole evening, or sell a lightweight romp as a profound drama. To keep an audience you have to deliver the goods.
I have a musical about World War Two that is equally comedic and dramatic, and it can be sold either way. Here are four examples of different ways to sell the same show:
As you can see, there is a huge variation in style; the grittier posters were from downtown theatres, the light-hearted ones more suburban and rural.
Designing a key image does not have to be expensive. Check out the art department at a local school or college (or your own school if you are still a student) - artists are often excited by the challenge of designing a poster. There are also many images available from clip art collections or photo collections, often available inexpensively on the web. You can also get cast members to pose for photos that can be incorporated into a poster.
Today, with computers and graphics programs like Photoshop, and ornate typeface collections available on the web, poster designing has never been easier or cheaper.
There are a number of sources for clip art on the web that can help you put a poster together.
Microsoft offers free images at:
There are many photos and illustrations on this site, and they are legal for you to use. The images are of various sizes, but smaller ones can be combined with a photo or other art. The collection is searchable. If you click on the search term "Large Images," then you can choose photos or illustrations. Most are at medium-resolution 120-150 dpi, which is better for web sites than printing. For printed material, 300 dpi is considered the best. These images are best for amateur productions.
For theatres with a bigger budget, paid images offer the best quality. Here are some big web sites:
I've licensed images from Getty and they can be quite reasonable, although the higher resolution images tend to jump in price. For example, I wrote a play about Lawrence of Arabia, and luckily I knew a friend who looked a lot like the real Lawrence so I got him to pose for me. But I needed a shot of the desert, so I licensed a photo of a sand dune from Getty (cost about $80) and superimposed my friend's face. Add an Arab headdress for Lawrence and this was the final result:
In the long run, it is almost always cheaper to find a friend, grab your own camera and shoot your own photo. Today's digital cameras have such high resolution and are so easy to use, that almost anyone can use them.
Fotosearch site has lots of photos, and while there is a great variation in price you can get a low-resolution image for as low as $15 and a 300 dpi image for as low $40, although most are more than that. There are restrictions on the use of these images so it is good that you read the license carefully before buying anything.
Corbis also has a large catalog, although it can get expensive. A low-res version can be as little as $15, but the hi-res version of the same image can run $250, and some are much more than that. And again, check the restrictions before buying.
Shutterstock works on a different pay system and allows 5 images of any resolution for $49 during a one year period, but again restrictions apply.
Commission Your Own Artwork
You can also commission an artist to do a poster for you, and there are a couple of websites like www.elance.com and www.guru.com that allow you to post your project and get artists to bid on the work. Here are two posters I commissioned through elance with a cost of $200 to $300. There are artists from many countries - so you get a variety of qualities and prices.
The good thing about commissioning an artist is that you own the copyright and can allow other theatre companies to use the image, saving them the trouble of creating their own.
The most effective tool of advertising in word of mouth. When a trusted acquaintance recommends a show then that suggestion carries the added weight of their intimate understanding of your sensibilities.
1) Reviewers only cover plays that run multiple weeks.
2) No one can predict the tone of a review.
3) Newspaper space is appropriated most often to companies that advertise in the periodical.
Each of these factors is aligned against most small productions and suggests that these companies are better served to focus most heavily on word of mouth campaigns. The few hundred patrons that represent success for smaller productions are, in fact, most easily guaranteed through direct contact with the target audience.
Some of the most effective fundraising institutions perennially are children’s hospitals. Administering to someone’s child creates a deep bond that translates into gifts of estates, insurance revenue and active support.
Theatre rarely cures life threatening disease, but it does contribute to the self actualization of many of its collaborators. Little Mary is fulfilling a lifelong dream portraying civil rights icon Reverend Doctor Reginald Hawkins (yes, a woman portrayed him in the Children's Theatre of Charlotte production of A Stranger On The Bus by Ed Shockley.)
This means that the inner circle of the ad campaign begins with the production artists. These are the people who have direct contact with an audience who will attend Tales Of the Windship just because cousin Joey focused the lights on the third electric.
Experience has taught that success at reaching this fertile audience increases in direct proportion to the amount of responsibility that is assumed by the producer. Things like creating the "Evite" or actually collecting addresses and mailing the postcard means that the cast only has to surrender a contact list. People intend to make an effort on behalf of the show, but the demands of the production and distractions of life often undermine their efforts.
The next easily accessed group of potential patrons are professional contacts. Members of your production team are usually part of several circles of associates. Groups like high school classmates or college and graduate school alumni are dispersed internationally. Fraternities, sororities, worker unions, sports teams, PTAs etc. often maintain communication tools such as newsletters and email queues. These reach a very select audience of people who share some bond with your project participants.
Writing a sample blurb for the class notes section of each accessible alumni magazine is a useful tool, provided there is ample production lead time for these quarterly and sometimes annual periodicals to reach their audience. Larger schools have full-time publicists who are constantly searching for events that highlight the diversity and success of their alumni. A call or email to the designated publicist or even simply including their office in all show related publicity notices might inspire a useful article focused on a member of your company.
Similarly, churches are a community that is easily accessed. They are worthy of a targeted promotional campaign because they often attend in large groups. A single church success might equal a sold out performance of your play. Creating a questionnaire that prompts cast members to supply information about these affiliations and then assigning specific tacks in regards to publicizing your work to that demographic will encourage your production team members to be proactive in their pursuit of audience.
Obviously it helps a word of mouth campaign to present a specific rather than generic message. Describing what an audience will experience if they come to the theater is useful but having someone announce, "I saw it and I liked it," is more persuasive. If time permits, therefore, it is good to invite representatives of various organizations to either a dress rehearsal or open segment of rehearsal so that favorable comments can precede the play’s opening. (In larger theatre markets producers will "give" the dress rehearsal to an organization which then provides an audience for that mock performance and keeps the "pay what you will" donation.)
The development of social networks is a rapidly evolving tool. Artists have employed blogs dealing with issues from a show like ESL by Tom Smith to start a buzz. Perhaps there is an exciting visual image like the costumes in Masks by Paul E. Doniger that might inspire a Facebook thread of posts. While it is inappropriate to film and post excerpts of an author’s work without permission, there is no prohibition against sharing your own production photos, or a wacky session of set building. Many authors also would welcome the additional publicity of a small portion of their work going viral if they were first approached to approve the idea. (The martial arts influenced play, The Tea Servant by Ed Shockley, used footage of Sensei Henry Smith demonstrating Aikido technique to help direct attention toward the Philadelphia Fringe Festival premiere.)
Traditional word of mouth was generated by devices as crude as telephone chains (each cast member calls three friends and asks them to call three more) through to public happenings. (Amiri Baraka performed on Harlem street corners to interest patrons in the burgeoning "blkarts movement" of the sixties.) Anything that gets people talking about your show without acrimony is part of a successful campaign. (We don’t want to infiltrate the final shuttle launch to advertise Brats in Space by Stephen Flowers, for example.) Things like stuffing the program at a local little league game with mock baseball cards featuring Miracle in Mudville (D.W. Gregory) actors might get people talking during the seventh inning stretch about your show.
There is an obvious overlapping of "advertising" and "word of mouth." Both exist to promote the show. The latter is a focus on low and no-cost avenues for inspiring conversation about the work. Rather than a simple press release repeated to all of the papers and radio stations announcing another production of Goldilocks in Nurseryland (Trevor Suthers), a creative campaign might be to stage a marathon reading of fables at the local bookstore sponsored by your company. Parents come to pass an afternoon with Hans Christian Anderson and leave talking about your upcoming production.
Word of mouth advertising is simply about imagination. What can I do to get my project inserted into the dinner table discussion of America? Famed magician Harry Houdini used to hang upside down from a bridge handcuffed and wrapped in chains. If someone in your cast possessed that talent then it would be a great way to advertise Aurelia’s Magic (John Bolen), but in this age of internet a really cute dancing baby emailed out to the friend lists of all your cast members might be enough to fill your theater.