Pull up a digital easy chair and I’ll tell you two digital stories:
Story #1: I ran into a professional colleague at the Colony Theater where he and his wife are season ticket holders. Highly educated, late 50s. Works in high-tech and loves theater. Often eats in North Hollywood. He asked if I had seen any great theater recently. I told him about a production at the Antaeus Theater Company. In North Hollywood, where he often eats. He had never heard of it.
And by “it” I mean the Antaeus Theater Company.
Story #2: I met a woman at a party. Attorney. Highly educated, late 30s. Works in the Industry and loves theater. Lives in Pasadena. Enjoys going to the Pasadena Playhouse. I asked if she had ever been to The Theatre @ Boston Court. In Pasadena, where she lives. She had never heard of it.
And by “it” I mean The Theatre @Boston Court.
I think these stories are typical. And, worse, I believe both Antaeus and @Boston Court are ahead of the curve in promoting themselves. In fact, I’ve said so in the past.
It’s not easy, bein’ seen.
I know from experience. The nation’s center for interplanetary travel is located in Los Angeles. Yet surprisingly few people know it is here. And by “it” I mean the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I know this because I used to work there:
“So where do you work?”
“The Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
“The Jet Propulsion Lab. JPL? The NASA place where all those Mars rovers come from.”
“NASA? Here in Los Angeles? Cool! When did that happen?”
(Over 50 years ago. JPL built the first US spacecraft to make it into space.)
More people probably think SpaceX than JPL when talking SoCal space travel. For, despite having Open Houses that draw tens of thousands of visitors, JPL is still invisible compared to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – oh, you’ve heard of him? – who is interviewed on hip late-night talk shows that draw millions of viewers. JPL has sent probes into interstellar space. SpaceX has made it into Earth orbit.
It’s not about accomplishments. It’s about marketing.
Stage actors like to say that intimate theaters struggle for audiences because L.A. is not a theater town. Their union, Actors’ Equity Association, likes to state that the myriad of L.A. intimate theaters prevent the mid-size and large theaters from gaining an audience. Both statements are wrong.
The truth is, most people in Los Angeles don’t know that intimate theater even exists.
You’d think in an age where “Google” has become a verb, no information could remain hidden. But simply searching the Internet isn’t much help here. Go ahead. Take your favorite search engine and insert “L.A. theater” into it.
Seriously. Try it.
Besides pulling up the website for the actual Los Angeles Theatre (a physical building not an artistic community), you likely got websites that (endlessly) list plays. How does one know what play to go to? How does one know what theater group is prestigious? Which group puts up quality productions and which group works in a black box with uneven paint? Good questions. Because the Internet has no website for “meta-L.A. theater.”
So the average Angeleno theater-goer will stick to the safe bets; the theater names they recognize. The ones they’ll hear on NPR. Or see often in the L.A. Times. South Coast Repertory. The Geffen. Mark Taper Forum, &c.
This is the reason for intimate theaters being invisible on the cultural plain.
How to change this? Promotion, of course. And theater makers instinctively excel at promotion.
Here’s a social media staple: “Support L.A. Theater! Come see me in [show title here]!” Is that statement really about L.A. theater?
All too often, people take to social media to promote a show where they are part of the cast or are part of the producing membership company or know people in the cast. Their message is therefore simply sent back to circulate in an echo chamber of Facebook friends and Twitter followers who likely have already heard of the show. Multiple times.
It’s not surprising, then, that many of the people in the intimate theaters audiences are either intimate theater creators or know intimate theater creators. That’s a pretty small group of people. No wonder there’s not a lot of dollars flowing into these theaters. And yet Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States with a population of 4,000,000. And Los Angeles County has a population of nearly 10,000,000. That’s ten million people.
The size of the potential market is so much greater than the size of the current market it’s clear this is not a zero-sum game. One theater that gains patrons will not cause another theater to lose an equivalent number. In fact, the more people in L.A. attend intimate theater shows, the more people in L.A. will become aware of the broader intimate theater ecosystem.
So promoting any quality intimate theater, especially to one’s non-theater friends, turns out to be self-promotion after all.
Rather than the L.A. theater community fighting among themselves for the same tiny amount of theater dollars from the same tiny set of theater patrons, it’s more effective to grow the total market. Imagine if theater makers actively used social media to get the word out about shows with which they have no connection? Or, if official theater company Twitter accounts live-tweeted about other theater companies during awards ceremonies? No formal campaign. Just informally letting people know about all the intimate, staged art in the City of Angels. Steadily and consistently.
Exposure from cooperation rather than competition. It’s a mindset. Likely found on some Facebook meme card.
Annnnnnd . . . SEEN!
Originally published July 27, 2015 in Stage Raw.