Why Doesn’t Theatre Advertise?

Or, more specifically, why doesn’t local theatre advertise on local TV and radio channels?

As a group?

Why can’t the local theatre community pool their resources to buy relatively cheap ads on local TV and radio – the kind that your local car dealer can afford?  Ads for the entire theatre community.  Ads that could change month-to-month, to showcase the breadth of work on offer by the diverse local scene.

The purpose of this would be to combat, directly and forcefully, the preconceptions and prejudices that many, many people still hold against the theatre: It’s stodgy.  It’s expensive.  It’s talky.  It’s dead.  It’s all the same thing.  It’s like Waiting for Guffman.  It’s not an alternative to the movies or a night in with Netflix; it’s a special occasion thing at best.

Because I know the local scene here in DC has so, so much more than that.  Any kind of theatre any kind of person would want – cheap, in-your-face, edgy; contemporary, funny, provocative; immersive, trendy, cross-disciplinary; thoughtful, personal, powerful.  All that plus the classics, musicals, children’s, puppets, cabaret, improv, interactive… you can find it in the local scene.

But ask some random person off the street – a high school kid, a twentysomething newlywed, a parent of two – and it’s doubtful they think of theatre as a viable entertainment option week-in week-out.  But unless the only kinds of movies and TV they like are celebrity vehicles and CG explosion movies, there is something on stage they would like, if they knew it was there.

I envision a pretty simple and reusable advertisement mold, from which a new version is stamped each month.  Open with some standard tagline: “DC Theatre is alive!” or something like that, followed by “Here’s just a sampling of what you can see on stage this March on DC stages.”  Each month’s ad could be read by a different popular local actor.  Then, the ad goes into a series of short segments — maybe 4, 6 seconds each — focusing on a different theatre company’s offering that month.  Maybe first, you’ll see the latest from Forum, with perhaps a specially produced teaser; then, something from Pinky Swear, with perhaps some onstage rehearsal footage; then Round House, with some dramatic still images of an actor on a majestic set; then Landless; Adventure; GALA; Source or Fringe or DC Black Theatre Festival; and so on.  Maybe each segment takes care to state directly what kind of audience would want to see it.  Finally, the ad closes with another bit of boilerplate: directions to a website (theatrewashington, perhaps, or dctheatrescene – or both) with some spoken lines about affordable ticket deals and how you can get tickets for $10 or free to many shows, and to go to those websites for show finders and reviews and so on.

60 seconds — perhaps even 30 — and that’s all we need.  It could be disseminated on TV, radio, online, everywhere.  People would gradually become aware, through osmosis, that there’s all this stuff going on, and they can afford to go see it, and it’s in their neighborhood, and they don’t need to dismiss theatre as a whole just because they saw that one bad Romeo and Juliet in high school that one time.

The logistics of arranging something like this would be tricky, I admit – particularly in terms of which theatres get to be part of the advertisement month-by-month (random lottery? pay to play? selection committee?), who pays for it (dues? grants?), and how the individual segments are made (uniformly? individually submitted?).  But I think those are problems that could be solved with a bit of discussion.  I have ideas for their solutions myself, but for space reasons won’t go into them here.  A little preliminary research suggests one month of modest local ads can be had for a couple thousand dollars, so this whole thing seems very achievable.

So much can be gained from the theatre community acting as a unit in this regard, instead of everyone competing for separate promotional avenues and all suffering from the same mass prejudice against theatre.  Nobody loses from such a collaboration, and no theatre company is required to surrender its individuality — the variety within the community is the selling point, after all.  Something like this could do a lot to pack houses with local residents and let tourists know how much theatre is available to them.  Currently, the various efforts to package DC theatre as a whole are fairly balkanized, and they certainly don’t hit as widely or as forcefully as they could if TV and radio advertisement were employed.

Frankly, I think the biggest hurdle that would have to be overcome in realizing something like this would be getting the local theatre bigwigs themselves to buy into it — because the idea that theatre needs to sell itself is a grave challenge to the traditional notion that theatre inherently matters, and people should come see it Because.  That attitude — real or perceived — needs to go.

What do you think?  Is such a thing even necessary?  Is it better for theatres to just promote themselves with improved methods?  Who do you want to see as spokesactor?  Have at it in the comments, please and thank you.

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One comment

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