A Modest Proposal for a Better Way to Brand Theatre

A Modest Proposal for a Better Way to Brand Theatre


empty seatsI’m a bad interview; I’ve learnt this now, from sad experience, a frosty November morning spent at Theatre Ontario’s offices at 401 Richmond, where I’d attempted with varied degrees of success to affect the folksy, unbuttoned erudition of what we might imagine characters in a Sorkin screenplay to sound like, my feigned patois unraveling after only three questions, flop sweat beading on brow and philtrum.  I was interviewing for a seat on TO’s Youth Advisory Committee, and after yammering at some length on a possible program to get young people to go to the theatre, I was asked, point-blank:

“How would you assess the demand for such a program?”

…Whereupon, having no lucid answer, I devolved into inarticulate grunts and rudimentary hand gestures. Later, slogging my way up Spadina, the question’s brisance having wiped the sun from morning’s glory, I began to wonder why, exactly, didn’t I have an answer prepared?  The question, you’ll agree, is not thoroughly difficult.

Except, actually, when I parse it out, the thing just seems more and more removed and weird and unanswerable. Why need we assess the demand at all, necessarily? Isn’t our job (at least in part) as artists, theatre producers, whatever, to create demand for our work, not just to react to it?

One of the clichés of business that commercial enterprises have internalized very well and artists have – in my experience – understood very poorly is that markets are not found – they are made. Particularly if you do challenging, non-commercial stuff, the consolation that your play will “Find its audience” is standard fare. There is little talk – and fewer resources – to actively build an audience base ex nihilo.

Yet, this is what businesses do all the time. Before Canada Goose began manufacturing their revolting parkas, no one needed or even wanted an expensive ski jacket made from bits of dead animal. There was not a deficit of coffee in the world before Starbucks’s cancerous growth. In a post-industrial society, the commodity itself is replaced by brand; people don’t buy things, they buy identities, they buy access to a putative community to assuage the soul’s emptiness.  For producers, money is not spent on the product – which in most cases can be outsourced to cheap labour – but on highly sophisticated communication strategies that target consumers and whisper promises of a happier life for which the product itself is merely a convenient semion.

Before I go further in this vein, let’s recall a salient warning from CanStage Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn, from his 2012 eulogy to the Vancouver Playhouse:

…the Vancouver Playhouse remained a “company,” forced to rent its…performance space and justify its existence through commercial success. The term “company,” though used widely in the theatre business, unwittingly and perversely infers [sic] a likeness to the private sector.

Notwithstanding that I agree that conflating theatre with commercial enterprise is “perverse,” I don’t see how this should prevent us from appropriating the private sector’s most potent tools – effective branding and communications. Moreover, I don’t see how this necessarily prevents us from repositioning theatres as community institutions, rather than entertainment companies.

Theatre will probably never have the money or people-power to implement a marketing strategy as powerful as Starbucks’s – but neither does it need to. Theatre is, as Jocelyn remarked, a community-based enterprise, and even theatres with huge, international reputations still ultimately have identity conferred on them by their respective cities or nations (is there anyone who would argue that the RSC is not a distinctly English institution, or that the MET’s fame can be winnowed from NYC’s general mythology?).

The most obvious impediment to a highly sophisticated, creative, and targeted branding/marketing campaign is the utter lack of disposable funds – theatres simply don’t have the resources to create the multi-tier communications platforms such an endeavor would require, platforms that include everything from significant online presences to billboards to direct community outreach in the form of volunteers; creating apps and web ads and public events. These are hard to do well; harder still to develop an overall brand that affects people.

As a poultice to this dilemma we can look to precedents in other countries; between 2009 and 2011, for example, the UK government – through the Arts Council of England – ran a program called A Night Less Ordinary. The program set aside half a million free tickets to theatres all over the country for audiences aged 26 and under. Discounted or free tickets are something that almost every theatre does – where A Night Less Ordinary differed was that it was a third-party branding apparatus which took the burden of marketing off of the theatres – what was sold was not necessarily the individual shows (except on, as hinted supra, the local level), but the program itself. The celebrity endorsements – from Dame Judy Dench, Keira Knightly etc. – were for A Night Less Ordinary qua program, not for the RSC, or Covent Garden.

By acting as a synecdochic brand for a large number of theatres, the program was able to attract audience members (80 000 children and young people who attended 400 000 times, 8.9% of which had never been to the theatre before) without putting overmuch strain on each theatre individually – many of which would have had literally zero marketing capacity.

A Night Less Ordinary was far from perfect – for one thing, in some cases the program couldn’t cover the full cost of a ticket, leaving the individual theatres out of pocket. This is obviously problematic. We might also debate whether, in Canada, a national-rollout such as the one in the UK is going to be the best or most efficient means of doing this (my feeling is probably not.) But the crux and ethos of the thing seems sound.

An audience development program, operated by a third party and with a third-party brand, has the potential to cost theatres less, give them a bigger audience base, and open up the theatre community which you and I (probably) know and love to individuals who likely don’t even know it exists.  Though our instinct is to turn to government for funds in this respect, given the current political climate, I see far more potential in corporate sponsorship; especially if the program were directed at young people, if I were RBC or TD or CIBC you can bet that the opportunity to have my brand attached to a thing that’s hitting a market just at the age where they’re looking for a bank would be uniquely interesting to me.

That, anyway, is my modest proposal. We live, we’re told, in tough times; there is much talk of audiences’ defection, and Heritage Canada’s recent decision to refuse the Rhubarb! Festival’s annual grant is, I think, emblematic of quite a lot. As theatre creators, consumers, and lovers, our work must be proactive – we must make our audiences, because they will not be “found.”