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The Play's The Thing: It’s harder than ever to find the right hook for audience

Out in the country in lots of small towns, there’s not much competition either. So even though they may have their share of the distractions of our modern age, theater is still a big deal when it’s the only game in town. Here in New York there’s a lot going on, lots of choices for those with the energy to get out of the house. So how can we local theater people get the audience that we need and deserve?

Roger Gonzalez is a thoughtful and insightful guy who thinks he’s got the answers. In case you don’t know, Roger runs the most interesting Internet site around covering local theater — find it, not surprisingly, at LocalTheatreNY.com. A recent blog of his, entitled “When Marketing Sucks and No One is in the Audience,” explores the various methods used in trying to fill the seats. Newspaper listings and ads, direct mail, fliers, postcards and posters are all, Roger says, “behind the times.” Even maintaining your own Web site and announcing your events on such places as Facebook and MySpace is not enough.

The secret, Roger says, is the “media mix,” finding a “hook” and above all building “a strong, targeted e-mail list” — blasting out thousands of e-mails. And if you’re producing a show, Roger offers you advice and marketing support, at absolutely no charge. Take him up on it at Rogertcp@aol.com.

There’s no question that e-mail is the quickest and least expensive way to reach people. However, there are at least a couple of obstacles to this method. One is that there are still lots of people, mainly older types, who are not computer-savvy (if they even have a computer) and who are not e-mail users.

Another, and a much bigger, problem is that the average person gets tons of e-mail, much of which goes unread or is ignored. It’s one thing if you are expecting an e-mail, but it’s another when all those unsolicited ones are filling up your mailbox. And many people block receipt from senders they don’t know.

Trying to “hook” an audience is easier said than done. With my own Outrageous Fortune Company, out of 47 productions only three have played to near capacity in a 99-seat theater for seven performances: “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which drew a substantial Irish audience; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (African American); and “Yellow Face” (Asian). But along with their ethnic appeal, the first was a Tony Award-winner, the second was written by the great American playwright August Wilson and the third had a cast member who was relentless in selling tickets.

The “hook” often used by local groups is do a play by Neil Simon or Agatha Christie, or a favorite oldie like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” or one with at least a dozen roles, or better yet, a musical — the more actors, the more tickets sold. The average theatergoer is more easily attracted to a play title that they are familiar with, especially a comedy or a mystery that they think will guarantee them a good time.

To be continued…

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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