#3 – If We Don’t Ask, They Don’t Give – On Collaborating with a Marketing Department
In This Episode
[00:00:00] Christine Toy Johnson: Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK. I'm your host Christine Toy Johnson, actor, playwright, and advocate for inclusion.
This season, TALKBACK focuses on how the theater industry succeeds and fails when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our guests are all theater professionals working across North America. We recorded our conversations over summer 2019.
The Dramatists Guild of America hosts these conversations. In line with the mission of the Guild, everyone comes to our table with their own opinion and perspective and is free to express it. Whether you're in the business or you aspire to be, we're glad you're here.
Today we tackle theatrical marketing. I'm joined by a performer and playwright, Charlayne Woodard, who through the beauty of technology is in Los Angeles while I'm in Chicago. Welcome Charlayne.
Charlayne Woodard: Thank you, Christine, it’s good to be here.
CTJ: Well it’s wonderful to see you, and hear you. I know that you have had so many experiences with marketing departments and you have, you've taught me so much about when it's right to start getting involved with marketing your own play, etcetera, and I’d just love to let you talk about what you want to say.
CW: Well, um, I have a motto, and it is: “make friends with marketing.” As soon as I know I'm on the season, I get in touch with marketing. And one of the things I let them know about my play, I tell them, “I know about my play,” so I share what I know with them, and I know the audience that I would love for them to invite to my play, and I share that with them. And you know, I give them the log line of the play. You know, that single sentence that lets everybody know what that play is about.
And I have actually, in other times, I have…asked them to hire a, a publicist that knows the community that I'm really going after just for that play, so that I have had like a 720 seat theater with a four-week run with a complete diverse audience for the entire sold-out time. Because you know, if the theater has a play that doesn't do well, that's okay, they're going to do seven more plays that season.
But if your play doesn't do well, that really affects you. So, it's important to get very involved with marketing, and you'd be amazed at how marketing wants to get involved with us.
We help them with their job, you know, because a lot of times these marketing departments in, like in regional theaters, they don't have really diverse staffs. So, you know, they'll say for a play of mine, “well, we can hit the church audience.” And I say, “okay, the church audience is wonderful, but then there are all these other groups and all these other things that we could possibly do.”
I also get involved with the look of the promotion. You know how we own our play and we own our likeness? Well, I get approval over the marketing, and I give suggestions even on what I might even think they might do to attract an audience. Even a ridiculous sketch of something, an idea, they have professionals that can run with that idea [snapping fingers] and just, you know, enhance it, and there are no surprises.
And I start early on. I have had a, a lot of friends who say, “did you see that poster? What is that? I'm very upset.” Well, now you’ve started rehearsals. It is too late to do anything about that.
CTJ: Charlayne, have you always had the insight to get involved with the marketing department so early? Or is there some specific experience that spurred you on to do this?
CW: I learned the hard way that I needed to make friends with marketing in my first two plays, basically. The first play was about the life of a little girl from birth to 12 and her family.
And I arrive in a town to do my play, and I see this picture that looks like I'm saying “hallelujah!” [laughing] And it says, “A rip-rollicking good time!” And that's not what the play is about at all! They're promoting it as if it's a musical. It's not at all a musical, and it's really not a rip-rollicking good time. But by the time I got there, it was too late.
And in the, the second play, the play was a coming-of-age. Oh, and it was a solo play! That's another thing. Somebody didn't tell them that it was a solo play. So, that was a problem, because back in the 90s, uh, folk didn't really take to solo plays really, they, you had to sort of turn them on to solo plays. The play was a coming-of-age of a young, a, of a little girl in the, um, civil rights era. I'll get to town and there were posters all over town with the end of the play, and she's ascending into the heavens, and it's the entire end of the play told on the poster! And, uh, and I had to change that, that poster because it gave away the entire end of the story.
So, um, you have to make yourself known to the marketing department, and then when you get to town, months later, oh p-, go in and talk to them and let them know you love the way they're marketing you. You love what they're saying online, you know, that's very good. And encourage them because, usually if your play does well, you come back to that theater and now they know you.
CTJ: You mentioned that you have approval over marketing. Is this something that you have come to negotiate in your own contracts?
CW: Mm-hmm, right away. As soon as they say you're on the season, then they'll send a contract, but I always have in there that I want approval of everything, because it's my play and it's representing me and my creativity. Uh, and they will send you every idea that they have. And I also help to write the synopsis -- I help, and I make sure that they know that this is a team effort. I'm not going in demanding A, B, and C, I'm suggesting, and, uh, and letting them know constantly, really, what the play is about and how I'd love to have a diverse audience.
Because, I can do the play in silence, but it's really nice when there's some give-and-take with the audience. Um, so I always let them know that diversity is a real important thing to me. And I've always done that from the very beginning. And they work towards that. They, we throw ideas around, and we have things I have to sometimes fly into town to do, before I even get there.
CTJ: Have you ever gotten pushback from a marketing department about the ideas that you have?
CW: Yes. Oh, yes. Because, first of all, “we can't afford it.” They have very limited funds, these theaters, in general -- everybody has limited funds. So they can't afford a lot and, but I say, “Oh, but let's not have any posters that’s, like, newspaper print, where I can't find the name of the play on the poster. On the card.”
I mean, that has happened.
And I said, “Why was, why did this happen?” “Well, we didn't have a lot of money, so we had to do it in black and white.” So, I actually say that, um, make sure that we can see the title of the play. And I say these things in a very lovely way like, it's a suggestion.
CTJ: That's pretty important.[laughs]
CW: Because, you know what? If this play works at that theater, they will look at your other plays and this becomes one of your, your theater homes.
You know, I market myself to the marketing department. I let them know what my following is on Facebook and Instagram, so that
I'm reminding them about social media.
And one of the ways I have introduced that diversity subject is I ask, “is there anyone on staff who knows my audience?” You know, once I've explained the audience I want, then I ask, “is there anyone on staff who does know that audience? If there is no one on staff, is there anything in the budget that can help us connect with that audience?”
CTJ: That is so smart.
CW: Oh yes. But, you know, if you don't do this, you learn the hard way.
I was up at Sundance just recently, I'm sitting at the table with playwrights and the playwright is upset because they've sent her the poster of her first play, and it's the poster of how she's going to look all over this particular lovely town. And the writing is all wrong, the calligraphy is almost embarrassing, and her photograph is not even bright enough. You can hardly see her, and it looks so crazy, and she was furious! So, I sat there at the table, at dinner, and told her, “Well, it's not too late. At least they're showing you this two months in advance, and you can make a difference.”
CTJ: And how did she react?
CW: Well she said, “I'm going to have my people do this,” and I said, “Do your people know your play? Do your people know your audience? Do your people know what you want, what's in your mind?”
It's really lovely to talk to them. You can call them up and introduce yourself. Market yourself to the marketing department.
CTJ: I think some, some people, um, are shier than, uh, you and I are.
CW: Yeah. And, eh, yes, I know, I'm an actor who writes plays, and most playwrights don't want to do that. Or, well, explain it to your, your representative so that everyone knows, and everyone has to know that you have—now this, this playwright did have approval of marketing, which is why she received that flyer.
CTJ: Have you ever run into a situation where the theater was reluctant or reticent to give you the approval over marketing?
CW: Never. It's a funny thing. If we don't ask, they don't give it, but you'd be amazed what they give if you just ask.
CTJ: Well, that's a new motto to embroider on a pillow along with, what was the first one? “Make friends with marketing?”
CW: Make friends with marketing? Yes.
CTJ: I think that's excellent.
CW: Mm-hmm. We, you know, I just believe we should get what we can get. And you don't get, you don't get everything that you need, but you—you don't get everything you want, you get what you need. You don't, you know, but you have to ask.
CTJ: Great advice.
CW: I do believe that, uh, the reason I have never gotten flack from marketing departments is because of the way I, I ask them, and suggest to them, and, uh, I collaborate with them. And that's one thing a playwright knows how to do, is, you know, collaborate.
So, if you go into it, not saying, “I'm, I'm having a meeting with marketing!” you know, but to say, ah, “It's time for this other collaboration,” so they can serve that play up in the way you want it served up.
CTJ: Great advice. My thanks to Charlayne Woodard for our one-on-one chat. After the break, I'm joined by a panel of playwrights, producers, and marketing experts from New York City. Stay with us.
[00:12:15] Christine Toy Johnson: Welcome back to The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, and our conversation today about how to talk to a marketing department. Today I'm in Chicago, while our guests are in New York City and Los Angeles. Let's welcome our panel in New York.
Lydia Diamond: Hi, I'm Lydia Diamond. I'm a playwright, sometimes, lately, maybe a little bit of a television writer, but I'm a playwright and I'm an educator and it's nice to be here.
Garlia Cornelia Jones: Hi, my name is Garlia Cornelia Jones. [00:12:44] I am a playwright. I am also a founder of a series for Black playwrights, and I run an-, another organization that supports Black artists, and I’m, finally, I am a l-line producer at the Public Theater.
Caitlin Baird: Hi, I'm Caitlin Baird. Uh, I'm the director of marketing at New York Theatre Workshop.
CTJ: And let's bring back Charlayne, from Los Angeles.
CW: Yes, I'm Charlayne Woodard, and I'm a playwright and an actor.
CTJ: Thank you so much all for being here today. I want to start off with this question: When should a playwright start to get involved with the marketing of their own play?
LD: This is Lydia. I think it's important to start marketing as early as possible. I'm always appreciative when a theater company reaches out to me on the front end, and I always say that I'm the kind of playwright who is always thrilled to help them sell my show.
Uh, there seems like there's a lot of times in the regional theaters -- and I work in the regional theaters more than I work in-, in New York -- Um, it seems like there's always this kind of, “oh, we don't want to bother you, would you like-” And because marketing a Black play is not necessarily part of the mainstream of their marketing, their default marketing, it, it's imperative that they partner with me to market. But I, I do spend a lot of time on the front end like, selling that idea.
GCJ: Yeah. And I would add that, um, I th-, I think that something that is really important for the-theaters and for playwrights to even, uh, remind the theaters is that, a lot of times, like I’ve, I've come from a very community-based groups, and so we all market our shows because that's something we do because of our friends and that's just how we operate. And so, when a, when a play-, playwright or the actors or, or anybody involved wants to, um, market the show, I think that is important for the, the departments to, to hear not as, “they're doing our jobs,” but also as, “that's part of the community and it’s an extension.”
And I think that is something that I think is interesting to navigate, you know, coming as any POC artist into a bigger institution where they're really working to fill the house.
LD: I liked the way you phrased it because I hadn't thought about that in terms of, because it does seem like there's a tension, sometimes I think, I don't know. But I, I, I fear sometimes that marketing thinks that you're saying, “You're not doing a good job.” I mean—and sometimes you have to say that—but mostly, um, if they could understand that it's part of the culture of being a, a Black artist in largely white institutions, in a, you know, a discipline that is sadly really elitist…
LD: …and, um, in institutions that are built on assuming that the audiences are white.
LD: And so, I like the way you said it and I'm gonna use that.
GCJ: Go right ahead. As, you know, it's really important to spread that news. Like, everyone just needs to know that because at the end of the day, the playwrights want to see their friends and family and the communities that they wrote the play in their minds for, and if there is, you know, something that, that impedes that, or they feel like there's a struggle, at the end of the day, the playwright is not gonna be happy. And then that is a challenge, a challenge, just being in the theater because you want your play to be seen by all these people.
GCJ: But if they can't, you know, come, so how do we just work as a team? I think it's just, you know, the, the playwright being very firm and saying, this is what I want, but also the departments being open and understanding that, and you know, we all know that there's a lot, there's dances that are done to make those things happen.
CB: I mean, I'll say on the--right, as somebody who spends all of my days thinking about and literally dreaming about marketing and, and how to share work, um, and somebody who comes from an art-making background originally, um -- that's music to my ears to hear that you want to join, right? Because like, um, I think on the administrative side, I never want to impede the great work that you're gonna do in the room, and, um, you know what you're taking on and making a play, and I have such a tremendous respect for the energy and care and life that it takes to do that.
And I, I try to begin every process with a, a conversation with the generative artists so that I know, I know what I don't know, right? Uh, I start by reading the play, and then I begin by asking questions to say, “tell me where this came from,” and, “tell me what this means to you,” and, “tell me, um, you know, what, what your dreams would be,” and, “what does this look like and what does it sound like? And talk to me about the world…”
Because as a marketer, my job is to figure out how to translate that work that you're doing in the theater that's so ephemeral, that lives in that one night, and then the next night and the next night, and translate that to an audience, find the audience, entice the audience in, pique their interest, um, and just sort of be a shaman, but not to impose my own self on it, right? Because, you know, I, I read it with one person's perspective, but just one person's perspective. So…
LD: It's tricky, isn't it?
LD: I've always been curious: do you get that from white playwrights as much as you get it from playwrights of color?
CB: We, you, do I get…?
LD: “We'd like to partner with you, we feel it is imperative that we partner with you.”
CB: Uh, you know, every experience is different. I don't know if I could say, um, on the whole, because every artist, there are some artists who say like, “Nope, I don't want any part of that. You do that, I do this over here.” And plenty of people who have no interest in it, right? They don't want to talk about sales, they want to make art, and they'd rather keep sort of a separation of church and state. So, I think every artist probably has a different process?
Um…you know, when we're talking about audience development and community outreach and opening doors, um, I'm gonna enter the room with the life experience that I have and try to bring as many people into that room, and as many ideas into that room, and pursue every possible idea that I can.
LD: It’s interesting because sometimes I, I feel like earlier in my career I had, I felt almost immediately that my relationship to the marketing department was adversarial, and…it had nothing to do with the brilliant, lovely people who are in charge of marketing, but a lot to do with how I'd seen shows at the theater marketed in the past, and also what I'd seen the demographic of the audience being.
So, in my mind, if I go to a show that is like, a Black show, and the audience is 95 percent white, I feel like marketing maybe doesn't really want Black people in the space. It's all very about feelings, it's not necessarily intellectual, but more recently I've come to think of it more as a collaboration. But I have wondered sometimes if there are other playwrights like myself, and so there isn't kind of already in the water a sense that it's gonna be adversarial. You know, even when I'm, when I'm coming right, if you will.
GCJ: I also think that playwrights like Dominique Morisseau have done a really wonderful job of making sure that the theaters are working in tandem with her, and that is very helpful for other Black playwrights and other playwrights of color to see, okay, you know, we can be involved, we can say this… even, even the, the r-, uh, rules of engagement that she has, which, with, with, with each of her plays are huge…
LD: It helps that Dominique is like sunshine itself.
GCJ: Exactly. Right.
LD: But yeah, right. I agree with that.
GCJ: Yeah. And that's helpful.
CW: This is the reason why I say my approach is to contact them early on and, uh, and say, “I'd like to collaborate with you.” That word helps anybody's resistance.
LD: Sometimes, Charlayne. Sometimes.
CW: I mean, no, it doesn't always help, but it, it, it puts you in that room with them, so that at least you can be listened to.
CTJ: I wondered if all of you have advice for playwrights who might not be approached by a, a marketing department like Caitlin runs, with all of those wonderful questions.
Uh, if you have advice about how playwrights can be clear with the marketing department, setting up this collaborative spirit, um, but also being really clear and firm about their own vision that they want to see manifested in the marketing?
LD: It does feel like more and more marketing departments are getting really, more sophisticated about that. I feel like 10-15 years ago it was like, “What is she saying? She wants to be involved in marketing? Or sh-, what?” And now I feel like I'm more often than not invited, whether or not…
LD: …they always mean it.
LD: I do feel like it's become a part of the rules of engagement. Does that sound right to you?
CB: Yeah. I mean I also wonder, if you haven't received the invitation, then send the invitation to start a conversation, right? To take that approach and flip it on its head and say, “I'd love to talk about this play. Can I share more about it?”
Cause like, I mean for me, every single thing that I hear is an idea and an opportunity—and I should also say that conversation that I, uh, host is not just marketing: that's producing, that's education, it's development, um, it's the press team—because every single idea and every single, you know, bit of story that we hear is an opportunity to pursue a thread.
“Oh, you know, we could, could, oh, that aligns with this story. Could we pitch, you know, something about this play and this other play that we just did, or this play that’s happening across town?”
It's like, more and more of the, the landscape is not less competitive, and there's so many ways that people can spend their time. Um, so we've gotta be smarter and we've gotta work together to share these stories and to continue to find an audience and maintain an audience and bring in new audiences, right?
GCJ: I was just gonna say, I would also say that if a playwright has a specific group organization, if they know the, the schools, the alumni groups, churches, I mean, if, if they know who they want in the audience, that's the perfect opportunity to create, you know, codes or create groups and just get those people in there early.
And I, and I, and I think the more that we know who we want in the audience, and the more it is that, the a collaborative spirit, the more the, the team, the marketing team, can go and do all the work they had to do and say, “Here you go, you know, creative team, here's what you need. Let's go out there.” And then if people don't buy the seats, then, you know, that's, that's a whole other thing. But that's a, that's a really great first step, to kind of have everybody on the same page to start.
CTJ: I think it's also interesting to, to talk about certain assumptions that might be made about what audience would respond to the play. I was talking once about one of David Henry Hwang's plays and how the marketing department was trying to approach audiences in Chinatown to come see it. And I thought, “that is just not even the place you should be thinking about going!” But there's an assumption that because he wrote this play that, that that's where the audience was. Uh, so…
LD: Yeah, I've had a lot of that. Like they're gonna send, you know, they'll send you to a church, and I'm like, “Well, I would love for all of you to come. I hope you're okay with pedophilia and…” You know, I’m like…
LD: But otherwise, I, I open my arms to the congregation. [laughing]
CW: That, that's another thing. When I was, when I did my first play in one of these theaters, they said, “You have a busload of people coming from, you know, a Black neighborhood.” And I was so excited at the matinee, and I go out, there's music playing—Miles Davis's “All Blues”—and I say to the audience, “you hear that?” And the audience responded, “YEEEEES?”
They were 8- to 10-year-old girls, fifty of them. And it was so horrible. And, I just, at intermission, you know, I just wanted to rip that dressing room apart! You know? But what can you do? I had to explain, go in-, this is what I mean, I didn't explain anything, I thought it was a common sense.
And, um, I had a, I had a, a Black audience of babies.
LD: Well, I had a question for Caitlin.
CTJ: Please go ahead. This is, it's great. The conversation is fantastic and, um, I, I'm all for it. Go ahead.
LD: Okay. For Caitlin, I wanted to know about this.
I've, I sometimes am confused about press versus, um, marketing. And to me it feels like they're very much part of the same thing, but I'm learning that, in the structure of the theater, they're very separate. And I'm wondering if it's different in terms of how the way they speak to one another serves different kinds of playwrights over others? Or if it's just the way it is, because it has to be that way?
CB: I think it probably depends on the size of the company or the, you know, muscle behind a show. But often it, I think it's really sort of two different sets of contacts, right?
Press is, uh, advanced, right, feature coverage, people writing about the show, reviewing the show. And you know, more and more of that now is online content, right? There are a lot of different ways the press can go, but press feels like it's strictly about, uh, unpaid content, right?
And marketing is gonna be more in the advertising realm, but bridges over into a lot of different areas. So maybe marketing is the umbrella and press is one component under it? Press teams maybe wouldn't appreciate [laughing] that structure…
GCJ: Yeah, I would, I mean, I, well and I'm thinking about this in terms of our press and the whole marketing team at the Public, or you know, there's a, as you said, there is kind of an overarching, the uh, communications, but they’re different groups of people who focus on the press releases and the features and the news, versus the, um, content, the creating of videos and creating of, of content that, that, uh, promotes the show. And I interact with them as a producer. So there's different ways I interact with both press and marketing in terms of--
LD: So, if I say to a theater company, “I would love to partner with you to help sell my show in whatever way is necessary,” and I'm a new playwright, maybe my first big regional show or something, how do I know who to start that conversation about, “I want to collaborate with you”? And…yes, I think that's my question.
GCJ: I feel like the first meeting might even be with both the teams? Because at the end of the day, they will work in tandem.
So, if the first meeting is with both, then they can discuss what really they need for further pre-, press release and the information that, that the other side will need in order to market the show to different communities, or or where to buy advertising, as you were saying.
So, yeah, I think the first place is to start with both, and then of course, people will break off into the smaller groups and then you can have a more intimate meeting with marketing to kind of really build a, a strategy, or they already have one, so you can hear what they have to say and say, “oh, how about this?” or, “I have this idea.” I really love to collaborate, why can't we all be friends?
LD: Right, right!
GCJ: We are, we are.
LD: We're so well-taught in the theater, like, we understand in the rehearsal room, all of the nuances around which lane you're in and how you cross into somebody else's lane and the silos and the whatever, but they don't teach us um, how to work institutionally as artists, and when you're in somebody’s lane.
CTJ: Uh, Charlayne I just wanted to bring you back into the conversation too, because I think you and I both have experienced, as actors and writers and dealing with press and marketing, those two different perspectives. And in your case, many times, you are the person in your own play, and I'd love to hear from you about your, your particular insight on that.
CW: And perhaps because I am a, the actor who's running the whole thing, the whole evening, the, maybe this is why they, uh, do, uh, listen to me and we do come to a-agreements on things by everybody throwing in their, their ideas into the pot.
But one thing I do notice about these regional theaters is that they have a cookie-cutter approach to marketing. It's all very cookie-cutter. “This is what we do at this point. This is what we do at that point.” So, when we come in there with these suggestions, we're breaking down walls. It's like, [gasp and grunt], you know, and, uh, but I know, I feel like I managed to get in there because they really don't want to upset the person who's got that whole play on her back for those whole four or five weeks.
LD: Yeah. Cause when you're just the writer, they're like, “oh my god, oh my god, just appease her and she'll be gone in two weeks.” [laughs]
CW: No, no, this person is around in the building, this person is coming to you saying, “What's happening with that Sunday show?” You know, this person is in there for the run, and, uh, but you're right, uh, it's a different thing with me. I have actually said, “I need some flyers,” and I went to the local Whole Foods and gave out flyers and told everybody, “half-price tonight,” and got my audience. I was upset with this group that had not produced an audience for me. When they saw that I was giving out my own flyers saying “half-price tonight,” and people came with that, they had to honor it and then they got to work! That was early on in my run.
I feel like if we don't get hands-on, we go down. I've experienced it. I was forced to get involved in it with each play—still!—I have to get involved.
LD: Can I add that I think it's interesting because I sometimes think that people forget that we're also talking about the quality of the art? Like, you know, we're writing plays. It, almost always, if we're playwrights of color that in some way have to do with the intersection of class and race, and we're in these theaters that are largely white and there's a conversation to be had. But if the conversation isn't happening because the audience is so homogenous, the play is landing in a way that maybe gets less laughs?
I find that if there, you know, at least 20-30 percent people of color in the audience, the people of color give the white people permission to laugh and you know, and on and on. And I think sometimes it's hard for theater companies maybe to hear that and to trust that.
And then here's the, the, the thing that's like on the dark side of the conversation, which is the conversation that any of us who’ve been sitting on panels about race and inclusion in the American theater have been talking about for decades, which is: Do they really want Black people in their houses? That's important. I say Black, I beg your pardon, people of color, people of any color. Do they want to have non-white audience spaces?
GCJ: Well, I also think that the playwrights find these conversations maybe more stress-stressful or they are more a-apprehensive just to say things when there are fewer artistic leaders and there are fewer people of color on the staff. And that… It's, it's something that I know a l- theaters are, are working to change.
LD: Are, are they?
GCJ: It just, it's, it's something that just, it makes my palms sweat and you just, um…
GCJ: …cause I can’t even, and I stutter, but right now I'm just speechless because, you know. Yeah.
CW: Well, I, I feel like whether I'm wanted there or not, I have a story to tell and I’ve put myself there and I'm telling that story and there will be an audience if I have to go out and grab it myself.
LD: That's why I'm so glad you're doing this podcast because I don't know, you know, we're, we're in these little silos, writers…
LD: …and particularly writers who aren't from New York. There's not like a, a, necessarily a community of writers. So how do you know, if you're being given your first regional theater show, already the power dynamic is such that “we are doing you the biggest favor to have put your show on our stage.”
CW: And, and that, that right there is what slows us down. I let them know, the biggest thing you have is that you have brought me to this stage and I'm the only Black show you had in the whole season!
LD: Absolutely. And how we empower young playwrights, the importance of doing that, because I remember also earlier in my career feeling resentful. I am opening in three weeks and I'm trying to write a show, and I'm, I have to sell it, too.
LD: I'm less resentful and more resigned, but I do think that's a really important thing for young playwrights, maybe period, but certainly young non-white playwrights to know that they have the power to do that.
CW: Yes, it's an uphill battle. It's always going to be an uphill battle. We haven't come to the point where it's going to be easy for us—yet—if it ever will be. We have to go in there knowing, why are we writing in the first place? Because our story isn't told. So, we have to get in there.
GCJ: I was just gonna kind of circle back to that whole spirit of that word that that you used, which was to “collaborate.” And so, we know that there's not a ton of artistic leaders of, of color on staff. Okay, so we're not, you know, doing any, uh, pointing of the, of, uh, of the finger, but we're just gonna say, “let's work as a team.” So, you know, things change over long periods of time. So, right now, what we all have to do.
LD: But then I say, “do they?”
GCJ: I, right. But you know, as we are now, then we just have to have all the things that we want. We want to have these, these people in the space, these groups, and let's see how we can work with the people who are here, so that we can, at the end of the day, say that we went through all of these steps, we brought our hopes and desires, and we had the teams to, to do all their work and everybody got, got together and, and hopefully it achieved something. And then we can figure out what worked and what didn't at, at the end.
LD: And cynical as I sound I, I have been able to work with theater companies who really do it very well, you know, who, for whom it feels like they're putting their money where their mouth is and, um, they are listening and they are partnering with you. And so I, I didn't want like, to just spread darkness.
GCJ: Right, no, and I, and I, and I think that theaters hear all of this, they've experienced it, they've experienced young playwr-, playwrights in their doors who are, who are, who are not thrilled with what's going on, and they're trying to take next steps and collaborate and work as a team, um, but it’s a, as, as Charlayne said, it is an uphill battle, but, um.
CTJ: Caitlin, I'd love to bring you in and um, from your perspective, talk about your response to this, what you wish that other marketing departments, other theaters, would do…in line with all of the concerns that were just raised.
CB: Sure. I mean, I think from our perspective at the Workshop, we're taking more and more steps to engage in a sustained conversation. So, it's not just about, you know, one play and that it's, in fact, an ongoing relationship, so that your play might present an opportunity to open the doors and meet new people, and then how do I continue that conversation and make you know that you're always welcome here? So that hopefully that audience is changing, not just for your play, but in general, right?
An audience has no reason to trust me if I pop up, you know, every once in a while, right? But how can I continue to consider the marketing of a production of a season, of an organization, in a sustained way to host-- What kinds of conversations can I host, what kinds of events can I host to create a community to make you feel welcome…for a play, which is the start of a conversation. So, it takes an investment of time, it takes an investment of ideas, and coming to a table honestly to acknowledge where we're all at and to collaborate.
And you've gotta put resource behind it, is the other thing I'll say, right? That like, um, that, that doesn't just happen with like hopes and dreams. Um, you know, that you gotta put some money into advertising. You gotta put some money into events. Um, you know, you may need to hire somebody, if you don't know people in a community, we, then we need to find a partner, um, to help us make connections and build relationships with people, because they have no reason to trust me if this is the first time we've ever met.
LD: Do you build in higher budgets for plays that would ask you to, to reach out to audiences that are not automatically always coming to your theater?
CB: I mean, the budget is so tied to the income of a show, right? So it's like, I can negotiate for money, but I might instead, if I'm not gonna get more money, cause like, I'll ask for more money all the time, right, for everything I do. But instead I might reallocate money and try to figure out how I'm gonna spend resource and what's the most important thing for this project.
So sometimes, yes.
CW: Now at one point I asked, “is there anyone in this department who knows my audience, and can reach my audience?” And they said, “not really.” And so I asked if they could hire this publicist that knew the entire community, all the groups, everything, and when I did that, they negotiated with him for a price and he came in and he did an amazing job for the run of the play. It was a completely diverse audience for four weeks of a large theater, and it sold out. But he was paid specifically to bring in a diverse crowd of people.
LD: I feel sometimes like maybe there's a sense of, “if we hire a consultant, they will be the marketing department, ‘cause we don't know nothing about marketing no Black plays,” you know? And, um, I, it feels wonky, a little bit.
CW: Well, he was always in on all of our meetings. So, he was, he just became a part of the team.
Yes, they really do like to bring in those consultants, they lean on them, but that's where we stay in it. And they are a part of all the meetings, so that they're throwing around the name of the, oh, the Links and the 100 Black Women and, you know, all these kinda names of these groups of people that will buy tickets if they know your play is there.
LD: And it requires that the institution actually be invested enough in it because, right, if we're doing this subscriber-based thing, is it really that big a deal if the February show doesn't sell as diversely as we would've hoped?
LD: I don't know. That sounds cynical, but I think that the whole reason we're having the conversation, right, is to empower us to know to have those conversations.
But one of the things that, um, I've learned that these consultants are given a budget that is smaller, maybe, than a marketing budget. But if the theater just kind of says, “here it is,” and then wipes their hands of it, then the consultant's hands are tied…
LD: …anyway. Which then, you know, affects their good name and…
GCJ: Well, and I think that's when the consultants, as Charlayne is saying, have to be included in the whole. The, there's a, there's a really big picture of all of this and the, it includes the consultants, the, the arti-
CW: The art department, the…
GCJ: Yeah. It includes everybody.
CW: Social media.
GCJ: I'm gonna repeat, working as a team to, to do all of this, but there's so many different components that will create that end goal, and so it can't be one person, “hire this consultant cause they're a person of color and they're gonna do everything, and then we're gonna go market the, the other shows,” because then that's just a recipe for…
CB: And I'll also say…
GCJ: …a disaster.
CB: …you know, I think sometimes, right, for me, if I'm bringing someone else in on the team, that person is another collaborator and a person who brings, um, experience and knowledge and opinions that, I mean, you're foolish if you're not listening to and respecting and engaging with, like, we're all on a journey to continue to learn, and marketing as a landscape is changing faster than we can keep up.
GCJ: Instagram is like, I mean, we, you know, I think that's something that's really huge is that, you know, playwrights need to know -- and I tell this to people all the, all the time: I have, I have a personal and a professional Instagram. So, there's two, you know, there's a public face, and one that's, that's private, if you want to show your kids and things. But, but I think that, that helps so much for people, especially now.
GCJ: I would say that something that's really cool about Jeremy O. Harris is that he is very active on Instagram and the, and that, I think is something that allows the audience to get to know him and to engage with him in a really cool way. And there are also other playwrights, but he's, he's one that I think just kinda comes to mind when you see, I don't know how many followers he has, but it's something…
CB: He's got that blue checkmark.
GCJ: He-, right. And so that is, that is cool! As a, I mean, that's just really cool.
CB: And, you know, more and more, um, artists who feel really comfortable, um, in the social world, right? And who wants to be a part of the sales side of a project, they're a tremendous resource just by sharing insights from the process and, to loop back, um, we were talking about the difference between marketing and press, right? Like, press can create tremendous opportunities that marketing can then leverage to s-, like, signal boost.
You're gonna trust that piece of press coverage way more than you're gonna trust some advertising copy. But you can take that piece of content that an audience will inherently trust because it gives you a deeper insight, it gives you more honest insight, it's some like, fun social media stuff that the artists are doing, silly stuff on breaks in the rehearsal room, like it can be the most benign content that you can signal boost as a way to pique someone's interest and grab their attention in a very crowded advertising marketplace, which again, is the start of a conversation, right?
It feels like so much of this is about beginning a conversation with an artist, with an audience, um, that's where it all starts, and that's the opportunity. So however we can work together to seize those opportunities and make something to drive the attention to the art, right? Like, that's what it all comes back to. So, the more we can remember, we're all working towards the same purpose, and we all have the different things that we're gonna do and no artist should feel the burden of having to market their show like, you know,
Charlayne, the, the notion that you're standing at a Whole Foods handing out flyers because that's the only way to find an audience is like, ugh! Like, I feel that, cause that, that means, you know, we, we've let you down on the other side of it. Um, if you, in addition to performing that show, and writing that show, have had to take on the opportunity of being the on-the-front-line salesperson at that level, um, then there's a break somewhere.
CW: It certainly did embarrass the marketing department…and it’s, and it jiggled them and put them into action.
GCJ: We're all so excited! I was gonna say, I think that kind of goes back to what we were saying about the attention between artists saying, “I want to help to market this show,” because then it's like, we're not, it's that final line of, “are you saying we can't do our jobs? No, we know how to do our jobs,” but we're saying, “Oh no, this is a community thing. We want to build community.” But then, does “community” mean that the playwright stands outside of a Whole Foods, as Charlayne is saying? No, not, not quite.
CTJ: I've been thinking about how we really have to start marketing our own plays before they even get produced. And I wonder if anyone has thoughts about how being conscious of that can lead forward into the, the next phase of the collaboration with the teams that we encounter when we are being produced.
GCJ: Okay. This is the, so this kind of moves my hat over to my playwright hat, because I have a play I’ve been working on forever, but something I did for a lot of plays when I was in my MFA and afterwards, was I would always h-hire someone to do art. So two of, of, of my plays have art that I paid someone to do. And that was, for me, a way to kind of say, “This, this is my play.” There's one play that I don't think will ever be done, but the other play I hope someday some theater wants to produce it.
LD: How do you use the art? Like, what do you do?
GCJ: I use the art-, so I also do a lot of photoshop and things, so I create my own like, images. So, I would use her, her art for my, the flyer, and in my mailing I would s-send it out.
LD: If the play isn't being produced yet, are you sending the visual out with the play as you send it to producers?
GCJ: Yeah. So I, so I, so I, I have sent it out with the, with producers, and so then when we do a, a reading of, of the play, I already have some artwork that people can, can associate with the, the play. So, that's something.
And I, I think you don't have to pay a lot, you know, you're not paying hundreds of dollars. But if, if there is a way to, to create any kind of artwork, that is something that, you know, if people go through, through my Instagram feed, they'll see that show pop, pop up a few times, it's, you know, over the years. And I assigned it a hashtag. So that's a thing that, if it doesn't ever exist, it did at some, some point. And if it does, then great, I already got it started, you know what I mean? So…
LD: That’s so cool. Christine, you, you asked the question, are, do you do marketing on your plays before they're produced?
CTJ: Well, I've heard different producers’ opinions about this, whether it's about specific artwork, maybe it seems like it's, if there is specific artwork, it turns them off because they want to have the ability to be in on something from a very early stage. Um, but I also am thinking about…marketing in terms of how we have to sell our own play to a theater, and whether that part of the thought process can be useful in leading us to, to start these collaborative conversations once we are in the door.
Uh, so it's sort of a hypothetical question, but something that's been on my mind because I do feel that we have to start thinking from the business point of view earlier than perhaps we'd like to.
CW: Can I say that, Michael R. Jackson—he has a play called Strange Loop. So, as he workshopped that play, he would do little videos and long before that play saw the light of day, or you, you knew this song and you knew that song, and from here and from there and from that little workshop and from that little workshop, and I, I'm doing a thing of, with each workshop, making sure that everyone knows, “we're in this town now. Oh, we were up at Sundance this time, and we're here and we're there.” And you let them know because, he made me want to do, want to come to his play because I heard these little tidbits of it online!
LD: So it's all online. I mean, that's interesting. Um…
CW: Online. And it was, yeah. Yeah.
LD: It’s all about social media, it sounds like.
CB: And, if I could offer—I, I'm married to a playwright, um, this is, we spend so much time talking about, uh, theater at home, and how to talk about plays—um, so one of the things that I think, uh, is helpful in that context is beginning to craft what the like, elevator pitch is for the show, right?
What's the way to communicate in the shortest span of time, and it's not about the plot of the play, but it's about what's that hook that, um, gives an audience, um, the why, right? Why to come around. It's not the, what, the how, and the why, um, right? And, and it's not the what or the how that motivate people, but it's the why.
So, if you can begin to help articulate, as the person who's closest to the project, what the why is and what it is you want to say, even if you don't ever want that to be written in marketing, right? But like, if you can help to communicate that, I think that's how you connect deeper to a person, you know, past the brain, into the, right, into the inside. Um, and then yes, yes, to the Michael R. Jackson and the Jeremy O. Harris. And, um, you know, part of it is promoting yourself, um, which like, maybe getting more comfortable with that notion gets more comfortable with the notion of marketing in general? Um, because I think at first when you start doing that, maybe it feels icky or weird or like, “uh, do I have to really talk about myself?” You know, ‘cause so many writers would rather not and would rather write, um, and that's their collaborative means and their voice. But building the community around your art, which is exactly what, um, Michael is doing when he's posting those tidbits of like, “here I am and here I am,” and he's giving people insights and he's winding people up as they encounter the work.
I worked on the marketing for Hadestown and we inherited this huge following from Anaïs Mitchell's album, where then we could look and hook into people who are already fans of her work to signal boost them, because you're gonna trust someone else much sooner than you're gonna trust “the marketer,” um, the producer voice on a show. And that inherently, uh, may also serve in getting that play produced.
If you have a community, a circle of writers and you’re sharing work between them, um, and then that person is like, “oh, I read that person's play, I love that person's play!” and they're telling somebody else. It's like a big network! So, the more seeds you put into that network, the more reach we all build, right? It's like, we all just want each other to succeed, hopefully. I don't know. That's a Pollyanna, uh, point of view, but…
LD: Do you think it would behoove a playwright to hire a publicist?
CB: Well, before…
LD: Because as I'm listening to you, I don't know how to do any of those things.
CB: Before you get to a project, I'm not sure. Because I've certainly seen a personal publicist during a production, you know, that can take off, but how and where you resource that from, like, you gotta, you gotta have deeper pockets than I do as a human, probably, to do that.
GCJ: Well, that's where things like Patreon are helpful, you know, for creative arts. Like I'm a, I've been on there for a while.
LD: What is that called?
GCJ: It just before, it's called…it's called Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and it’s a way for, um, it's a way for, for an artist to engage with their fans in a way that they become a pa-, that they become…their patrons. And so in that way, an artist can kind of grow.
And there, there are so many ways that a person can use that, there is not one way, and if you go on there you'll see all the hundreds of thousands of ways, but you're thinking like, how, how, how does an artist in, in this age try and promote themselves if they don't know how, well, how do they engage it when they don't have the funds? Well, this is a way, you know, there…
GCJ: …you know, there, there are so many ways for us to figure out how to be artists, which is a whole other podcast topic.
CTJ: I just want to say uh, thank you for having this conversation. Caitlin, building the community around your art: that is something I feel like the Dramatists Guild is all about, and I'm so grateful that you articulated it in that way.
I just want to say, I'll say again, thank you so much for joining us in this conversation, as always, to be continued and I want to wish you all, all the best things for all of your plays that you're marketing.
CW: Same to you, Christine.
CTJ: This has been The Dramatist Presents: TALKBACK, a production of the Dramatists Guild of America and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is lovingly produced by Sarah Storm, Christine Toy Johnson, and Amy Von Macek. It's edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Terry Stratton, Adrien Glover, and John Marshall Cheary.
TALKBACK is distributed by the Broadway Podcast Network. Like and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. For episode transcripts and exclusive content, visit us on the web at dramatistsguild.com. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using #DGTalkBack.
I'm Christine Toy Johnson. We'll see you next time.
This week, TALKBACK dives head first into a theater quagmire: Enticing an audience to your show. Marketing is key to attracting audiences…but how *do* you talk to the Marketing department? To figure it out, host Christine Toy Johnson sits down with actor and playwright Charlayne Woodard (FX’s POSE, FOX’s Prodigal Son; Amazon’s Sneaky Pete ). Charlayne shares the wisdom earned through collaborating (and occasionally clashing with) marketing departments in theaters.
After the break, playwright Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly, Toni Stone, The Bluest Eye), Garlia Cornelia Jones (Line Producer, The Public Theater; Founder and Artistic Director, The Blackboard Plays) and Caitlin Baird (Marketing Director for New York Theater Workshop) join Christine and Charlayne for a lively discussion on how best an artist can get what they need from a marketing department, and chat about practical strategies for reaching new and more diverse audiences.
This episode features Charlayne Woodard, Lydia Diamond, Garlia Cornelia Jones, and Caitlin Baird. The Dramatist Presents: Talkback is a production of The Dramatists Guild of America and BOOM Integrated. This episode was produced by Sarah Storm, Amy VonMacek, and Christine Toy Johnson, and directed by Sarah Storm. It was edited by Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhodes of John Marshall Media. Los Angeles tape sync support by Phoebe Unterman. Special thanks to Tina Fallon, Ralph Sevush, David Faux, Tari Stratton, Adrien Glover, Robin Lai, and John Marshall Cheary.
Let us know what you think on Twitter, using #DGTalkBack.