Well Laid Plans

At the risk of being derivative of today’s Artful Manager posting, I too would like to call attention to the Washington Post article on the planning process that went into the Arena Stage’s 2004-05 season. Since some of the themes of my past entries have been to bemoan the lack of space newspapers give arts writing and to champion making people aware of the process that goes into creating art, I was pleased by the article on both counts.

I thought the article did a good job talking about the myriad decisions that factor into season selection. I won’t mention all of them because they are outlined fairly well on The Artful Manager. A couple of things I wanted to note from my own experience though–

First, I was amazed to see the season selection starting so early. They started in September/October. Most places I have worked at have started taking suggestions and reading scripts around December, the holidays put things on hold so nothing happens until January. The whole process of balancing things has to be crammed into February because marketing needs to start printing up brochures for season renewal in the beginning of March. (more on that later)

Why don’t things start earlier? Well typically people are so busy with trying to get the new season started in September and October that they aren’t thinking about what they are going to produce at that time next year. The Arena has a leg up because they have a fairly large Artistic and support staff that provides the decision makers a little more free time to begin contemplating. Most theatres don’t have one dramaturg. Michael Kinghorn is listed as Senior Dramaturg which implies that there is more than one person acting in that capacity. (What is a dramaturg you ask? Glad you did, check here and here)

Don’t get me wrong, the Arena operates at a level where they need this size staff in order to endure the quality that their patrons expect of them. I just wanted to make it clear that the article was not representative of the majority of theatres though pretty much every theatre strives for the balance the Arena reached regardless of staff size.

The other thing I noted about the article was the absence of input from a marketing staff member. Marketing people aren’t always on a selection committee and even if they are, they may not attend every meeting. However, with the amount of time the process takes, (and it doesn’t appear that the Arena is very different), the marketing department is always clamoring for a decision to be made soon because there are brochures to design and mail, press releases to write and a resubscription campaign to launch.

I don’t know what it is like in other art forms, but in theatre if you have a season that only runs part of the year or if there is a portion that you consider your “high” season, you make tremendous efforts to start your resubscription campaign for next season before the last show of the current season starts (sometimes even the second to last show).

The reason is it is easier to get people to resubscribe when they are handed a brochure while watching something they enjoy. (Thus the reason many seasons end with a high energy musical or familiar classic. Arena is ending this year with Tennessee Williams, next year with Eugene O’Neill.) It is difficult enough to get people to subscribe at all these days, trying to start in the summer when they are thinking about things other than a show they saw months ago is insane. The decisionmaking and approval process on the designs and text of a marketing campaign is almost as involved as the selection process and compressed into a tenth of the time. It is no wonder marketing people intone “Are you done yet?” as their personal mantras.

One side observation on this last point-with the exception of one instance, in my experience if a show does well, the credit goes to the artistic choices. If it does poorly, the blame goes to marketing for not pushing it enough. This seemed to be such an undeviating trend that when I experienced the exception, I immediately approached the marketing director. Because it was just an atypical experience, I filed her obvious answer as reinforcing my “When I am In Charge” credo.

She said that while the executive director did tend to micromanage things more than she would like, both he and the artistic director were aware of and approved of all the marketing and advertising decisions and accepted responsibility for the result.

This may seem quite obvious. In most of my experiences, the top leaders would either nod agreeably at the explaination of why more money was being invested in promoting some shows than others or they would say they didn’t want to be bothered with the details. In both cases, the marketing director would be called on the carpet if attendance was disappointing.

This is essentially the main reason I won’t handle marketing anywhere I don’t feel my supervisors comprehend that artistic decisions and social trends can contribute to how well a show succeeds independent of how much effort and money is put into promoting it.

I would be interested in knowing if other arts marketers had similar experiences. Just click on my name at the end of the entry and drop me a line!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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