Bums in seats. Audiences who can’t stop talking about your show. Fulfillment. Profit. That’s what it’s all about, right?
How do you get it?
Even the most ardent Fringe patron, one who is going to see ten, twenty, or even thirty shows, isn’t going to see everything. There are two parts to making sure yours is one of the chosen.
- Your show itself.
- How well you promote it.
Which of those is more important depends how far into the festival you are. As the festival goes on, if your show is good, people are talking about it, and word of mouth becomes way more important than any promotion you’ve done. By the end of the festival, if nobody’s talking about your show, people are going to the shows people are talking about.
Of course, to get people talking about your show, you need to get them to see your show. Especially at the beginning of the festival, when nobody can speak to the AGL* of your show, the only thing that gets bums in seats – and without bums in seats, you don’t get anything else – is how well people know you exist and how well you’ve shown them that you appeal to their interests. i.e., Promotion.
In the three years I’ve run this magazine, we’ve promoted hundreds of theatre shows, including thoroughly covering Ottawa Fringe since 2011. In 2013, I had my own show in the festival, and we sold out our run. I’ve gotten to see what works and what doesn’t from a lot of different angles. While I can’t sit here and give you a plug-and-play Madlibs template that will work for every single show, I can talk about some of the things you need to be considering to put your best foot forward, along with a near guarantee that if you take it in earnest, you’ll get more bums in seats.(While I will be specifically referencing the Ottawa Fringe Festival, this all applies across the festival circuit.)
Can you draw?
I had a business prof who rightly defined marketing as everything you do. The most important marketing tool you have for your show is you. If people know you, if people like you, if you have a reputation for delivering, that sells tickets. It’s easy and it’s automatic. It’s also not something you can make happen quickly.
You increase your draw by repetitively doing awesome things and making calculated efforts to brand yourself properly over the course of your career. You’re already doing that. First step, accomplished.
While everybody has some draw, even if it’s just your friends, here in Ottawa I can think of only a handful of people with a big enough draw to fill houses on their names alone. Did anybody see Emily and Brad’s We Glow last summer?
What’s on your hook?
Not everybody has that high level reputation. That’s okay. For the rest of us, there’s your hook. Your hook is what you use to grab your potential audience members and show them that they want to see your show. It’s feeding them the answer to the question: Why do I want to see this show?
Different hooks apply to different audience segments, so think about who your audience is. Who are the people who will want to see your show?
Pro-tip: The Intrigue Hook
Can you find a line from your show, or make one up, that creates a sense of mystery and intrigue? This can be used as broad hook on a poster or synopsis. Consider:
“I knew this was not a place I wanted to be, but I knew then that I would never get out.”
What that intrigue can do is create an open loop, or a question, in a potential audience goer’s mind that they need answered, either by finding out more, or by seeing your show.
If your show is about zombies, that’s a hook. Your show has nudity. That’s a hook. Maybe a cheap one, but Fringe audiences are often looking for material on the, er, fringe, so nudity will hook people into putting you on their list if that’s what they’re looking for. Same with a show about sex, bullying, puppies, World War II, or religion. Consider your discipline, too. One-person shows are very different than full cast shows. Shadow puppetry and storytelling don’t appeal to everybody. Surreal explorations into the human psyche hit specific buttons.
If your show is about a young woman who just graduated University with an apparently useless degree, who is trying to find a job but can’t seem to keep one for more than a week, you’re looking for young adults who are looking for work or anybody who’s been there. Same if your show is about Spanish culture, or set in World War II, or about a dog walker whose clients start speaking English. Where can you find the Spanish folk, history buffs, and pet lovers who will most care?
Pro-tip: Social Proof
Every team member for your show is a potential hook. Have your actors won awards? Has your playwright recently had a major production? Do you have a couple of great quotes from reviews of past shows? All of these things reinforce the fact that your team does good work. A potential audience member who reads that your director’s last Fringe show was a sell-out hit has been shown independent proof that he does good work. It’s not just you saying so. Social proof is a very powerful form of general hook.
Some hooks are broad, some are very narrow, but you need to know them to use them. If you don’t know your hook(s) or, by extension, your intended audience, everything else you’re doing to promote your show is completely blind.
Seriously and realistically ask yourself what kind of people are going to want to see this show. Don’t just say theatre people. Spend some time making a written list of all the different segments you can think of, pure brainstorming, down to the smallest one, then highlight the ones that are biggest and most important to you.
You can’t really control your hook either. It’s totally dependent on what your show is and what your show is about. Unless, of course, you’re one of those crafty buggers who plans and develops your show knowing these things and who builds a hook into their show in advance.
Two Nobodies In New York
Have you thought of your show title as a promotional tool?
It’s common wisdom that the right title is a vital part of Fringe success, but even knowing how important it is, few people actually give it the time or thought it needs. You’ll spend a lot of time on your poster. You’ll mull over your synopsis. You’ll try and get some great video and photos together. But your title, the single most important thing you can control in promoting your show, will probably be one of the first things that popped in your head before you even finished writing the show itself.
Even having read that, most of you will dismiss it and not spend any extra time thinking about your title. That would be a mistake.
Here’s a list of forty-eight Fringe plays from the last four years of Ottawa Fringe. Look it over.
|Preshrunk||Crux||Something With Virgins and Chainsaws||Men Telling Stories|
|Keeper||Fucking Stephen Harper||Alien Predator: The Musical||The Open Couple|
|On Second Thought||The Pit||Satanic Panic (The Death of Al Pacino)||Am I Blue|
|The Wet Dream Catcher||The Suicide||The Interview||Botched|
|R U Smarter Then An Irishman||Aerial Allusions||Fishbowl||The Roommate|
|The Animal Show||Oreo||Glitch||In The First Place|
|The Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy||It Is What It Is||Edge||All My Children|
|A MacSummer Night’s Dream||Curriculum Vitae||The Last Straight Man In Theatre||Five Lies|
|2020||Exs & Ohs||In Waves||Life|
|Barely Even There||The Walk||Fruitcake||This Is Funny|
|St. Nicholas||The Hatter||Gametes & Gonads||Red Bastard|
|Don’t Make Me Zealous||Leftovers||Cathedral City||Disillusion|
Here’s my question for you: What are your thoughts on pub-style venues? I’m generally pretty vocally against. Forget the tech stuff and production limitations. I can live with light tech and production value if the show works. Poor seating and sightlines can also be forgiven if the show is engaging. It’s not like I’m against site-specific theatre, either. Theatre outside of the typically expected confines of a theatre can still make for a great theatrical experience. My main complaint is that by its nature, a pub venue is a distraction-rich environment. People drinking and chatting nearby, wait staff a waiting, crossing sightlines, jangling glasses.
I guess my point is, what do you remember from the list of titles? Don’t look back up. What do you remember now?
If you ranked all those titles in order of how memorable they were, where would yours sit? Just as important a question: if I gave you those titles, along with synopses, and gave you only two minutes to look them over, which would be the ones you’d take the time to read?
The copywriting rule for headlines is that you should spend just as much time on the headline as you do writing the article. That is, 50% of your writing time should be spent considering the headline. You’re obviously not going to spend 50% of your show development time on the title, but you should be spending at least a few hours breaking your show down into the core things your show is about and writing out dozens of possible titles to find the one that best serves your show.
That bears repeating: Best serves your show.
Your title has one job. It isn’t to be witty and clever. It isn’t to be whimsical and fun. It isn’t even to perfectly sum up or encapsulate what your show is about.
The main job your title has is to be an attention whore. Your title needs to be shouting at the top of its lungs: Look at me. Hey you, look at me. Look at me. Look at me. Don’t look at those other titles, looooooooooook at meeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
That might be a bit extreme, but the attention whore title, not unlike a headline, accomplishes its job when the person reading it wants to know more about the show. When there are fifty or more titles in a program or on posters or on a website or schedule in front of you, Sitting in Chairs, unless you’re a carpenter, probably doesn’t make you want to know more about the show. Something like Why the Hell Won’t You Hire Me? or 29 Job Interviews probably catches your eye a little more.
This is where your hook comes in. Your hook is the essence of what your play is about so use it. Find all the main themes and concepts in your show – murder, love, betrayal, vampires, Harry Potter, rock ‘n roll – and list them out. Everything that comes to your mind. Use those lists to make your new list of potential titles. Write out as many as you can think of. Even the stupid ones. Narrow it down and ask your friends what they think.
What the title wants after it gets somebody’s attention is to get them to take the next logical step. That is, read the synopsis, take a look at the poster, watch the video, or visit the website.
Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit
How do you sum up your show in around fifty words in a way that makes people want to see it? Your title may need the lung power to shout at people all day long but it’s the synopsis who has to do the heavy lifting.
Start, again, with your hooks and your themes and your central concepts. These should always be guiding your decisions because if you’re not serving them, you’re not serving your show. Keep those lists handy while you work.
Pro-tip: What Do You See?
Try and create images in potential audiences’ minds. We’re a visual people and we’re more likely to connect to a written synopsis and remember it when it evokes images. One man, in a capsule on his way to the moon, as far from anyone as a man can be, remembers his failed relationships. This synopsis gives you images you can remember. You can picture, even feel, his loneliness. You’re also almost certainly remembering your own failed relationships.
Your synopsis should describe the central dramatic conflict of your story. If your show is about a character, and it probably is, they should probably be mentioned. Think in terms of what they want and why they can’t get it. If you can include an idea of what might happen if they don’t get it, that’s a bonus.
Be as specific as you can. There’s a difference between a small town boy and a boy from the littlest shithole in Northern Alberta, population 219.
Your synopsis should also give an idea of the tone of your show. If it’s a comedy, get that across. What kind of comedy? If your show is crass and in your face, your synopsis shouldn’t read like it belongs in a Disney movie. English has a lot of different words with similar definitions and implications and once you add in adjectives and grammar and sentence structure, well…
- An awkward young woman, new to the workforce, jumps from job to job as she frantically tries to learn how not to get fired.
- A young woman fresh out of school tries to hold down a job, any job, and prove she can be an adult. Her first lesson, don’t lose your temper and call the boss a stupid moron.
- A recent uni grad getting started on her career wonders if she chose the right field of study when she can’t hold down a job.
Those synopses are all for the same show. They also all describe a different show, with each giving a very different impression of what that show is.
Make a new list, I think we’re on four now, writing out dozens of options. Try different things, play with synonyms, test out different word orders. Like before, highlight your favourites, and run them by your friends.
Your synopsis is 100% allowed to exaggerate, bend the truth, and oversell. Don’t outright lie, but don’t hold back.
The Picture That Speaks 1,000 Words
You may not have a good friend who’s a graphic designer, or have the budget to hire one (a graphic designer, not a friend), but here’s the good news. You don’t need one. Having somebody who can crush the wow factor will certainly never hurt, but you can put together a poster that does a great job with just some basic Photoshop skills by keeping the right things in mind.
That’s the first thing I’ll tell you. Like anything or anybody that’s working for you, it’s more important to have a poster that does a great job promoting your show than having a poster that’s gorgeous and isn’t doing the job. In an ideal world you get both but having a beautiful poster that isn’t helping get people into your show is certainly possible.
The most important piece of your poster is your key art. When somebody is walking by a wall of posters, it’s the key art that has to catch their eye.
Go back to those lists you made earlier. Your concepts & themes, hooks, titles, and synopses. With those in front of you, figure out the important images in your play. What are the images that come to mind when you look at your lists and when you think of the play? What are the core moments in your play and what kind of images can represent them? Keep your tone in mind. Once again, write down dozens of options, good, bad, and ugly, until you can’t possibly think of any other way to represent it visually. Then keep going for a few minutes. The best answers are rarely, if ever, the first ones to come to you so let everything pour out of your mind and see what you come up with once it’s empty.
Pro-tip: Flaming Zombies
How can you get above the rest of the noise? Imagine you’re in one of those zombie movies, looking at your backyard full of zombies. Your only way to survive is getting through to the other side of them. They’re basically all the same, one’s no more dangerous than the next. Now imagine that one of them is on fire. Well that, that will get your attention.
In 2012, the most eye-catching poster I saw had a bright green background. It caught your eye because it was different than everything else. It was hard not to notice it in a sea of posters whose backgrounds were white, some shade of gray, or a photo.
When it came to designing the poster for The Bureau of Bat Shit Crazy, we flipped the book. We already had a great piece of key art. It conveyed intrigue, mystery, conflict, character, and comedy. We used that key art for all of our online promo. But when it came to designing our poster, we knew that most people were going to have photos on their poster. While our key art would be fine, it wouldn’t do the best job because it would be competing with every similar poster for attention. We wanted to try and stand out from the noise. So we made our poster 80% black space. We created a situation where, when somebody was walking by a poster wall, we were a black hole among the noise of some very busy posters. We reinforced it by highlighting our tag line and using our iconography (vampire, werewolf, alien, and thing) to get your attention and tell you everything you needed to know about our show in a very concise, minimalistic way.
If you can figure out how to stand out from the pack and make your poster the zombie-on-fire, you win.
Make sure you’re keeping in mind what each image is supposed to convey.
- A young lady in a business suit with a clean crisp resume in her hand and a worried look on her face, with an overweight sweaty man behind a desk in the background.
- A medium close-up of a young lady in a suit, frazzled and not properly done up, with messy hair and make-up, holding a handful of pink-slips.
- An over the shoulder shot of the young lady in a coffee shop, looking at the newspaper classifieds, most of them crossed out.
Each of these, all for the same play, convey different things.
The first conveys that the woman is keen and eager, and that the man – well who is the man? He’s behind a desk so he’s possibly an employer or some person of authority, and he’s a bit of a slob. So she’s a keener, he’s a problem. The second image conveys that the young woman is at her wit’s end and conveys she’s been through a lot of jobs. She’s frazzled because of the jobs. The third conveys a woman looking for work. And that she’s been through some options already.
There’s no right or wrong. There’s just what you want the picture to say. You might find it helpful to write down what each of your images is supposed to convey.
Once you have your list, try and realize as many of the top options from your list as you can. What you see in your head might not be what you get and something lower on your list might surprise you.
In the end, you want your image to be striking. Would it catch somebody’s attention from across the room? Or at least leave a memorable impression? Ask friends what they think. Ask them, also, if the image conveys to them what you think it does.
At a basic level, that’s all you need. A strong design can supercharge some great key art, but as long as your image is striking and your title is attention getting, and you remember to include all the other important details down at the bottom, you’re in great shape.
Moving At Thirty Pictures A Second
Where your poster has a similar job to your title in that it has to actively grab attention, your video’s job is more passive. Nobody is going to be confronted with your video in passing, they’ll make a decision to hit play. This makes your video’s job to reinforce what your show is about, using your hook to entice your audience into deciding that this is something they want to see.
Pro-tip: Cast Interviews
Even if you’re staging a scene or doing a more elaborate video, I recommend doing an interview video (or several).
We use this style when we’re doing quickie promos for Fringe shows like we have the last two years because they’re Mickey Mouse level easy. They’re simple to shoot, and they make it easy to get a strong message across. In a “here’s what the show is about” video, it’s easier to highlight the hook and concepts that you want people to remember. Answer the question you’d tell anybody you’re flyering. Why should they come and see your show?
This style of video also does a great job of showing people who you are and making you relatable. As another old business prof used to remind us: “I like you, because I am like you.” Basically, this means that the more people know you, the more they see you’re a real person, the more they’ll feel connected to you. The more they feel connected to you, the more they’re going to like you and want to see you perform. This is 100% the reason the Hollywood system works, by the way.
As a bonus, when they see you out on the Fringe grounds, they’ll remember you. Remember one of the first things I mentioned? Marketing is everything you do.
You will be judged on the quality of your video in a way that you won’t be for your poster or any other promo. A weak title or poorly worded synopsis might not get you any attention but a bad video has the potential to actively turn audience members away. This is because the video is, at least in part, a performance piece. Your video becomes directly equatable to your show, meaning that if it’s bad, the viewer will perceive that your show will be the same quality.
So consider your limitations. There are dozens of forms your video can take and while a short film video tie-in might be awesome to show off, if you can’t do a good job, it’s not doing any job. Instead, go simple and do something you can do well. Choose a style you can accomplish with your available resources.
You already know the next thing I’m going to say. Go back to your lists of hooks and concepts and themes and images and decide what you want the video to convey. It may seem obvious but you want each of your promotional materials to build on all the others. Using each element to convey the same things is cohesive branding that reinforces the point.
Then get creative. Script a video that works hand in hand with your synopsis. Consider bringing the imagery from your poster to life. Stage a scene from the show – one that covers the hook and core concepts – in a real world setting. Go back over the list of images you created and see if any of them sparks an idea.
Going way back to when you were thinking about your synopsis, try to get across your central dramatic conflict and match your tone. If your show is a Sorkinesque political thriller, then a Shakespearean sonnet or pratfall-filled farce video aren’t going to accurately represent your show.
Does video production quality matter?
Production quality only matters up to a point. If you keep the following in mind, you’ll probably do all right.
- Make sure you have lots of light. Find a way to shoot outside during the daytime, or shoot in a room with big windows. The less expensive a camera you have, the more grainy and bad your videos will look in lower light.
- Make sure your audio is loud and clear. Turn off the TV, unplug major appliances and tell anybody nearby to keep quiet while you’re rolling if you’re indoors. If you’re outdoors, stay away from busy roads and, please, wait until that plane is gone from overhead. Bad ambient noise is the death of video so open your ears and be mindful of your surroundings.
- Know your limitations when it comes to editing. Basic software like iMovie and Windows Movie Maker make it pretty easy to create competent videos but cutting shots together well is an art so keep it very simple unless you know what you’re doing.
It’s All About You
Let’s wrap this up. Now that all that advance promo is done, Fringe is about to start, and shit’s about to get real. How do you promote your show at Fringe itself?
In the end it all comes back to the beginning: you’re the best draw for your show. It’s time for you to do some flyering, AKA talking to people around Fringe while they’re waiting in lines for other shows. You already know this, so let’s talk strategy.
- Make sure your pitch – and make no mistake, what you’re doing is pitching – fits all the work you’ve done until now, getting across your hook and core concepts. Tell the people you’re talking to why they want to see the show.
- Find your audience where they’re hanging out. Look for the similar shows to yours and flyer those lines. Those are the people likely to be more interested in what you have to say.
- Start a conversation. Instead of going right into your pitch, start a conversation with people. It doesn’t even need to be one-on-one. Start a conversation with a group of people while they’re waiting in line. What you want is to connect to people. To make them like and remember you.
The most memorable flyering I’ve seen was back in 2009. It was Pirate Jenny’s Circus. They didn’t even flyer me directly but I remember them because they were standing there at an intersection downtown – wearing a boat.
This brings me to my next, and final, big point. Make a spectacle of yourself. Casual flyering is one thing, but make sure there are times when you’re planning to be out there to get noticed. How do you stand out from everybody else who is doing exactly the same thing?
Last year, as in past years, Ottawa Fringe allowed productions two minutes on stage in the courtyard to pitch their shows on opening night. Team BBSC spent quite a bit of rehearsal time trying to figure out what we were going to with our two minutes. Because here’s the thing: it’s the courtyard, at night, with people talking and beer flowing and nobody really paying attention to what’s going on up on stage. Do you think anybody is going to remember you if you come up and read two minutes from your show, or worse, recite all the selling points? The answer is no. We realized the very first hurdle was getting their undivided attention. Then we needed to keep it, make our point quick, and get out quick, before they knew what hit them. In the end, we didn’t even talk about our show. We showed them what our show was.
Which, when you get down to it, is the basic job description.
Are You Tired Yet? I’m exhausted.
Quick-tip(s): Websites. Have one. Make sure that at minimum, you have some great key art, your awesome title, your wonderful synopsis, your show dates, and your cast/crew info. Don’t leave people feeling like they couldn’t find information that’s absurdly easy – and FREE – for you to make available both to patrons and to media.
Facebook? Do it. There’s no reason not to have a Facebook event going.
Finally, check out this great article by Janis La Couvée from last year for a few more tips on websites, social media, and Fringe promo. Plenty of great stuff not just for Fringe but general artist branding.
That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? I hope so, because if it wasn’t, you’re not doing it right.
Now, I’m not trying to write the book on Fringe or theatre promotion. What works for some may not work for others. I just want to make sure you’re considering all you need to be considering and to make sure you had some tips to up your game if you’re not a great marketer or a natural self-promoter.
The last tip I’ve got for you is to make sure that in all aspects, for all your promo materials, do what’s right for your show.
Don’t make a bright green poster for your show if it doesn’t fit. Don’t get up in front of the crowd or go flyering in a gorilla costume making an ape of yourself to cause a spectacle if your show has nothing to do with penguins.
Serve your show and sell your show.
The single most important thing to remember is why your show matters to you and all the things that YOU love about it. That’s what you want to get across to people. You do that and you’ll get bums in seats.
The specifics? Those are up to you.
Now, your turn. Join the conversation and let me know your best tip and/or trick for Fringe promotion down in the comments below.
(Originally published on Feb 17, 2014, publication date updated for visibility)