Who Writes It, Who Reads It

06.08.10 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, marketing, playwrights, presenting, producers, social media

O the ill-lit, often lonely corners of the Internet where theater-company blogs reside!

O the carefully eked-out production notes and interviews and dramaturgy, still photos and videos and audio conversations—sometimes engaging, sometimes profound, sometimes beautiful—that end for eternity with Comments (0)! 

Unless a relative, friend, or fellow company member sees it, in which case Comments (1)!

O the virtual quiet corners, so near the on-line Hamsterdams where stories, photos, and ideas bustle and thrive!

O what can be done?


Tennessee Williams did a useful thing: useful for him as a playwright, and useful for his Broadway producers.  On Sunday mornings before the Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named DesireSummer and Smoke, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the New York Times published a personal essay by Williams about his new play.  These essays, which now serve as introductions in the print version of each play, are pure Tennessee: funny, tragic, melodic, baroque, sentimental, and—if his writing is your thing—as good as the plays themselves.

If Williams had, instead, published these essays in the program for the play, or in a newsletter for Broadway subscribers, he would only be reaching theatergoers.

Instead, Williams was able to reach people who might not go to plays, might assume that  Broadway plays are always as jaunty as The Man Who Came to Dinner, and who, if asked, would say that theater is not for them.

But the voice of Tennessee Williams reached non-theatergoing readers, some of whom would connect deeply with that voice, or be entertained by it, and would want to follow that writer into his chosen medium.

It would benefit a theater company to ask: is there a publication (print or, more likely, on-line) that would have an interest in what we’re doing, in this particular show?  Is there a community discussing the issues of this play, or a group that overlaps with its cultural context or else the background or professions of its characters?  Is there a place to write about this play—or have a conversation about it, or post photos or interviews— somewhere where no theater company has ever tread before?

A theater company’s blog is the equivalent of signs in a theater lobby, giving deeper or redundant information to those who have already found the show.  And it certainly can serve a purpose for subscribers, giving regular theatergoers (and potential ones who are considering clicking the mouse to buy tickets) a context and impression for the show.  

But will it reach the folks who are passionate about the subject matter of the play, or the setting, or the particular style, but who do not have an active interest in theater itself?

What Williams did is one useful example.  Here’s another.

Oracle Theater is a small Chicago storefront company.  Its space holds about 25 seats.  Its current show is Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. 

A few weeks ago, a film critic with deeper bona fides in his field than any working theater critic in town, happened to see The Ghost Sonata, and happened to write about and recommend it on his blog.  He is not a regular theatergoer, but had a particular interest in this play.  In turn, his blog post reached many readers who both respect Rosenbaum’s perspective and are not regular theatergoers.

Similarly, Monica Eng, a food reporter for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote about Albany Park Theater Project’s Feast, and by doing so reached an entirely new audience who never see plays but would likely take interest in this particular one.  Eng writes: “I walked in as a curious local foodie, but walked out as an astonished food-policy journalist with a new perspective on her beat.”

Almost no one can get Ebert to review their play, or get the New York Times to publish their essay.  But who is out there—among all the writers who write with authority and passion about something other than theater, among all the websites, publications, and conversations that might overlap with your production—who might take a great interest in the work your company is making?  Who might not care at all about the medium of theater, or even the arts in general, but cares deeply about the matter within?

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • Yes. Yes. Yes. And more yes.

    I need to finish a post I started re: the missed opportunity of a director's note. Such a wasted opportunity to perk someone's interest and get them to the show. Instead it's reserved for people already there.

    I keep seeing all these great pieces of writing passed around behind the scenes, all things that should be used to communicate with a potential audience. Instead we send them ads, to “buy tickets now.”

    We've been experimenting with more narrative in email rather than ad. I would love to go strictly narrative and save the ad based things as a reveal on the website. Working on getting there. Old habits.

    But when people show up at the box office and say, “Are you Dave? I love those emails.” That means people are reading and feeling connected. That's good, long term.

  • Nancy

    Love this post, and i cannot agree with you more!

    Case in point… Legendary football coach John Madden came to a local high school production of 42ND STREET this past spring (at the behest of his oncologist, one of the parents of a cast member), and was so impressed with the kids, he spent 15 minutes talking about it on his nationally syndicated radio show the next morning. One of his passions is the disappearance of sports programs from public schools, and after he saw the show, he added the disappearance of the arts programs from public schools to his pulpit as well.
    I don't know if they sold extra tickets, but I do know that the radio conversation resulted in follow-ups in the SF newspapers.

  • Love this, Eric! This has broad implications in the new age of cross-disciplinary collaboration, too. Am trying to persuade some social service types of this very thing right now. Love Dave's idea about getting the director's notes out there, too.

  • Great post! We were thrilled when our production of JACOB'S HOUSE (a contemporary riff on the story of Jacob wrestling the angel) was positively reviewed by The Jewish Forward (our first review w/this publication), which brought in more new patrons than any of our other reviews for that show. I especially enjoyed a long conversation after the show with a patron who attended because of the review and pitched me a number of stories he thought we should do next! My experience has been that (in New York at least) non-traditional theatre audiences are often more able to engage the work on it's own terms, rather than evaluating it within the fields' often cliquish and hierarchical social structure . It's not just that we need to reach new audiences in terms of quantity; we need them for the quality their different perspectives bring to our shared experience of the work.

  • Dave, if you have people saying “I love your emails” you are totally doing something right! I loathe my inbox these days. It would be fantastic to get something I actually would take pleasure in reading.

    Eric-Fab post. I had no idea about T. Williams. One of my shining PR moments was having a client to write several essays for the NY Times. He was flattered to see his by line in the Times, and it was great PR for him. Honestly, if you have a good story and are the only one who can tell it (and, of course, a profile helps!) it's definitely worth a pitch.