Before we get to the post, a joke.
Man goes on vacation, leaves his cat with his parents. A week later, he comes home, goes to pick up the cat. And his dad says, “Sorry, son, the cat’s dead.”
“Jesus, Dad, you couldn’t have broken it to me gently? When did this–”
“The day after you left.”
“Jesus, Dad! You could’ve called, said, ‘the cat’s on the roof and she won’t come down,’ maybe the next day, ‘the cat fell off the roof, she’s at the hospital,’ and then, then, maybe I’m prepared.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, son. I don’t know where my mind was.”
”It’s all right, I’ve had the cat for a long time, but I’ll…I’ll be okay. Where’s Mom?”
“Son, she’s on the roof, and she won’t come down.”
It’s been said that an advertisement needs to be seen seventeen times before it sticks in the viewer’s mind. I don’t know if it’s quite that high–it sounds like a marketing guru’s wishful thinking, especially nowadays–but nonetheless, repetition primes the pump. It’s why we see logos everywhere, why we hear familiar jingles over and over, why brands often revive older campaign slogans and songs.
But I’m not here to talk logos or branding today. I’m talking about warming up your audience.
Think about it. A stand-up comic comes out and does a set before the taping of a sitcom or a talk show. A series of movie trailers eases you into the movie-going experience, and not incidentally promotes upcoming films. Even pre-show music at your theatre can–and should–set a mood, a tone, it should connect to the show the audience is about to see. The American Shakespeare Center features live music themed to the production for just that reason. The Neo-Futurists come out before their “Too Much Light…” show to explain how the show works, they get the audience to practice participating. Really, what they do is get the audience shouting and cheering before the show’s even started. Their warm-up is essentially a prologue. And I started this post with a joke.
What else can we do to warm up an audience ahead of time?
Let’s go back to the movie trailer example. Yes, the trailers before a movie set the mood. Maybe you could do a scene from an upcoming play before a show. That might be fun. But what else do movie trailers do?
They prepare you for the films they’re advertising. The best ones don’t give away spoilers but tell a story in themselves, just enough of one to pique your interest and hopefully get you to come back to see the rest. They’ll give you certain details to watch for, moments to set up your expectations. Maybe, the film will take that expectation and twist it around to surprise you in the film itself. Either way, they’re warming you up.
Even the joke above is about preparing the audience for the whole story.
So how does this work for a theatre company? More and more theatres are filming trailers for upcoming shows and putting them up on YouTube or Vimeo. The Playwrights Center has also been developing trailers for scripts. Some of them are quite good, some of them less so. The more filmic, the less effective, because you promise too much to the audience. It can be a lovely trailer, but if it’s too disconnected from the play on the stage, it could backfire.
Two quick examples. First, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.
And Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.
They’re elegant in their simplicity, they don’t promise too much, and they don’t give away much if any of the plot.
But I know what you’re thinking. Do they work?
At my own theatre company, Riverrun Theatre, we’ve produced “A Night in November” by Marie Jones several times now. It’s a lovely story about a Protestant man in Belfast discovering the depths of his own bigotry and finding redemption by running away to watch the World Cup in New York in 1994. We’ve travelled with the show and produced it for all kinds of audiences. Because our city has a chapter of the Ulster Project, we’ve also performed it for several groups of teenagers visiting from Belfast over the years.
Each audience is different, any theatre producer knows that. But there’s a sharp difference between an American audience and a Belfast audience with this play.
The show is two acts with an intermission, the incidents in each beautifully balanced. But act one ends with our hero in a dark place. Act two is where he finds his redemption and bounces back, so to speak.
First time through with the teens, there was no preparation. By intermission, a number of them were angry, wanted to walk out. Some of the characters use what in Ireland would be strong language, some are downright insulting. It can be a depressing story if that’s all you see. But the teens stayed for act two. When the play ended, they all vanished. We thought they’d left, either angry or annoyed or else scheduled to within an inch of their lives–they have a month and it’s pretty tightly organized. All we knew was, they were gone. Turns out they’d gone back to the stage door to wait for our actor; when he emerged, they swarmed him, loved the accents, loved the story.
Second time through, we did a preshow talk, we had a study guide, we did a private performance for them with a post-show discussion. Intermission was more relaxed, and the end of the show had much the same reaction. They were better prepared.
I know what you’re thinking. How do you prepare a typical audience? You’re not going to get them into pre-show talks or study guides, and there’s only so much you can do with your website. Who even knows if the audience reads a tenth of what you put on your site?
Here’s the trailer from our most recent production. After, I’ll describe the shift in the audiences’ reactions.
This time around, at the top of the show, the audience heard the music from the trailer. They recognized it and knew the show was starting. They recognized the first line of the play, which is paraphrased in the trailer. Of course, the intermission leaves our protagonist in the same dark place as always.
But this time, instead of being quiet or glum, they were eager for the second act, because they knew there was a change coming, and that it was “for good.” Or, specifically, “for the good.” They were primed for it. They didn’t know what it was, how it worked, when it was coming or what would happen after the change, but they were excited. And as thrilling as that second act can be, the audience this time around was that much more engaged and happy by the end, jumping to their feet at the curtain call.
The play is the same, the performance–which was excellent–is essentially the same, but the audience had a hint of what to expect.
In case you’re wondering, that trailer took approximately one hour to make, using Adobe Premiere, Illustrator and Audition.
Last week, the New York Times profiled an upcoming production of Deathtrap in London, specifically highlighting the trailer. They note the production values to “rival anything to come out of today’s Hollywood horror movie machine.”
The post then notes:
Watching this trailer won’t give anything away, but it will make you wonder why more Broadway plays can’t be this creative, resourceful and contemporary when it comes to promoting their shows.
Except for one tiny detail. This trailer gives everything away. There’s no need to see the play if you’ve watched this, because you know who’s there, why they’re there, what they do when they’re there, how they do much of what they do. You know there’s betrayal within betrayal, there’s a crossbow that–following Chekhov’s rule of guns–will be fired at some point, and you know that no one is who or what they seem. There’s little or no surprise left to the show itself except for minor mechanics of plot. And again, by being shot in a more cinematic style, it promises a look and style that can’t be duplicated by the actual experience. Even worse, it manages to seem both filmic and claustrophobic at the same time.
Compare that to this, an earlier trailer for the same production.
What does this trailer tell us? Two people are trying to kill each other, which you could guess from the play’s title. Everything is centered around the typewriter, and you have the one line: “A play to kill for.” Unless you know the show already, you might assume that refers to the play itself, not a plot point. You have a clever little story between the typographical characters, which clues you in to both the thriller and the comedy aspects of the script. Smart design, good concept, half the length and no dialogue.
This trailer doesn’t tell you a thing you wouldn’t already know, yet it’s put you in the right mood for the show.
Cue typewriter bell. Ding.
There’s no reason why we can’t be creative, resourceful and contemporary. By all means, we should use every tool at our disposal to attract the audience. But we need to use them well. A good trailer should pique the audiences’ interest and warm them up. It should give them just enough information to grab them and prepare them for what they’ll see.
It should leave them wanting more.