Selling Out With … Terry Teachout

Wall Street Journal drama critic, playwright and About Last Night blogger Terry Teachout is one of the only people traveling the country to review theater, so the man knows a thing or two about both putting on a great show and catching the attention of critics and audiences. Teachout has also written his own play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, which is being performed this year at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly HillsSan Francisco’s American Conservatory TheaterChicago’s Court Theatre and Florida’s Palm Beach Dramaworks.

As someone who views thousands of theater websites and press releases each year for his job, Teachout is in an unique position to share what sorts of websites and marketing tactics make a show stand out — for good or for bad.

Selling Out: On your popular blog About Last Night, you’ve been very straightforward about sharing exactly what piques your interest to review a production, with the biggest section devoted to websites. Can you tell us a little more about why that matters to you?
Terry Teachout: I review performances by theater companies all over America for The Wall Street Journal. This means that I need to have easy access to the schedules of those companies in order to decide in advance whether I want to consider coming to see any of their productions. In any given season, I look at the calendars of more than 200 companies from coast to coast. The only way I can keep track of that much data is to use company websites. Otherwise, I’d be drowning in paperwork. And in the case of a company that I’ve never seen, the website necessarily plays a big part in my making an initial decision about whether it might be worth looking into further.

For the most part, what I know about an unfamiliar theater company is what I find on its website. I’m not just talking about production-related information, though that’s the most important part of it, but also about the total impression made by the site. If a site is imaginatively designed and user-friendly, it will lead me to assume that the company is competently run and thus worth taking seriously. I know that appearances can be deceiving, but they’re all I have to go on. It’s very much like interviewing strangers for a job — I’m inevitably going to draw preliminary conclusions based on what they wear and how they speak.

SO: Are most sites living up to that standard?
TT: Up to a point, but it never ceases to surprise me how hard it is to locate basic information on many theater websites. Some of the best companies in America have user-unfriendly sites. Beyond that, there aren’t all that many sites that are designed in such a way as to be immediately engaging to the casual visitor. Even on the highest levels, it’s surprisingly rare to find a theater company site whose opening page conveys a strongly defined, clearly articulated impression of what the company is like.

SO: Do you think this information plays a part in getting the general audience to see a show as well?
TT: Given the modest advertising budgets of theater companies and the fact that theater-related newspaper coverage is drying up in most cities, I think it’s safe to assume that for many people, the website is the first point of contact with a theater company they might consider seeing.

SO: We’re excited to see that Satchmo at the Waldorf is in high demand this season. Do you weigh in on the marketing materials based on your experience (especially the website)?
TT: I try to when I can, but I’ve discovered, much to my dismay, that most theater companies aren’t nearly careful enough about keeping living playwrights in the loop about early marketing decisions. I guess they’re more used to working with dead playwrights! We tend not to be consulted until a couple of months before the show, when the publicists are trying to land interviews and planning personal appearances. That’s far too late for me to be helpful with the larger aspects of the marketing campaign.

SO: How would you suggest theater companies work with living playwrights when it comes to marketing? How involved do you think the playwrights should be in the process? 
TT: A living playwright is, or can be, a very powerful marketing tool. (Shakespeare gives lousy interviews.) And a smart playwright will be every bit as involved as the company wants him or her to be. At the same time, though, playwrights need to be both smart and realistic about marketing. If their notions of what a small company can do are unrealistic, needless clashes may result. Within the inescapable limits of the company’s budget, though, the smart playwright will do absolutely everything possible to sell the play.

SO: How important do you think it is for theater companies and productions to have a social media presence these days?
TT: If you don’t take seriously the necessity to use the social media imaginatively and interactively, you might as well not bother. Social media marketing isn’t something that should be fobbed off on an intern — it has to be given a priority comparable to every other aspect of the marketing campaign. A good social media campaign should give the impression of being the voice and personality of a single individual, and that’s incredibly rare. One recent Broadway show that has done an unusually good job of mobilizing social media is On the Town.

SO: You mentioned On the Town having an effective social media campaign, what in particular sticks out to you? What can other theater companies learn from their example?
TT: What impressed me most about On the Town‘s marketing people was the frequency with which they got and kept the show on Twitter, both before and after opening night. In addition, their tweets were both imaginative and fully integrated into the overall marketing scheme. You never felt that some robot was squeezing out random tweets — the personality of the production came through clearly, and continues to do so.

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