Marketing? Or conversation?

An introduction by Maddy Costa: To be honest, this piece – the latest in the series of guest posts by brilliant people – doesn’t need much introduction, as its writer does an excellent job of doing that herself. Like Charlotte, I’m a massive fan of the company RashDash and think pretty much everything they do is excellent, and that includes their approach to marketing, otherwise known as Chatting To People (With Hot Chocolate). She’s right: that hot chocolate is very important.

By Charlotte Bennett

My Nana always said that nothing can beat a good conversation and I think this explains the headcount at her funeral earlier this year.

I am Charlotte Bennett and I am the producer for RashDash: a company who make new, radical feminist theatre which fuses movement, music and text. RashDash have a commitment to achieving a national footprint with our work. At the centre of our shows are big political ideas and by touring we make those ideas accessible to a UK-wide audience with an aim to increase the reach and impact of our political agenda.

But touring is difficult. As I am sure you have already gathered from this website. It is getting increasingly expensive to achieve, it is hard work and most importantly, it is a huge challenge to find and build audiences for new work on the touring circuit.

This is a blog about talking to people.

One of the first things at the top of my to do list on a morning is to tweet / facebook about the show I am producing (currently the UK tour of WE WANT YOU TO WATCH by RashDash and Alice Birch). And tragically, once I have sent my message out into the social media stratosphere, I feel a sense of achievement. Like the ticket sales are actually going to shoot right up in the next five minutes because I have told our followers information (that, let’s face it, they probably already knew from my previous tweets leading up to this one… ). I am not slating the power of social media in selling theatre shows – digital presence is a hugely successful marketing tool and should of course be part of every strategy. BUT. I also think that I am kidding myself that because I have 95 likes on my facebook post it means we will sell out tonight. This isn’t good for anybody. And call me old-fashioned, but I miss having actual conversations with people about the shows I am making and why I think they should see them. I think there is real power in that. And that, in a world where so many of our lives are being lived more and more online, this is in danger of dying out.

The problem with relying too heavily on an online presence is that you also never really know how you are coming across. Everyone has that friend on social media who in real life is a bloody great person to hang out with and on facebook sounds like a total dickwad. And you want to scream at them: WHY DO YOU HAVE THIS WEIRD ONLINE IDENTITY? And THAT ISN’T ANYTHING LIKE YOU ARE IN REAL LIFE AND ACTUALLY IN REAL LIFE YOU ARE SORT OF GREAT SO JUST STOP IT. I worry when I am updating RashDash’s social media that I am that person. And maybe I am. In some ways I would hope that my friends would tell me, but maybe it is a bit like when you have that friend at school who has developed a new odour and none of you can bring yourselves to do the ‘cruel to be kind’ thing. The truth is, it is hard to ever know how you are actually coming across unless you are in the flesh. Because you are not having an ACTUAL INTERACTION with somebody. They are not getting to know you and you are not getting to know them and I like to think that there is a reason why we are humans instead of computers.

So in 2013, I set up an advocacy scheme for RashDash called BECOME A RASHDASHER to ensure conversations were part of our core marketing strategy. The premise of the scheme is that a month ahead of a tour date I recruit four volunteers local to the area we are touring to, to work with me over one day to distribute additional marketing in their town/city. Crucially we don’t just spend the day dropping flyers on tables, but we split off and have conversations with different people in the local area. We target areas and places that we think might have potential audience members hiding within them, introduce them to the company and talk to them about whether this is going to be the kind of show they might like to try. We do this by walking up to people on the street, sitting with people in cafes and pubs and organising times to go into local schools/colleges/universities to tell students why we are bringing our show there.

I was interested to read Annabel Turpin’s great blog on this website (which you can find here) about the danger of treading on venue’s toes as a third party coming in to work with their communities to gather audiences. As a visiting company I am always aware that we need to think about how our marketing plans build on what is already there and avoid replicating what already exists. Become a RashDasher aims to do just that, by identifying places currently untargeted by the venue’s existing distribution list and by creating direct connections between the artists making the work and potential audience members through conversation. And so in preparation for our RashDasher day, I ask the venues to give me a list of the places that they have already targeted to then send to the RashDashers so they can come armed with a list of alternatives. I also speak to the RashDashers about the show on the phone, so they can begin to think of relevant good fits and get a sense of what they are selling. The volunteers we tend to attract are students or recent graduates and in return for their time they get a free hot chocolate (very important), a 1:1 mentorship session with RashDash on a topic of their choice and a free ticket to see the show.

The scheme has had a varied uptake of volunteers but for the places where it has taken off it has been positive. When we tour a show we typically work on guarantees and so this isn’t about increasing our financial gain – in fact it costs us money to run as, despite being an avid advance train booker, they still don’t come cheap (thank you privatisation). The reason why we do this is to build relationships with our touring audiences and invest in those relationships in some way before we bring our show to them. Become a RashDasher helps us do that by:

Creating INTERACTION: Firstly between the company and the venue when we jointly identify where we can additionally market the show. Secondly between the company and the RashDashers when we share knowledge and work together to promote the show and when we mentor them in return. Thirdly between the company/RashDashers and potential audiences throughout the RashDasher day and then hopefully and ultimately through performance attendance. Despite the commitment only being one day, we often find that the RashDashers continue advocating for the show beyond this, promoting the show locally leading up to our performance date.

Being ACTIVE: Whenever I am thinking about marketing a show, I always think back to what my sister used to say when she worked in theatre marketing and when I used to moan at her at the Edinburgh Festival after my show has been attended by only three people and a dog: ‘But why is nobody coming, it is a really good showwwwww.’ To which she would reply: ‘But really Charl, why should anyone give a shit?’

She is right. Why should they? Going to the places where we are taking our show, meeting the people who live and work there, spending time speaking with other local people who are our potential audiences and being able to have an actual conversation with them about the company and our work is important. Audiences can’t just be the tag-on thought at the end of a creative process, they are why the work exists. A show only lives and breathes when there is somebody there to see it. As theatre-makers we have a responsibility to think about who we are making our work for, why they should ‘give a shit’ and how we can reach them.

There is a long way to go in solving how a touring company finds and invests in its audiences in any meaningful way. But I do hope that Become a RashDasher contributes in some small way to how RashDash are working towards improving this and that it continues to evolve as a scheme driven by the ethos of ‘nothing can beat a good conversation’.

I am entirely convinced that part of the reason why my Nana lived independently to the ripe old age of 92 was because she lived life by this philosophy. And I strongly suspect that this was also the reason why, alongside her friends and family at her funeral were several friends she made on the 92 bus, a nurse who she met in the last week of her life and a man who decorated her bathroom three years ago.

She should have been a RashDasher.

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Giving of ourselves

fuel l and b big

An introduction by Maddy Costa: Megan Vaughan is my favourite writer on theatre; whenever I run writing workshops, I always take something by her with me, as an indication to aspiring writers of what they can reach towards. Sometimes I think my sense of affinity with her might come from a similarity in background: we both came to writing about theatre via music, and fanzines, and carry the irreverent reverence that music inspires with us at all times.

I invited Megan to write for this blog thinking she might focus on how important it is for contemporary theatre to tour and be made outside the UK’s big cities: she grew up in Cheshire, so knows much better than me (a born Londoner) what it is to feel that the excitements of art are out of reach. But, she told me, she couldn’t find a way to do so without feeling like a dick. Instead, she’s written in a more subtle way about audiences, how we approach what we know, and how we approach what we don’t. Useful thinking when applied to a company like Fuel, whose tagline promises “fresh work for adventurous people”.

By Megan Vaughan

I went to a gig last week. An Actual Music Concert, like the young’uns do. On a school night as well. He didn’t even start until half nine. It was great. Mark Eitzel in a church, just him and his guitar and a bunch of songs that he sang to us. Such simple, effective plotting. Nothing tricksy or pretentious. He’d clearly taken a lot from the alternative theatre scene, because even when he spoke to us between songs he was just playing himself. Some people might call this a particularly extreme approach to the Method, total immersion in a character for, well, for a whole lifetime, but there was also something beautifully simple about his portrayal of the self-deprecating singer-songwriter. At the heart of this one-man show was an autobiographical truth.

The design of the staging felt natural and unobtrusive too (I understand a collaborative team of community artists had been working together on the production since its location, St Pancras Church, was first established as a site of worship in the fourth century) and yet made a significant contribution to the emotional resonance of Eitzel’s performance. I can only hope that the right people got to see this work, and it is appropriately recognised come awards season.

It’s the audience that I want to talk about here though. I’d forgotten about audiences at gigs. Eight or nine years ago I was at five gigs a week. More than that even. It’s amazing what you forget.

I was just so… aware of them. Not because they were badly behaved. Far from it. This was an entirely respectful crowd, quiet and attentive, barely a mobile phone in sight. It was a generous crowd too. When Eitzel chatted to us between songs, retuned and rifled through lyric sheets, everyone clapped and laughed and gave all the signals – imperceptible when isolated but significant when multiplied – that they were having a good time. There was a collective wish to encourage. Even when he apologised for missing a note or acknowledged that a recent review had called him “indulgent” or explained that a certain song was written when he was young and drunk and a full-time wanker or even just cracked a joke that wasn’t really that funny, we wanted him to know that we still liked him. Sitting in a room full of Mark Eitzel fans, only half-knowing the one “indulgent” song, I was suddenly really aware that everyone around me had his back. We think you’re great, they said, with their strange exaggerated behaviour, and we want you to know it.

Theatre audiences are such arseholes sometimes, aren’t we? I know I am. I’m a right dick. Sitting there in the dark in our smug clothes and our smug conversations levelling our singular, interrogating, smug gaze. Sitting there like “go on then, impress me”.

There’s even that line in This Is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey. It’s at the jissum bit, where he repeats the word over and over: “I said it many many times and she didn’t really laugh either.” In the text he has brackets around the “either”, like he’s holding a door for us, giving us the chance to give something of ourselves; to relax, to enjoy a rude word for its simple linguistic naughtiness, but also to get behind him, and to support him in the labour of his performance. Just by laughing. Just by fucking laughing, you po-faced fucks.

I’m being harsh. Should take some of my own medicine probably. I mean, some of my best friends are theatre audiences. Of course many people laugh at the jissum scene of This Is How We Die. I’ve probably seen him say that “either” more often than not, but let’s not pretend it isn’t a crowd-pleasing section of the text. And we wouldn’t be at the theatre in the first place if we didn’t believe it could offer us enjoyment and enrichment. Fair dos. This piece was never meant to be about laughing. It actually comes from some wishy-washy thoughts I’ve been having, following Reformation 9 by Luther and Bockelson, about the way audiences perform.

Luther and Bockelson are not real. Andy Field has made them up. I would not ordinarily have told you that (spoilers!) but it looks like the pair have been retired. They lived for but a few short shows, first at The Yard this spring, as part of their NOW festival of new work, and then for one night last month at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. Except they didn’t live at all, because Reformation 9 was just Andy repeatedly reading us their fabricated manifesto while we explored the freedoms it had granted us. On our seats had been placed envelopes, and in them, all sorts of shit: plastic farmyard animals, sparklers, hazard tape, AV cables, drumsticks, a photocopied excerpt of Waiting For Godot, all the pieces from which to build a scale model of the Brandenburg Gate. Toys, basically. Toys to facilitate creative play. And boy did we play.

There is lots of interactive theatre in the world and there are lots of people around to tell you how empowering that is for an audience who can enjoy some autonomy for a change. But so much of that work is so guided, so structured. Take my hand, follow me, sit here, say this. In Reformation 9 it felt like we could do whatever we wanted, get as involved as we wanted, tape up the fire exit and run round with naked flames if we wanted. When Andy left the room between cycles, we’d co-ordinate ourselves to be as disruptive as possible: block his route to the microphone, shout over him, cut up his clothes, tear up the manifesto, replace it with the Evening Standard’s review of The Twits. Ultimately we exhausted ourselves and took our seats again, quietly listening. There was to be no great revolution that night, but we were cool with that. Here was a show where the most supportive thing we could do for the artist was go totally fucking off-the-hook mental. I loved it. I adored it. It was all my Christmases come at once. It was a double-yolked egg, an all-chocolate Kit-Kat. If I was a moth, then it was my flame. If I was a pig, it was my pool of shit.

When I became hyper-aware of Mark Eitzel’s audience last week, looking on like proud soccer moms at the side of the pitch, straight away it made me think of my Reformation 9 experience. I’d heard that Andy’s performance at Forest Fringe hadn’t been received so well, that the venue had had greater operational restrictions than the Yard, and that there had been too many people there to allow everyone to find their own path through the work. The energy in the room was somehow shifted. I tried to imagine how the Eitzel gig would have been altered if the people around me were all in the middle of an exhausting festival marathon, jacked up on energy drinks and star ratings. Distracted, exhausted, pissed. I tried to imagine how different it would be if, instead of Eitzel’s crowd willing him on while forgiving him his wobbles, they were sitting back like… “Go on then, impress me”.

What if generosity of spirit isn’t the neutral state here? What if cynicism is our default? What do we do about that? Since when has any of this been the audience member’s responsibility? I’ve bought a ticket, travelled across town, given up two hours of my time, and now you’re telling me it’s my job to make myself have a good time as well? I’m sorry, what?

On Saturday afternoon I went to see The Win Bin at the Old Red Lion in London. I had been attracted by the premise (a Hunger Games-style contest for the last paid job in the arts) plus a couple of decent reviews, but there were only a handful of us there. It was a funny show, without the satirical bite that I really wanted, but the two performers were excellent, each taking on multiple roles with razor-sharp timing. And I found myself performing for them; in the front row, smiling broadly, laughing extra loud. Wanting them to know I was on their side.

This is great. You’re doing great.

Megan Vaughan is a blogger from Cheshire, now based in London. She blogs at synonymsforchurlish.tumblr.com and tweets as @churlishmeg.