Selling Theatre to the Community

An Abundance of Art

There is no short supply of great theatre in Los Angeles. Better than great, brilliant! Earth shaking, soul transforming, awe inspiring theatre! I’m not just talking about Hamilton. Nor is it limited to The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen, or the other regional theaters here is southern California. Los Angeles is home to somewhere around 300 intimate theatre companies. And while many of these produce great theatre there are a dozen or so that consistently produce exceptional world class theatre.

Looking at the peer recognition, the number of awards that have been given to such theaters as Rogue Machine, The Fountain Theatre, Antaeus Theatre, Boston Court, Sacred Fools, Road Theatre, Pacific Resident Theatre and Skylight Theatre is astonishing. Show after show, year after year, these dedicated companies and their artists produce works that are not only recognized locally, but in many cases their productions move on to other cities and wider recognition.

This is not to give short shrift to other notable efforts, for there are many that receive repeated accolades. Yet awards do not tell the entire story. If awards were the only measure of success, we wouldn’t have to ask: How is it that in a city that saw nearly a million people go to Hamilton, that there are so many equally deserving productions that have issue getting their houses filled?

With rare exception, is there any production in Los Angeles that is sold out? Be it the Ahmanson or the small store front theatre around the corner, filling seats is still of concern. And while using Hamilton as the benchmark may be a bit absurd, the fact is, that show demonstrated that there is an appetite for theatre in LA.

Before we go down the road of how unique, innovative and transformative, which is all apt and true of Hamilton, we should note that those values could just as easily be ascribed to Les Blanc at the Rogue Machine, or many of the shows produced by these noted theaters.

So, what’s the difference? Money! Dollars spent not on development, though that certainly helps, but dollars spent on marketing. There was enough money and energy infused into Hamilton that it achieved the distinction of becoming a viral show. A must see. An event.

Truth be told, Hamilton was not a fluke. The publicity machine started on that show at least three years before it actually hit the stage. Lin-Manuel Miranda was promoting the show at the White House before it was even written. Deep pockets and great vision were certainly factors. However the fact that there was a marketing plan engaged, and it was a plan based upon known elements, is a pretty good place to start the conversation.

Even Art Needs to be Sold

The steps and organization for promoting a show were borrowed from the experiences of Broadway productions. The Broadway League, while ostensibly focused on promoting Broadway shows and the Tony Awards, has the cultural memory of how big shows get to be BIG SHOWS. Somewhere down the line, the producers of Broadway realized that by pooling some portion of their resources, they could get a bigger bang for their dollar.

So why doesn’t Los Angeles have something akin to the Broadway League? Wait, we do. In 1975, The Los Angeles Stage Alliance (LASA) was formed. For 43 years an organization has been in place that while not specifically tasked with theatre marketing, is ideally suited to address that need. Their mission statement:

LA STAGE Alliance is a non-profit arts service organization dedicated to building awareness, appreciation, and support for the performing arts in Greater Los Angeles.

In all fairness, LASA has worked diligently to meet that mission. Steven Leigh Morris, the current Executive Director, since being hired a little more than two years ago, has tirelessly worked to gather the community together, listen to the current concerns of theatre companies and keep an underfunded organization on track to meet the goals as stated above.

Having an organization in place is not enough. Active participation by all of the companies represented is essential. That requires people dedicated within a theatre organization to cooperate with outside organizations, on a city wide basis, and an understanding that there is more involved than just mounting a production. It requires a common language and common values to be asserted, so that they employ buzz words, recognizable prompts for theatre goers. The one area where this seems to have been embraced is in the participation in the Ovation Awards process, which is under the auspices of LASA. While not yet fully deployed as a tool of recognition, there are signs that it is taking hold. The awards show which were held at ACE Hotel were grand and exciting.

The Value of Awards

How companies use the tools offered is just as vital as getting an award. Letting potential audiences know that a show is nominated or that the company or artists have won awards is essential. The Tony awards are only important because the theaters tell us they are. The use of the nominations and the repeated references to them give audiences a gauge of perceived value.

Awards are accolades to an industry. Outside of the personal satisfaction that one feels for being so honored, the real function of awards is to create marketing opportunity. Every movie screams the number of nominations it receives from the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, the SAG Awards and any other mention that casts positive light.

The marquees of Broadway are filled with the numbers of Tony nominations or every other award nomination possible, ads highlight the nods, interviews are granted, articles are written, all with the intent of catching the potential audience’s attention. The name of the game is to get audiences into the seats.

Every production is approached with new vision, and every hurdle jumped with unique solutions. That is the genius of theatre.  The variation of interpretations is why audiences will see the same title over and over by different artists. Let us not mistake the genius in the art form as the process for getting the word out about a show. Innovation in art is good. In marketing, it repetition.

Community Building

Broadway, by tradition, is the American Theatre Scene. They covet that position, protect it, and promote it. For Los Angeles to shine, have its companies shine, we too must elevate the entire vision of our theatre scene to greater public awareness. We, and by that I mean all of the Theatre Community, including ancillary services, such as FootLights, and any of the dozens of websites dedicated to our theatre scene, must focus our efforts.  so that the word on great shows is not limited to the output of the production company alone.

We collectively must apply all the tools at our disposal to message that there is all this theatre going on, and at the same time applaud the greats. Collective promotion, cross promotion, and notability should be visible at every venue.

And finally, there is you, the audience member. You too have a part in all of this. If you want to see our theaters continue to grow, mount exceptional work, and test the bounds of human expression, then you to must join the marketing effort. When you see a show that you love, make sure that everyone you know is told. If you see a show you don’t love, tell everyone you know about the shows you saw that you did love.

Theatre is more than just attending a performance. It is the common point of initiating discussion, for building community values, for expanding our horizons. So do that. Initiate the conversations, build theatre into our community and expand the horizon of everyone you know.







About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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