If My Show Closes, It’s Your Fault

June 29th, 2012 § 2 comments

A famous cover from the early days of The National Lampon — which did in fact sell magazines.

“Unless business improves,” potential audiences were told, “we will have to close.”  Let’s parse that for a moment, this phrase that has popped up in ads and press releases a couple of times lately.

“Unless business improves” means that business is lousy. A honest admission to be sure, but when used in connection with entertainment, it also can say, “No one is coming to our show.” And if no one is going to a show, isn’t that a self-perpetuating situation? After all, who wants to go to a show that no one is going to? There must be something wrong with it, or else people would be going.

“We will have to close” is a statement of simple fact, since in theatre, if no one is going, you can’t generate enough income to sustain the run by at least meeting your weekly operating expenses. This seems rather self evident, given the first half-of the phrase. It’s amazing that news stories actually carry this phrasing straight from the press release, since it’s not news.

Taken together, there’s a somewhat larger meaning, namely that if you (yes, I mean you) don’t do your part, some unnamed ‘we’ will suffer. The unnamed we, if you think about it with a sensitivity to the people who make theatre, can mean that actors, crew and house staff will be unemployed. No one likes putting people out of work. But the we can also refer to the people who make the decision to close, namely the show’s producer(s). Without meaning to imply anything, I suggest that there is probably more sympathy among the public for actors than producers.

But that’s what is being played on – our sympathy, or looked at another way, our guilt. This message says it’s up to us to keep the show in question going, and if the show closes, then its our fault. Now perhaps we already saw the show. Therefore, we’ve done our bit and can’t be reasonably expected to go again just to keep the show alive. Maybe we’ve always been curious to see the show, in which case we either have to get a move on, or come to the realization that we’re just not going to get there. Or maybe we were never interested in the first place, and this sort of please means we can start gloating early.

Guilt, in general, is not a good sales tool in the arts. Being forced to eat broccoli doesn’t make it taste any better, and guilt isn’t going to make us want to see a show we’ve chosen not to see.

There’s a new variant of this. “Final weeks? Book and keep the conversation going.” Again with the guilt. There’s hope, this ploy says, but only if you act now, to co-opt the words of a thousand infomercials. Coupled with an ongoing campaign in which this same show constantly tells us about the celebrities who’ve seen the show, we’re made to feel like we’re losing out and we’re the ones dropping the ball. We’re not cool.

I haven’t named specific shows because they’re hardly the first, although you may well know of the ones that have deployed this maneuver of late. It’s a tactic of longstanding, yet I’ve never even heard an apocryphal story about a show that pulled this particular arrow out of their quiver and provoked a change in fortune. Might they have managed an extra week or two? Perhaps. But I’m unfamiliar with a turnaround. (Yes, Dreamgirls ran for months while advertising “final weeks,” but at some point, that devolved into a claim that no one actually believed. As many know from raising children, threats are only effective if you’re prepared to follow through on them.) This is a tactic of last resort, used when you can’t think of anything new to say or show about your show in order to sustain flagging interest. It’s a creatively bankrupt marketing campaign and death knell all in one.

At this time of year, when Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are closing in the seasonal culling of the herd, most merely announce their final date and hope that those who have yet to attend, or those who wish to attend once again, will be motivated by finality, and do what they’re able to do. The productions march stolidly to their final day, sometimes building sales as the end draws nigh, sometimes finding they’re really already gone. But telling us it’s our fault, that we should, that we’ll miss out? To me, that’s like ordering me to eat my broccoli. And you know what? I never have.

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  • I suddenly have an urge to write a play (or a musical!) named “Final Weeks!”  The marketing writes itself.

    I’ve been seeing this with “last minute” fundraising drives at theatres, too, the emotional blackmail that “we might have to close” if we don’t earn $X by X month.  (I’m not talking Intiman, either.)  I call it the “shoot the dog” ploy, after the Lampoon cover.

    To borrow a little from Seth Godin’s TCG talk last week, instead of telling us why we’ll miss it when it’s gone–or what we’re missing already–show us.  Literally a case of “show, don’t tell.”  Just don’t take it out on the poor dogs.  

    Shoot some broccoli instead.  #broccolisolidarity

  • So true and excellent point, David Loehr. It’s true when directing actors. I always say don’t tell me what you want to do, just show me. Theatres, and any organization for that matter, must learn to show that what they are doing is worth supporting. I won’t be “guilted” into supporting a theatre.

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