Please, Just Tell Me What It’s About!

May 13th, 2013 § 5 comments

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 10.14.39 AMMind you, there’s only so much one can squeeze into a TV spot, but the ad I just watched managed the following in its voiceover: 1) play title; 2) key award nominations; 3) names of three lead actors; and 4) quotes from reviews. The name of the playwright, and the director, photos of the stars (not in costume), the logo for the not-for-profit theatre that produced it, and ticket ordering information appeared on screen. The piece runs only 15 seconds.

Now this is a Broadway show and it’s Tony season, so I could simply chalk this ad up to awards fever. But it’s just another in a long line of theatre marketing tools that I see which constantly manage to skirt what strikes me as a rather important element in theatrical communication: the plot.  TV time is precious, but that’s not the case in brochures, press releases and even radio spots, which are far more likely to be deployed by the majority of theatres in the country. Yet sometimes the plot is nowhere to be found.

Theatres skip over plots for one of two reasons: a) their show is a revival of a famous classic work and it’s assumed that everyone likely to be interested already knows what it’s about, or b) the theatre doesn’t actually want to say what it’s about, even if the play has never been seen before. In both cases, the decision is ill-advised.

For a classic, it may well be true that a significant portion of the likely ticket buyers already know not only the plot but the ending of Othello, A Doll’s House or Death of a Salesman. But cloaking the show solely in its author’s name and adjectives about its greatness leaves out anyone who happens to have not seen it before, and may be looking for clues as to whether it will interest them. Indeed, we forget that the great works of literature may be daunting to the uninitiated, so by bypassing even a bit of plot description, we skip the opportunity to cultivate new patrons or place the seemingly archaic work within a context that might appeal to a modern audience.

It also pays to remember that this applies to relatively recent works as well. For example, Children of a Lesser God won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play and the lead actress in the film version won an Oscar in 1986, but how many 25 year olds know the piece? We must always be thinking of new patrons – whatever their age – not just endlessly mining the so-called “avids.”

As for avoiding the plot, the motivations can be varied. Perhaps the actual storyline could be seen as off-putting (deranged barber murders customers and his landlady bakes their remains into pies; boy blinds horses) or vague (two hobos wait endlessly for someone to show up). But skilled copy writing can put those stories into a larger and perhaps more enticing context without ever being untrue or misleading. It’s when we employ only adjectives that we’re dropping the ball; plays (and all stories) are rooted in nouns and verbs, that is to say people and action.

Even when the work in question is brand new, and there’s concern about revealing too much, it’s a mistake to say nothing; your gaggle of adjectives will less effective, since there’s no outside affirmation (as might eventually come from reviews), there’s just you trying to tell potential patrons what they’re going to think of the show if they come. (I refer you to my guides to clichéd marketing-speak and the true meanings behind it in Decoder and Decoder II.)

I’m not advocating lengthy recountings and I recognize that very often, a cursory précis of a story can be reductive; I’ve seen many authors (and artistic staffs) bridle at simplifications. But marketing and communications are not reviews or dramaturgy or literary criticism; they should be as accurate and appealing as possible, but they can’t be all-encompassing. And they must appear. The play may be the thing wherein we’ll catch the king’s conscience, but we’ve got to get him into the theatre first.


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  • disqus_e3b0l4oMNS

    When you’ve only got 15 seconds, I think it’s more about capitalizing on existing buzz and/or enticing a viewer to be intrigued by the star power and/or awards–enough to go find more information elsewhere.

    • I think that’s true, though it’s amazing what can be squeezed into a very short time. It was this “teaser” ad that put me in mind of the bigger issue, which I see frequently, but perhaps not the best jumping off point.

  • Howard, are you referring to the spot for “Orphans”? Because if so, I have to admit I was thinking the exact same thing last night when I saw the spot!

    • I was purposely non-specific (and will remain so) because the spot I saw simply reminded me of the issue, and I didn’t want the conversation to be the dissection of a single ad. I would just apply it to postcards, brochures, flyers, e-mails, radio and TV spots that you encounter and see if it holds true — and as a result, whether you feel the piece was effective or not.

  • I attend at least 2 shows a week for my job/pleasure. My fiance (a non theater guy) was attending many of them with me. But he got burnout after seeing too many shows with misleading promos. He now reads the synopsis before deciding whether or not he wants to join me. The problem with television spots is not only their lack of story, but also lack of tone. Often times I can’t tell if the play is a comedy or drama from the spot.

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