Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lessons Learned in Asheville: Part 2

Thanks for all the love for the 1st 5 Lessons. I'm digging hearing from everyone who cares about Asheville and theater. Here are the remainder of my arts applications.

6. "Give away something free to build your brand. Offer a pre-show show." There is a fine line between "not getting paid for your work" and "being generous with your work." It's up to every artist to determine where that line is. We can certainly all agree on the fact that we routinely--across the performing arts spectrum--undervalue our work and there is a dangerous continuum between commercial pay and community volunteer work. All of that, though, is for another blog post.
  This lesson is about generosity. We went to one of the newer breweries, HiWire Brewing, to sample their wares, and lucked into a free performance by a local blues musician, Andrew Scotchie. Great stuff, all way around (husband said the Double IPA was the best beer of the trip).
  First: the music show was for free, at a non-traditional site. I've heard people say, "this doesn't work with theater because we need the audience to pay attention, otherwise they don't get the scene." To which I say, "You think the musicians don't want people to pay attention?" I feel this is a cop-out for the work of growing new audiences. One of the local theater groups did Henry III as a pub crawl a few years back. Do we think that every barfly became a huge theater fan after that experience? Nope. But were there a few who did? Probably. Musicians (which is performance art, remember?) routinely do site-specific shows, play a bit of their repertoire for free, and interact with their audience to make them feel part of the performance.
  Second: If the main reason for your audience being in your building is for your 2-hr production, what else is happening to expand the evening into something remarkable? Are people showing up just before the curtain goes up because there's not reason to be there any earlier? How can we change that?

5 of these are Asheville pubs.
Mo's is in Hillsborough. Iron City is Pittburgh.
7. "Merchandise is the 2nd best advertising." Full disclosure: we have a pint glass collection that we use every day (part of which is pictured here). Know what this does? These glasses serve as constant reminders of our trips and experiences. Know what that does? Keeps these places at the forefront of our minds and makes us talk about them more to our friends and family. We all know word-of-mouth is the best advertising. But how do we keep people talking about us long after the show is over? I know a lot of larger theaters are doing this (Signature Theater is one of my faves.) but smaller theaters would benefit  even more from offering something for sale. As my friend Sara said, "Find something quality that fits with your brand and your audience." Pint glasses are perhaps the most perfect thing for a brewery to sell. What is it for your theater?

8. "Work with your competitors to everyone's benefit." It's rare that you go into a brewpub that only serves in-house brews. How often are theaters working with other theaters in the area? I have never heard an audience member say, "This is the only theater I attend." Collaborating in some way with other area groups/artists can be a win-win situation for everyone: new ideas, shared risk, audience growth. It doesn't have to be a big, co-produced show (although it could be!). It could be as simple as cross-marketing. Or buy one-get one half off on tickets. Or "bring your coffee mug from theater x and we'll give you a free cup of coffee at theater y." The possibilities are endless. HiWire doesn't lose audience when they offer the seasonal Greenman Porter on tap. Theaters aren't going to lose audience if there is a poster advertisement in the lobby for another theater's show.

9. "Unexpected details delight the experience."
Shared this w/ my brother,
who is building a tiki bar
Fodder for another blog post: I'm a thrift/antique store junkie. I love it when I stumble onto a space where the dealer has obviously taken a little bit of time to arrange things for maximum earning potential. It doesn't take much time or energy to make a junk pile into an orderly setting. We put a lot of time into designing our sets, costumes, sound, props, and lights. How can we use those elements in unexpected ways off the stage? It doesn't need to be expensive or time-consuming. Heck, it doesn't even need to be physically at the theater. One local theater ran a blog for their costume department for a show. Audiences could see character sketches, material selection, fittings, hat-makings, accessories. Details that make the play better, but rarely get valued as the work they are.*

10. "An overall experience can be enjoyable even with one underwhelming element." But the reverse is rarely true: one excellent element may not make up for an overall under-par experience. If you focus all your energy on acting, to the detriment of other elements and customer service, the entire occurrence may not engender a burning desire to return in the hearts of your customers. Be liberal with your efforts on making the whole event pleasurable, with the awareness that something may not hit the mark, and that's okay. But don't neglect anything.

Cross-pollination from other fields into the arts is one of my most favorite things to do. Take a look around everywhere you go. And let me know when you find something good!

*Who else besides me would like to watch the technical and design award portions of the major award shows (Tony, Emmy, Oscar)?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lessons Learned in Asheville: Part 1

Because I never stop arts administering when I'm away from my theater, I tend to see details that are applicable to my work everywhere I go. Case in point=my family took a 36 hour getaway to Asheville, NC last weekend. It was a lovely mental break from the constant managing/thesis/internship work I have going on right now. I also constantly remarked, "we should do this in theater," much to my husband's amusement. Here is the list, in order of the weekend.

1. "Kids are not an afterthought but should be planned for within the experience." In a bigger sense, this is no detail is too small. Think about who comes to your shows, who you want to come to your theater, and make them feel comfortable. As a parent, I'm always impressed when a business includes touches for my kid: eye-level signage, stools in the restroom, and interesting things at the check-out counter. Tupelo Honey treats the under 12 set as valued customers in their own right, with palates that are as varied as their parents'. 

2. "Amuse Bouche needn't appeal to everyone to be effective." Tupelo Honey brings these beautiful biscuits to the table when you sit down, gorgeous southern fluffiness, with house-made berry compote and local honey. Honestly, I wasn't that crazy about the taste. But the sheer presentation made me appreciate it and eager for my dinner to arrive. It's impossible to pick a small gift that will appeal to everyone who comes for a performance. But don't let that stop you from trying something. You could tie it to the show, or make it relevant to your organization branding, or make it not particularly relevant to anything within your four walls at all--the fact you're gifting anything may be enough for some people. 

3. "Do something remarkable and different with outstanding service and people will line up to work with you." We arrived right at opening for brunch at Early Girl Eatery and there was already a line of a dozen people waiting to get in (we'd been warned). This restaurant would technically be considered of the diner-variety: breakfast all day, meat-and-two (or three) offered, salads, that sort of diner. The food was amazing, incorporated local ingredients; the dining room had a friendly, comfortable atmosphere; and the service was almost impeccable*. Your patrons may come to you for the plays, but they come back to you for the experience. Make the whole experience so enticing that return customers take up most of your seats. This likely means saying "no" as rigorously as you say "yes." Don't put something on the menu just because it's in vogue. 

4. "Know your customer. You become a valued, supported member of the community by relentlessly focusing on that community." Malaprops is one of the best known independent bookstores in North Carolina, if not in the southeast. As an independent, with limited square footage, they've figured out who their customer is, what appeals to them most, and then offer that on a daily basis. Writer's groups, author readings and signings, community bulletin board: everything ties back into their literary mission. Find one small thing that fits with your mission and do that. Then scale it up or out. Shakespeare house? Maybe it's voice and dialect classes. New works? Maybe it's a local playwrights roundtable once a month.  

5a. "What small ordinary thing that you may find elsewhere can you make extraordinary?"
5b. "What sample pack can you give your customer?" These are related and both come from Asheville Brewing Company. We stopped in for lunch and had pizza and ordered a flight of different brews. First: you can find pizza everywhere, right? The ABC pizza had the best sauce I've ever tasted, and offered a variety of doughs for the crust. What one small thing about your product can you make extraordinary? If there are several theater groups in your area, what will be the element that sets yours apart? Maybe it's costumes, or the seats in your theater. Yes, your art should be the most excellent you can produce. What's the extra 1% you can give?
  The other one is the flight. If you're not a brewery regular, this is a [usually] paddle of 4 oz glasses that contain a sample of the breweries offerings. Depending on the place, sometimes you can pick what you want, others bring the 4-5-6 they have on tap. It's an inexpensive way to sample everything and pick what you really like**. Then you order a full pint of that. How can we let folks sample our wares? I think this especially applies to the organizations that offer a variety of performing arts, but may be even more important for traditional theaters. Maybe we need to add/rebrand subscription packages to "sample packs": buy 3 tickets, come to any three shows of your choice from the season or first three months or whatever works for you. Then tell us what you like and we can make sure you don't miss it next time around. This is doable even in one-person shops; even a simple CRM database can let you log that data and sort for "comedy" next time one rolls around.

There are five more. Part 2 is here

*I say almost because I believe there is always room for improvement in customer service. Until someone can read my mind. 

**Especially when there's 2 different IPAs on tap! There is a reason Asheville is known as the Beer City of the South.