Boobies, Theatre, and the Audience: collaborative promotion

Recently I was involved with a theatrical production that, in order to help draw an audience, partnered with an organizer that helped to fill up the evening with various forms of entertainment.  For several of these evenings, the partnered event was a burlesque show.  Now, I’ll be honest, I had never been to a burlesque show, so I didn’t entirely know what to expect.  But I did think that the pairing was an unusual one: pairing selected scenes from a new musical with burlesque.  Weren’t the audiences for these things very different?  Sure, the musical was a “horror musical” and more than a bit campy, but would it fit with what the burlesque performers were presenting?

The first night was interesting.  On that night, we followed the burlesque, and I had to say afterwards that the lesson for that night was “never follow boobies”.  I tried to imagine W.C. Fields saying “Never work with children or animals; and never follow boobies”.  At issue, was the fact that the audience really was not there for what we were selling.  They had come to see the ladies perform, and really were not interested in a selection of scenes from musical theatre, regardless or how campy it might be.

At that point, I assumed that all our performances would be like that.  The audience not watching, but talking amongst themselves, perhaps throwing a couple of heckles our way.  I was not looking forward to the rest of the run.  Who wants to perform for people who are uninterested in what you are doing?  Not that I entirely blamed them.  I mean, how can you follow someone like Red Herring?  Not easily that’s for sure.  And certainly not with a relatively tame (by comparison) musical.

Things changed the next night.  Again we followed the boobies (how I really did wish that W.C. Fields had warned me about that), but this time, the audience was different.  They weren’t rudely talking over us, they weren’t heckling.  I wondered what the difference was.  Many of the burlesque performers that preceded us were the same, so it wasn’t them.  Were we better?  Probably, but I don’t think we were so amazing that we were able to re-focus the attention of people who’d spent the last hour or so looking at beautiful half-clothed women.  So what was different?

I couldn’t figure it out exactly at first.  I had a few days to mull it over before we were back at it, and I still hadn’t figured out the difference between the two nights.  For our final show, we again followed the burlesque performances, and the audience was somewhere in the middle of the two.  So what was different?

Here’s what I thought: On night one, the scenes from the play were not mentioned at all during the show.  It appeared that the audience was drawn by the burlesque, and not by the play. Since the play wasn’t mentioned during the burlesque, the audience was a little shocked when we got up to do scenes from a musical.  Second night, the play was mentioned throughout, so that when we got up, it was no surprise and almost anticipated.  On the last night, it was mentioned once or twice during the burlesque, but almost in passing.

So what do I learn from this?

First off, let me say that I think that the Arts need to mix more. That collaborations need to happen.  Dancers need to mix with actors need to mix with singers need to mix with painters.  Its better for the art, and its better for the audience.  When these collaborations happen, however, the promotion needs to also be collaborative, both before and during (and hell, why not?  after) the performance.  If I’m collaborating with a dance troupe, I need to talk them up and they need to do the same.  We all need to treat the entire evening like our own.  There can’t be me over here and the dancers over there. (at the risk of sounding like the cast of Rent) There can only be us.  If we separate our promotional efforts and I only talk about my part and you only talk about their part, we’re actually dividing our audience, which helps no one.  Your audience comes for you and my audience comes for me.  My audience pays attention to me and not you, and yours pays attention to you and not me.

If, however, we both promote each other; If I say to my audience “you really need to see this great dancer (or singer or painter )” and you say to your audience “you really need to see this great play” we both win.  We’ve won over our respective audiences to both performances so that they are looking forward to each.  They’re less likely to fade out when the performance they aren’t there fore gets on stage, because it was built up for them as something they should be interested in.

Lessons learned for next time.

And yes, there should be a next time.  Perhaps not with the show I just did, but with something else. There are too many artists out there (of varying disciplines) that I want to share with you.

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