A critic once said that if a play was any good, it didn’t need PR. This utopian idea has come to fruition a few times over the years, but in the post-Covid landscape a production will be as likely to take off without effective communications as the Miss Saigon chopper without a production team.
Public relations, marketing and social media are a theatre’s lungs, and the industry is going to have to shout louder and more incisively than ever before, or risk drowning.
To survive, theatre must focus on relevance and social impact, embrace new technologies, break with identikit marketing, become the talk of the town, and make promotion part of the art.
Theatre must be unapologetic about its positive role in society. It’s the only art form that puts the audience in the room with huge topical issues and experiences. This powers a unique ability to foster social change that should be ingrained in the creation of a show, never retrofitted on a whim. Social impact has rarely been a more powerful form of communication – look at Captain Tom: a call to aid the NHS turned a pensioner walking laps of his garden into a fairytale of human endeavour.
If content is king, platform is queen. Many point to streaming as a means of attracting new and wider audiences. Lockdown has seen the medium take a necessary step forward, and a streaming release will likely be part of many shows’ life cycles going forward. But theatre is created to be live and a stream doesn’t truly put you ‘in the room’.
Theatre productions native to digital platforms are still treated as a niche sub-genre somewhere between site-specific and multimedia. Creating theatre for new platforms, particularly virtual reality and augmented reality, is essential for building audiences and opening revenue streams. Comedy producers are making the biggest strides here and theatre should look to them for inspiration. The theatre experience also has to extend beyond the auditorium doors and be imbibed in every facet of a production.
It’s also worth considering specific comms practices in more detail. UK theatre marketing and PR pre-Covid was formulaic. It’s harder to stand out when a show’s public image is generated by an identikit, box-ticking formula. Producers should demand a genuine point of difference in the form their promotion takes, as well as the content.
This is particularly true for regional theatre. A huge amount of water has flowed under the bridge since I started out at the Wyvern in Swindon, but PR and marketing for regional theatres has been in stasis, notwithstanding the advent of social and digital media. If there’s a lesson to take from the olden days, it’s this: become the talk of the town, employ mavens (we’d call them influencers now), integrate productions with the local community, tell stories that break out of the arts pages and into news, and revisit the art of the publicity stunt.
The latter we owe to PT Barnum’s masterstroke of making publicity an extension of the art – the art and its ability to attract an audience are one and the same. As the former circus impresario Gerry Cottle once put it: “We either get an audience, or we starve.” The whole of theatre is now in the same boat.