How to Put on a Musical
by John Kenrick
The producer's nightmare You spend months putting together a production, with everyone throwing their heart and soul into each aspect of it. Opening night comes and (ye gods!) there are only ten people in the audience. Oh, the humiliation!
Well, wake up and smell the spirit gum, because that is NOT going to happen to you. Why not? Because, before getting wrapped up in the excitement of casting and rehearsals, you are going to sit down and create a publicity plan. From the moment you announce your plans to put on a musical, people will be talking about your show. The more often folks hear about it, the more likely they will be to buy a ticket.
The one big mistake most amateur groups make with publicity is to not think about it until too late. When I was a high school senior, the teacher directing our school's first-ever production found himself with less than ten percent of his tickets sold two weeks before opening night. He asked me for help which took nerve, since he hadn't cast me in the darn show! Being a good sport (yeah, I was dumb enough to buy into the "school spirit" thing), I put together a team that whipped up a last minute publicity blitz, and got ticket sales up to 75%. If only I had another week!
Planning publicity "somewhere along the way" is not an option. Once you go into production, time becomes your scarcest commodity. By laying down a publicity plan ahead of time, you allow yourself to concentrate on other issues and reduce last minute scurrying. While the possibilities for publicity are limited only by your imagination and budget, here are several approaches every school and community theatre group can find useful.
Does your school or group have a website? Make use of it! If not, get a computer-minded volunteer to set up a web page on a free server. The web is a great low-cost way to publicize your production. A basic web page can include all the crucial info, links to press releases, rehearsal photos and more. Be sure the URL (website address) appears on all publicity materials, including press releases and posters.
Do you want people to be able to buy tickets on the internet? Only if your team can handle the required technology and keep very close tabs on the results! You don't want customers to make a web purchase and then arrive at the theatre to find the performance was sold out for weeks.
Most amateur theatre publicity plans rely primarily on a poster (or window card) that goes up on bulletin boards and shop windows. This is a reliable, cost-effective way to get the word out on your show. A good poster is a blessing, but lousy posters are all too common.
Keep posters simple! The text is the most important element keep it readable. Be sure the show's title and the name of your school or group can be read from a distance. Use a plain, bright background black text on white is reliable. Avoid ugly combinations like red on purple. (Don't laugh. I've seen it done!)
Generous use of clear space between text blocks helps. Leave room for all relevant information performance dates, prices, how to buy tickets. Keep the artwork simple, designed to catch the eye with vivid imagery and a touch of color. At left is a fictional sample poster that I've created using rights-free clip art (click on it to see a larger version). Even in its thumbnail version, you can read the show title. Is this poster a masterpiece? No but it presents all the important information in a clear, easy to read format. The object is not to impress art critics it is to sell tickets.
Months ahead of time, when the living is still easy, put together a list of newspapers, radio & TV stations that cover local events, making careful note of who to send "entertainment" and/or "special events" items to. It is good manners to limit yourself to one contact per outlet. Be sure to include school newspapers and organizational newsletters. Some editors now prefer press releases to come in e-mail form others like good old snail mail. Go with the flow.
You'll find various books explaining how to write a press release. The challenge is knowing when to write one. Editors are inundated every day with press releases which are just blatant attempts at getting free advertising. They limit their attention to releases offering newsworthy information.
What's newsworthy? Here's a basic test if you would want to know about it happening to someone else, it is potential news. Most news consumers find local shows interesting, so every major step in your production process is a natural excuse for publicity auditions, the final cast list, rehearsals, the installation of special equipment, outside talent working on your production. If anything wacky happens to your team, consider publicizing it. Does a chicken pox outbreak hit the cast, forcing you to postpone? Does your team overcome some minor disaster? Is a local celebrity lending a hand? Don't keep it a secret let the world (or at least your piece of it) know.
Boast about your production's success once it is over with. A final press release celebrating a high percentage of ticket sales, rave reviews, etc. is always a good idea. You may not get much coverage, but it lets editors know that your future efforts have a proven audience and deserve attention.
Warning: Have the "powers that be" in your organization (principal, pastor chairperson, etc.) approve the content of press releases in advance. No need to incur anyone's wrath by generating the wrong kind of publicity.
If the local press are willing to review amateur productions, make sure they are invited, given good seats (one complimentary pair per reviewer), and are otherwise treated with the same courtesy you extend to every audience member.
Whether the reviews are good or bad, make sure your future dealings with the critics are professional and courteous never fawning, and certainly never rude. Don't let your feelings get the better of you here. Critics may or may not be fair, but they have a right to express their opinions. I have known people involved with various Broadway flops over the years who blame their failure on the critics. The simple fact was that these shows were ghastly.
Any reviewer who gives you a hard time this year may cover you with laurels next time. A while back, a CD producer sent in an e-mail complaining about the Musicals101 review for one of his cast recordings. The next day, he sent a courteous follow-up after reading some of the rave reviews his other recordings had received on this site.
You can drum up publicity with one or more staged public events. Be sure to clear such events in advance with any business owners or local authorities who might be concerned. Let the local press know what you are planning, and make sure you have someone of your own on hand to take photos for your archives and for the press release that you'll send out afterwards.
What constitutes a special event? Anything that helps raise public awareness of your efforts carwashes, dinners, a cast appearance (in full costume) at a shopping mall or in a local parade . I knew a community theatre that sent the cast of Grease driving down main street in a 50's convertible (borrowed from friends). On a Saturday afternoon, the cast sold tickets outside a local supermarket. The public loved it, lots of seats were sold, and (thanks to a slow news day) a photo of the cast clowning around made the front page of the local Sunday paper. Since this was just a week before the opening, it gave the production a sensational last minute boost.