What has happened to outreach?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
In the last months I have heard two very sad things.
The first was that a company in Montreal had their opening night to a whole bunch o' empty seats (not unusual in Montreal). The other story was of a friend who went to a Saturday night performance of a show in Toronto and said that the house was not close to filled. This was particularly shocking because the play had gotten across-the-board raves and not just from pipsqueaks like us, but also from The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, National Post and TV as well.
While this attests to the waining power of critics, it also signals something else as well: wretched planning by the theatres themselves.
Nothing appalls audiences and critic more than an opening night that is not packed.
Most plays need a crowd. Not an informal gathering. (In the second case described, a crowd was most necessary because it was a farce.) I devoutly believe that it is a company's job to get near-to-full houses for every performance.
Many of the ways of filling a hall are well known, but clearly not as well known as they should be.
Nothing appalls audiences and critic more than an opening night that is not packed. That's why all the actors get some free tickets, as do much of the staff for premieres. The practice is otherwise know as papering. Back in the day when I was working in PR, theatre schools were contacted and - knowing students were by definition poor - tickets were given away by the handful. There's something about free tickets for a theatre student: you're grateful, you applaud, and - what the hell! - join the standing ovation. I used to take full advantage of them when I was an acting student myself and, once, got up the courage to phone a company and ask for them. (And got them!)
Then there's Outreach.
Outreach, unlike common papering, can be more. It can be corporate sponsors paying for tickets which are subsequently stamped with, "Your ticket has been graciously paid for by Acme Co." We used to use Outreach as a form of activism as well: providing the tickets to community centres, for instance - to people who would never be able to afford a seat, had never thought of going to theatre and who might, down the line, think of a play like they thought of movies - something fun to go to.
Okay, so getting corporate Outreach is work and, in these hard times, it's devilish work.
But a basic rule of theatre PR still applies. A packed house has an energy far more positive than one where there is one sad soul per row. Moreover, a packed house filled with grateful people make a night of theatre worthwhile for the people on stage - unlike the feel of a sparse house (ie: what the hell am I doing in this dead-end profession?).
And here's a strange kind of alchemy that can also happen with Outreach/papering: a production can over-ride bad reviews and, suddenly, it's all about word-of-mouth. It's about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest.
For the ornery who would rather die than paper, there is the option of extreme discounts.
For the most ornery - the PR departments who don't bother - what exactly IS your job?