Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Zen and the art of publicity (how I became my own theater publicist)

I am my own publicist.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon.  It began, really, during Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  For about 15 years I had used a variety of publicists, some skilled, some less so.  When you had one who was very enthusiastic about a project, it could make a big difference.  Many, however, took the money, sent out the emails, and never bothered to attend the show.  And they are, as a whole, a major show expense, usually 5 – 10% of the overall budget.  Sometimes they have even been more.

So I started to break down what a publicist does.  Three things.  One, they give time.  They spend the time to call, to follow up, to write a press release, to do all the things that a publicist does.  Definitely, it the middle of production, you don't want that extra stress.  Two, they give expertise, in terms of publicity strategy, experience writing a press release, etc.  And three, and most importantly, they give access.  Publicists never gives out their contact lists, and for good reason.  They have spent years accumulating those contacts.  And most people not only don’t have the contact info, the would not be able to find it.

With Androids, however, I realized a few things.  One was that, in 15 years of working in theater, I had actually met a lot of the people who work in journalism.  Before Androids, I was finding that half the press came through my own contacts.  There were still a lot of people I didn’t know, but on the other hand, the more I did publicity myself, the more I would get to know them.

Two, I wrote press releases as well as many of the publicists.  Not that mine were perfect either, but I had seen enough that I had a sense of what worked.  The best and most revelatory exercise in writing a press release I had learned years before, when Kirk Bromley helped me write one for Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer, which was playing at Nada.  I had taken a workshop on writing press releases that had been helpful, but he broke some of the rules I had learned.  We got great press.  I realized that the rules of press releases that I had heard were less relevant than the main goal of the press release: interest the reviewer, or the editor in the project, however you can.

Three, was that Androids was an interesting project in itself.  I knew that it would get press, whoever sold it and however it was sold.  With a less interesting project, it wouldn’t matter if I had the best publicist in the world.  Hopefully, with Androids, I would do.

So I contacted every press person I knew and started asking for emails, phone numbers, etc.  Some I was able to get.  Some I needed subterfuge to get.  Many publications guard their phone numbers carefully, and even the names of the editors are less than obvious.  You need to find the name.  You have to find the number.  And often, the publicly listed number won’t lead you to your goal.  After a year and a half of doing publicity, I’m still finally finding ways to contact some of the most elusive of the reviewers.  In one case, I had to call a California office, ask for a random employee, pretend I had made a mistake and meant to call someone else in New York, then offhandedly ask for the number—and thus I got the number the New York office had refused to give.

Funny thing is, once I actually reach the reviewer/editor, all I really need to do is make sure they get the press release.  In that way, I am less than a salesperson than a publicist.  In rare cases, I have seen a publicist truly push a show.  But alone, I don’t feel comfortable about pushing myself.  So I depend on the press release to do the talking for me.  Which, with Andorids, it did.

Simultaneously, Tom Berger, my assistant at the time, went for the blogs and the indie theater review sites, which don’t have quite as big a firewall.  But still, they required time and effort

How did it turn out?  For Androids, very well.  We got major papers in, we had a lot of blog reviews, and we sold out.  For Pangs of the Messiah, it was less exciting—but we still got some major publications to see the show: The New York Times, Time Out and Backstage  all dropped by.

In fact, it's gone well enough that I have thought about hiring myself out as a publicist, at times.  After wall, all these contacts I've gathered over the years are worth something...

And for Lathe of Heaven—well, we’ll see.  We’ve had some promises of reviewers, big and small.  But you never know till you get close.  Fingers crossed.

And for future projects?  I don't know.  There's still the time factor, I don't even know how I manage the time.  Someday, I may revert to having a publicist again.  But for now, I'll see how it goes.

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