Dear Brisbane Theatre … Who’s the media?
As I write this, an Arts Queensland sponsored tech forum ‘LowFi’ is just finishing up in Brisbane. I was due to attend what was planned as a day-long gathering of speakers, workshops and quick conversations on digital media and its application in the arts. I couldn’t make it so I’ve been following the proceedings today via hashtag on Twitter. Some of the tweets sang the social-media mantra re developing relationships with ‘customers,’ and not just using social media as a marketing add-on. Yes, of course, but the strategies and the actual daily process of using social media for marketing – for getting the word out and engaging with potential and current audience members – are still being discovered and developed. In a time when arts coverage appears to be receiving less coverage in ‘big media’ there is both challenge and opportunity for individual theatre companies to change the landscape of the wider media modus operandi. (The embedded tweets below are from today’s LowFi twitter stream)
At a gathering of pre-show theatre barflies downstairs from !MetroArts in Verve Café (in the dark corner up the end) the conversation turned last Saturday night to the local buzz – barflies are good at buzz. One fly was heard to say how exciting it all was – that very night audiences would be able to see a couple of shows back to back if they chose to, and wouldn’t more late-night theatre in the city in small, welcoming venues be a thrill? Another opined that Brisbane was a get up and go to bed early town so, maybe not. Another was quite hopeful but felt that it would take time for people to get used to the idea. It was all about building audiences – that’s the challenge – all agreed. Of course, the barflies buzzed on about other things like the quality of the work being seen around the city, and so on. It was time for the first show, and then the second, but then …
The 9 pm show could not go on. Under the terms of the performance rights for this play, a certain number of tickets needed to be sold before a performance could proceed. With great sadness and no little amount of frustration the company involved had to cancel the show because the numbers fell short of the magic number. The small but enthusiastic audience drifted away into 9 o’clock at night – feeling kind of sad and frustrated too. However, this barfly had a chance first to chat with the producers of the show. Want to know the problem? Audiences aren’t coming, and they believe it’s because they can’t get mainstream media to cover the show. The word is not getting out via the ‘usual channels.’ It set me thinking.
The first thing you have to ask is why the usual channels aren’t covering this work in Brisbane. Who are the usual channels anyway? Ask most and they’ll refer to the Courier-Mail, the local daily newspaper, and then to The Australian, the national daily which covers arts events via a local stringer. It seems that it is ‘big media’ that matters most to arts companies in the city. This isn’t surprising; they have a history of play-reviewing and a huge daily readership with potentially more coverage. Many of the smaller indie companies are puzzled, some are angry and all are frustrated feeling that they are being ‘ignored’ by the big media in town. But is it realistic to expect that any media outlet, even a newspaper like the C-M will cover all arts events in the city? Perhaps, if that was their policy or if they had the resources to do so. By the way, I learned from one of my fellow barflies that Boy Girl Wall hasn’t ever received a review from the Courier-Mail – not in its indie, cleanskin !Metro Arts incarnation in 2010, or this year at what looks like a sellout season for La Boite Theatre – and there goes the argument in favour of reviews being an audience-puller. It’s word of mouth that does it – getting people talking, recommending something to a friend – going viral.
And, of course, reviews are only one part of the wider portfolio of writing about theatre – itself a reflection of the cultural ethos of a society. Interviews, features, opinion pieces, argument and so on are, perhaps, more powerful ways to get people talking and to build audiences long-term than is a review of one production after the fact. This is not to discount the newsworthiness which is of particular interest to the wider arts community and to the creators of a production at a particular time.
There appears now to be no dedicated arts or theatre desk at the Courier-Mail; this is probably why there’s not as much theatre content as arts-lovers would like or why C-M writers don’t get around to shows as much as they’d like. This is no apology for big media – and it’s a good enough time to ask why no one is sitting at the desk – but it’s also realistic to acknowledge that, with the arrival of digital publication, big media are facing their biggest set of challenges and opportunities since the invention of automated printing presses. In a digital age, big media, despite their size, are only one of many outlets available to get the word out.
As with other kinds of companies – arts organisations large and small included – many of the ‘heritage media’ (the exclusively print-based conglomerates of yore) either rejected or opted out of digital publication or integration until it was forced on them. I suspect most are still investigating the ways and means of incorporating it into their operations and to getting their business models right – for business is what drives them. Think advertising and subscriptions and distribution to support the publication of their content in hard and soft copy. Big news media’s business models are in flux, and many newspapers have either gone down or are on the way out. Presumably most papers are feeling a squeeze of some kind with fewer to cover arts-writing in general. Perhaps it is why there is a dearth of theatre writing overall, and why particular events like 23rd Productions latest The Ugly One (the show that had to be pulled on Saturday night) struggle to get coverage.
Speaking of The Ugly One, a play which has been hugely succesful in its native Germany, then the UK and elsewhere in Australia – it’s not untypical of the kind of programming in Brisbane’s indie theatre sector. This is where you will find the new, the challenging, the unknown and the (let’s face it) absolutely-vital-for-the-health-of-the-theatre in town. Is part of the problem of attracting audiences the fact that the work is new, challenging etc.? The next question writes itself – do the city’s audiences want the new, the challenging, the unknown? Of course they do; they just need to know more about it – what it is, who’s doing it, and where it is happening.
Moving right along – perhaps audiences aren’t coming in the numbers the theatre sector would like because of a supply and demand issue i.e., there are more plays on offer than there are audiences to fill or even half-fill a house? Good question.Whilst Brisbane has two major subsidised companies, there are also frequent touring and local professional productions on offer at QPAC, Brisbane’s Powerhouse, Gardens Point Theatre and JWCoCA as well as an independent theatre hub that operates under the umbrella of iMetro Arts; JWCoCA is also a player in supporting local independent theatre. This does not take into account audiences for the burgeoning amateur theatre groups and student theatre operating out of the city’s universities. Is this supply too much for Brisbane audiences’ needs? The US theatre community burned up on this issue recently after the NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman threw it into the mix for consideration. Incidentally, the US debate revolved around arts funding for the non-profit sector – and that’s another issue for another post.
What I do find interesting is that the issues we’re talking about here – wider community interest in the arts, the supply and demand issue, the ‘problem’ of new work in attracting audiences and funding – are not challenges peculiar to this city, but are part of the global theatre’s anxiety zeitgeist.
But, about getting the word out and getting the good folk in, it would seem that in Brisbane you can’t rely upon the big media in their present incarnation for ongoing and meaningful coverage of your work – if that’s what you want. The street press (most of whom also have an online presence) as well as the independent blogosphere have a far more satisfying and accessible spread of reviews, ‘reflections’ and talkback. Today’s print review is gone tomorrow unless the paper concerned has an online archive – some do, some don’t. It’s a shame that local reviewers for big media like James Harper and Sue Gough (to name a couple) aren’t having their work more widely disseminated online. It’s such a lost opportunity, but maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction.
There is an alternative for arts companies to build audiences, create relationships and to sell tickets without dependence on big media.
The bad news is that it’s digital DIY time; the good news is that it’s digital DIY time.
The even better news would be that big media snaps out of their 20th century torpor and gets with it – and appoints someone to run the arts desk in town with a brief to engage with the wider arts community.
Digital DIY: to begin with the obvious. There are plenty of ways and means to get the word out – if a company chooses to. There is conversation face to face, via the phone or online. There is also the good old email list which can circulate smart-looking e-newsletters to those signed up – the ‘closed garden’ model that Facebook later adopted. The press (!) and websites and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all are harping on the fact that social media and online communications are here to stay – and they’re not new media any more either, though it’s still new to you if your organisation hasn’t used it before or hasn’t learned how to make it work for you. If you don’t know how, you need to.
As well as the almost mandatory website, companies large and small are using the most ubiquitous communications tools in the world – Facebook and Twitter to … communicate. There are invites and friending and following and uploading going on in these sites, but I wonder sometimes whether any real strategic thinking or curation is going into how a particular company is using its online media of choice, or whether it’s just a scattergun effect. I think this lies at the heart of the problem. Take websites, for example. They’re the first portal for so many who don’t use Facebook or Twitter and many look as though they were designed about 20 years ago, are difficult to use, have out of date information and little connection with the message the company is trying to get out. Content, design and aesthetics do matter, especially for an arts organisation. See What Every Theatre Website Needs
When considering the use of social media or digital media in your organisation the traditional (ROI) return on investment of time and effort and money needs perhaps to turn into considering ROE (return on engagement) and this is where the challenge lies for individual organisations.
- What is meant by ‘to engage’ with your audience? How do you do this? Do you actually pick up the phone and call your known audience, your ‘tribe’ from time to time? What would you talk about?
- What social media strategies are appropriate and meaningful for a small arts organisation – your organisation?
- Do you have a social media strategy for building new audiences? Have you thought about how to measure its effectiveness?
- Do you have someone who is in charge of your digital presence on line in the media?
- Have you considered putting digital at the heart of your creative arts practice?
I don’t have definitive answers to 1 and 2 and, besides, there is no one recipe that will fit all arts organisations – nor should there be. As far as the last 3 are concerned, I’d answer with a resounding ‘Why not?’