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Bad Improv is Bad For Improv
WOOT! "BIiBFI" is back online, baby! Thank you for your patience with me, as I have both moved to a new home, and had a new baby boy! And now, I will once again resume verbally shaking my finger at the massive group mind fart known as bad improv. Join me, won't you?
For those of you just tuning in, this is part three in a series of ten important lessons about directing and producing improvisational theatre that I've learned the hard way. I've already preached about the importance of self improvement and enlightened the masses on the virtues of honesty. Now today, I will be illuminating the merits, indeed the absolute necessity, of Shameless Self Promotion... er... well... to be more precise... someone else will be doing that. I'll just be taking the credit for it.
...wot wot WOT!?!? You mean to tell me that you've taken two months off from your brand new column, and now you're pawning this article off on someone else?
Shameless, isn't it? Heh, heh, heh.
Getting back on track, I must reiterate that these are all lessons I've had to learn the hard way. This one, in particular, is one I'm still (painfully) learning. As a low budget improv producer, I've been forced to do my own p.r. work on pretty much every production I've ever mounted. And, while I have greatly improved my promoting capacities over time, I am still nowhere near as proficient as I need to be. Part of this deficiency, I'm ashamed to say, comes from a personal aversion to anything that feels like "salesmanship." Multiple times I tried my hand in sales, and each time I failed miserably. I now cringe and become nauseous at the thought of manipulating someone, even ethically, into purchasing a product.
But, of course, that's what promotion is. And, it's something every artist must deal with. Selling your show, selling your script, selling your work, selling yourself, sell-sell-sell-sell-sell. And it all must be done with absolute confidence, comfort, and a total lack of shame.
I realize the importance of this. I also realize I suck at this. So, I found someone who rocks at it, and I interviewed him.
LESSON #3: Shameless Self Promotion
Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce you to one Mr. Zach Ward. The founder and Executive Producer of North Carolina's explosively successful Dirty South Improv (you know, that theatre back east that's been raping Salt Lake's long form community of its talent), Zach has also recently attained the impressive status of official Festival Producer for the big momma of improv festivals, CIF. His numerous other credits include Education Director for Chicago ComedySportz, sitting on the Advisory Board for YESand.com, and oh yeah, did I mention that he runs the largest education based improv festival in the world? All this information can easily be found in his perfect example of a bio, on his perfect example of a promotional website. Like me, Zach shares his name with a B-List actor. Unlike me, Zach has actually had success as a salesperson, holding the position of Lead Trainer for both Monster.com Executive Sales, and Motorola Latin American Sales. So, he's a natural when it comes to promoting.
Over the past three months, Zach graciously took the time out of his busy schedule to answer three of my several emails, and I've been able to cobble together the following interview.
'I still personally flyer an average of 2-1/2 hours per week for shows and classes in North Carolina.'
JoKyR: Hey Zach, thanks for finally responding. This is an article about the importance of shameless self promotion. I thought you'd be perfect for it.
ZW: That's hilarious.
JoKyR: I know. I'm awesome.
Anyway, shameless self promotion. What does it mean to you, and how important is it?
ZW: Shameless self promotion has been the foundation of every good DSI marketing campaign. When in sales you MUST believe in your product 100%. You ARE the best. Think about shameless self promotion as simply one component of the production value of a show.
JoKyR: Woah, wait a minute. Believing in yourself? Is that it? There's gotta be more to it than that.
ZW: Repetition is the key to comedy AND marketing success.
Define a brand for your productions as soon as you have a successful show. Use the success of projects to define success for a production company and its future projects. Dual Exhaust [my improv duo with Beth Melewski] was born shortly before Dirty South Improv... we came back from headlining the first Dirty South Improv Festival, I created a DSI logo for promotional purposes and the rest is history. I will continue to do ANYTHING I can to build the brand recognition of DSI Comedy Theater and the popular image of its shows and training program for the benefit of EVERYONE who will ever work for DSI Comedy Theater (a company of 45 growing monthly).
I still personally flyer an average of 2-1/2 hours per week for shows and classes in North Carolina.
Flyering once does nothing. Repeat repeat repeat. Always look for new promotional opportunities but never forget the power and impact of direct SHAMELESS marketing.
JoKyR: Nice. At least three shameless plugs in one paragraph.
One thing that always comes to mind when I think of you and shameless self promotion is creativity. For instance, by far the coolest and most imaginative piece of festival promo material I've ever received was DSI's schedule card for the 2005 Del Close Marathon. You guys took collectible basketball cards and taped your schedule over the stats on the back. I got Charles Davis from the Bulls. As if that weren't enough, what's the most shameless thing you've ever done to promote DSI?
ZW: When Dual Exhaust was first performing at ImprovOlympic in the Cagematch, I would go around and casually introduce myself to everyone at their table while they were being seated before the show began. We had flyers saying "Vote Dual Exhaust" ready for members of the audience that were there to see the show. I wanted to let them know that they should vote their conscience (really what I wanted was for them to make a positive connection between the name Dual Exhaust and the spirit of competition -- I always told them to "vote their conscience" with a wink to say... "you'll be voting for the team on that flyer... that's me... Dual Exhaust"). We were eventually retired undefeated from the Cagematch and we were given our own show which we extended to over 8 months. You ultimately need to have a good product in order to see that type of continued success, but initial success can sometimes be as much creative sales and promotion as quality performance.
JoKyR: That's absolutely disgusting.
Moving on. What can the average improviser do to be more shameless?
ZW: The average improviser is an average improviser. If average improvisers were more shameless they wouldn't be average; they would be noticed and recognized as the comedian who believes in their own show. Tell 20 people you don't know about your show (PASS OUT FLYERS ON A STREET CORNER FOR AN HOUR OR MORE EACH DAY THAT YOU HAVE SHOWS --- Treat every passerby as if they were your friend. Flirt. High fives and smiles.) Hold everyone in your life accountable for being an evangelist for you. Ask people you know to tell other people about your shows.
Side note: If you believe in yourself and your product enough to sell directly to people by handing them a flyer on the street, you will be more apt to succeed on stage. Like improv, YESand. Heighten Heighten Heighten.
JoKyR: Nice. You turned my words around, there.
Okay. One last question. On March 24-25, JoKyR and Jesster will be performing with world famous improv duo BASSPROV at the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre (300 S 1400 E, in the lower level of Pioneer Memorial Theatre). Will you come see it?
JoKyR: So, is that a yes?
JoKyR: You b*st*rd! I hate you, you sh*t faced mother f*cking *ss monkey! If I could murder you, and get away with it, and still get a performance slot at CIF, your children would be orphans right now! F*cking *sshole retard.
So, thank you Zach, it was a pleasure.
"When producing, publicizing, and performing a show, your goal is not just to set up the performers for a successful show, but also to prep the audience."
Now that the thoughts of someone whose opinions actually matter have graced this article, I'll put in my two cents on the subject. I'd like to draw a little extra attention to Zach's comment on holding "everyone in your life accountable for being an evangelist for you." This is an incredibly important concept for all categories of theatrical artists -- not just producers and publicists.
Every artist has to sell their work. And, if you can't sell it to your friends and family -- people who already have a vested interest in your success -- then you can probably stop right there and find a new occupation. But, maybe this makes you uncomfortable. Maybe the idea of nagging all your aunts, uncles, cousins and coworkers to pay $5 and see your show is distasteful to you. Maybe you once got suckered into taking a "job" selling $2,000 vacuums, only to find that they really just wanted to get you to guilt all your family members into buying one and then ditch you before you started pulling commissions. (No, this did NOT happen to me!)
Well, if that's the case, then GET OVER IT! Not only do you need the support, but improv as a whole needs it, too. I am sick to death of hearing people complaining about or making fun of stacking audiences with friends and family members. And believe me, I've heard this a lot. "Ha ha! They've just been performing to their family members all month long!" "Jeez, she only gets to be on stage because she brings all her boyfriends to see the show." "They only won because they stacked the house!" "So, what, we're just gonna steal money from our friends to pay our salaries?" "Blahbitty, blah, blahbitty, I'm too good to actually do some real work and get some people out to see the f*cking show!"
Let's face some facts, people. First and foremost: A friendly audience makes a show better! Obviously, actors are more confident and comfortable when the crowd is responding favorably. But, there's an even more important reason why bringing your pals makes for great shows. You see, the measure of the success of a performance (which is subjective, like all things theatrical) is all tied up in the perceptions of the audience. Sure, you've gotta be true to your artistic integrity, and don't pander to the audience, and yackity shmackity. But, if the audience thinks the show is great, really, who's gonna argue? And, conversely, if the crowd thinks they just saw crap, well... you know.
You shouldn't have to win over your friends and family. They love you unconditionally, right? If they come see your show, they'll laugh, they'll applaud, and (most importantly) they'll keep their bums in their seats till the show is over.
You can't expect the same from strangers.
In order to keep the stranger bums in seats, you have to deliver a strong performance... or rather... they have to perceive that it's a strong performance. AND, if they're surrounded by your friends and supporters who seem to like the show, that can greatly improve their perceptions.
Big fact to face numero deux: A BIG audience makes a show better, too! Sure, this is a no-brainer after that last one, but it bears emphasizing, simply because the overall concept is so important. When producing, publicizing, and performing a show, your goal is not just to set up the performers for a successful show, but also to prep the audience. Before your show starts, the number of people in the house sends a strong message to new audience members about the quality of the performance they're about to see. If a group has obviously had trouble drawing a crowd, it's assumed that there's a reason. It probably won't occur to Joe Six Pack that producing a good show and running a good promo campaign can be two different nuts to crack.
Sure there are exceptions. Every theatregoer remembers "that one show" they went to that was awesome, even though they could count the spectators on the left hand of an epileptic butcher. They probably said things like "It's a crime that more people aren't seeing this!" and "I can't believe I almost missed this!" They may even have convinced themselves that the show was more enjoyable for being so intimate. "I was one of the select few who got to witness this gem!" What they're forgetting is how awkward they felt right before the curtain rose, when they gulped hard and braced themselves for what was surely to be a terribly painful waste of time. And, what they never had the chance to experience was the herculean effort it took for the performers to win them over from the tiny "why aren't we canceling the show" audience to the small "but responsive" audience.
There's something more primal at work here. As an audience member, I don't go out to the theatre to watch a show alone. I go for a communal experience. After last night's Oscars, I'm sure everyone's bored to tears of having the "there's something special about seeing a movie in a theater (boo hoo, poor us, people are watching our crap for free on the Internet, waah waah waah)" line hammered into the backs of our skulls. But, they're right... at least about the first part. It's important for people to have public experiences where they're united with strangers and... no. I'm gonna stop right there. This is way too pu**y.
'The average improviser is an average improviser. If average improvisers were more shameless they wouldn't be average...'
Anyway, here's what we can learn from this. Every friend and family member in your audience is making your show better. As both an actor and producer, I like doing shows with actors that make the show better. Therefore, I will always prefer to work with (and give preference in casting) to people that have the drive, dedication, and confidence to stack their audience. I don't care if you're better on stage, that new girl and her fifteen sorority sisters are helping to make everyone on stage look better, not just you. And, stop b*tching if you lost that cagematch because those jerks brought the whole office to the show. Their set was better than yours because they did so. Believe me, having been on the losing end of one of these, I know the importance of this one... and of learning how to play rock paper scissors better.
So, should you only promote yourself to people you know? Of course not! Don't be an idiot! But, you should promote to them first. Before you spend thousands on advertising for your opening night, make sure you've at least got enough personal rsvp's that you can still do the show when your huge ad campaign only brings in two drunks and a hobo.
And, by the way, as I said last time, if you don't want to charge these people, then don't! As far as I can tell, there isn't a single improv troupe in Utah that wouldn't appreciate a few extra supporters in their audience. So, there should always be room to comp a few people. Remember, these friendly audience members are an important resource for you. And, I haven't even mentioned how crucial they are for generating word of mouth! So, if you don't comp them, you should at least consider discounting them, or making the price optional, or something!1
Obviously, if you don't ever get any new audience members that you don't know personally, then none of what I've written really matters, and you've got a much bigger problem than the money you lose giving tickets away to your friends. BUT, if your 20 invited audience members can give that 1 newbie a better experience, then I posit that it was all worth it.
Well, that just about does it for this article. Before I leave you, though, I'll murk things up a bit. Given the importance of friendly faces in your crowds, is there anything wrong with filling your audiences with people that will laugh hysterically and applaud uproariously at all your meanderings, no matter how miserable and pathetic they be?
This is a little more difficult to answer. In fact, I'm not gonna answer it today. In the next article, I'll actually be taking a break from this series of 10 lessons (don't think for a second that I don't already know what the other 7 are) to discuss this exact issue, as well as to tackle the possible conflicts of interest between Zach's interview and my last article, and to respond to some interesting ideas on the UI.com message boards (I love you, Ryloc). Until then, if you still disagree, come see BASSPROV -- they can tell you you're wrong, too.
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