March 01, 2015

Artist's Guide to (Ugh) Self-Promotion

Weird truth. Artists, who often hate self-promotion, despise shmoozing, and eschew direct discussion of their work are the ones who MUST promote it.  It's annoying, but true.

No one likes it, but there are very few occasions where someone who creates a work won't also have to be a bit of a cheerleader for their own work.  People want to know you believe in the value of what you've produced.  And until you can afford some hot shot agent who gets paid to sound excited about you and your work, you're all you've got. (Aside from your mom's affirming comments on FB. Thanks, mom!) 

I've been a theatre artist for about half my life now and in that time I've learned a few things about how to attract attention, and how to "sell" your work, be it studio art pieces or performances.  None of this is based on marketing classes or research, but purely on my personal experience.

1. People need to be encouraged to do ANYTHING. Even the things they want to do.  

It's easy to feel defeated when only a few people show up, or when people don't notice the poster, or don't read the article, see the ad or any of the above.  I hear people saying "we need theatre in this town" and yet they've never been to see a play at Lee or the Ocoee Theatre Guild.  I have been personally involved in the creation of roughly 20 plays in Cleveland and Chattanooga in my 5 years in this town.  And yet people say they wish there was some theatre for them around here. It's enough to make one crazy.

So, I must remember how there are dozens of things I've NOT done or tried, even though I'd like to them. I'd like to try yoga someday, I always enjoy writing, I'd like to read more books, see more live musicians play.  And yet, I often don't.

Someone who doesn't "bite the hook" of whatever you're promoting isn't really saying "no" to you. They're sometimes saying "not now" and sometimes, they just didn't even see the hook.

2.  Your friends and family should support your art because they love it, not because they love you. 

When I was 15, my older brother was put in charge while my parents went away for a long weekend. He suggested I should call all my friends and throw a party.  He was ten years my senior and was certainly more experienced at parties than I was.  I was mostly a well-behaved nerd who had never been to the kind of party he was imagining, much less thrown one.  But I was game.  So, I started to make some calls.  Jeff, my brother was sitting in the kitchen, listening in as I made my first call.

"Hi, _____?  Yeah, are you busy tomorrow night?  I'm having a party.  Yeah, at my place.  You should come.  It won't be as much fun if you're not there.... okay, well, think about it.  I really want you to come"

When I hung up, Jeff gave me some sage advice.  "When you invite someone to a party, they have to believe it will be a good time whether they are there or not.  They cannot, for one moment, worry that the burden of the party's fun will be on their shoulders.  They should instead feel like they would be missing something if they weren't at the party."

And of course he was right.  People who care about you MIGHT do you a favor and come to your show, or your buy your CD, but that kind of patronage will drop off very quickly.  Unless, they start to love your work.  Your relationship with someone will buy you a first chance.  Your friends and family will be more likely to support you than a stranger in your beginning days, but if they don't enjoy themselves, they will stop.

The principle is the same for family/friends as it is for strangers:  If it's good, they will want more. So make it good, and convince them in the promotion of the thing that it's something everyone will enjoy, whether they are one of those people or not.

3.  Get attention.  Sell.  Give details.  

When making a poster, ad, Facebook message, whatever. The first thing you must do is get noticed.
It's worth noting here that sometimes, the most professional looking advertising can blend in with all the other advertising.  Just because it's slick and impressive for you, doesn't mean it will stand out thumb-tacked to a bulletin board of other ads, or on a page of newspaper ads just like it.  Think of where your ad/poster/FB status gets seen, and what makes people take a second look.

This might involve thinking way outside the box. When I started an improv team at Taylor University, the only approved way to promote events was to hang flyers on the bulletin boards, but they were badly overloaded and no one really looked closely at them. I needed a new way to advertise that wouldn't add clutter where school administrators didn't want it.  So, I bought a few 24-can packs of Coke and I wrapped each can in a label.  One side said "drink me," the other side listed the dates and times of our improv show. Then, we placed them all over the largest academic buildings on campus between the two busiest class sessions.  As a result, not only were people picking up our advertising and walking around with it, but they were being asked about it as they walked into their next class.

In my experience, getting attention is about 70% of the work of advertising.

Then, once they do look more closely, clearly and concisely say what your thing is and why they might like it.  In the smallest number of words possible.

Then finally, give the deets.  (date, time, phone number - remember that people will actually go looking for these things once you have done a. gotten attention and b. sold your event)  Don't make the mistake of thinking "the date is very important so it must be really big!"

When advertising on social media, get something in people's newsfeeds that's attention-grabbing. Then include a LINK to an event or page with all the details.  A huge post with lots of dates, times, and prices will be passed over.

4.  (Re: Events) Keep times, dates, webpages, admission prices extremely simple.
When I took over as the sponsor for the Lee improv team, they were a very skilled group of performers but their shows were $1, or a canned good, Friday at 8, and Saturday at 7 and 9.  This was confusing, hard to remember, and a mess on all posters and advertisements.  Now all shows are a dollar and all shows are at 7 and 9.

Keep pricing super simple.  I know it's tempting to think of different groups that should get varying discounts, but this helps no one.  When a person understands what something will cost them, even if it's a bit more expensive than they'd hoped, they will be more willing to pay than if they need a calculator to figure out discounts and multiple price plans for their group.

5.  Win over NEW converts by going to them.  Don't expect them to come to you. 

Whether you are a visual artist, a musician, or a dancer, someone who doesn't know you or your company, or maybe even, your art form, will not cross all the unknown psychological barriers for an unknown quantity.  So, bring your art to them.  Set up a workshop at a local school or community center where you teach people how to do something, then, once they are personally connected to you and your art, invite them to something.

People RARELY go to an event cold.  They know someone involved, or they've heard testimonials from people they know about it.  But if you're starting something new and expecting ads, posters and radio spots to get people to your event, you're dreaming.

6.  Build a community around your thing.

If you want a long-lasting following, take advantage of the ways in which art is a communal event. If someone comes to a play, it's likely that they appreciate the communal spirit of a live event, or they'd just stay home and watch Netflix.  Play to that.  Go learn names, introduce people to each other.  Have talkback sessions, parties, and events that don't just connect patrons to your work, but to each other. Make the "regulars" feel like part of the family by sending out "in process" photos of a painting, or a recording of a live session, or rehearsal photos.  When you can create a fan base that has made your art a part of their life, everyone who knows them is being sold on your work when they have a conversation or ask them about their weekend plans.  Make your fans insiders and they will sell your work without even trying.

Those are just my thoughts for now.  There are probably a million articles like this around the internet, and I'm reminding myself of these things as much as I'm telling you. But in truth, that's most of what this blog is.

Happy promoting!

February 26, 2015

Loot Crate, Clark Beckham, and Diabeetus

Loot Crate
This week I received my first Loot Crate. ( It's a subscription service with a monthly fee that ensures you will receive a box in the mail full of nerdy goodies.  

This month's theme was "Play. The box itself transformed into a board game, there is a novel that looks really cool (called "Ready Player One"), a little Munny Doll (think a wipe board in the shape of a dwarf), a robot bug, and a fun little card game called Superfight - which is like Cards Against Humanity but with various "fighters" on the black cards and "powers" on the white cards.  So you might get "A Grizzly Bear" and "That shoots lasers out of its ears".  You play what you think is a powerful combo and then make your case for why your fighter would win in a match-up against your opponent. The rest of the table votes and a winner is declared.  Rachel Anne and I played it with just the two of us, which pretty much means that we were just arguing over whose fighter was more awesome like middle schoolers arguing about whose dad could beat up the other's.  But it was a good time.  We ordered the full game, because it's exactly the kind of game we could have fun playing with our friends (thinking Rob and Ashley, Tom and Kristen, and probably the Faricellis). Warning: if real game rules, or a legit competition are what you crave in a game, this is not for you.  If ridiculous logic and absurd scenarios are your thing... check out Superfight.  

Clark Beckham

Clark is a friend who I directed in a couple plays.  He's an outstanding and gifted singer and musician and a truly great person.  The kind of guy who is wise beyond his years, but who is humble and self-effacing.  ANYWAY, he is in the the Top 24 on American Idol this season and it is so fun to see him winning everyone over with his talent, charm, and general goodness.  Check him out and vote for him if you like. 

Clark Beckham as Balthazzar singing his own composition of "Sigh No More" in Lee Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing


Rachel Anne (my wife) brought a funny little dog into our family when we got married.  Her name is Cowsocks and she normally looks like a meatloaf with legs.  But she's been losing a lot of weight lately.  So we took her to the vet and it turns out...

She will be fine (we'll need to give her shots regularly) but now I call her Wilford and Elijah calls her Cowabeetus.

February 22, 2015

Watching People Laugh - It's Funny

I have a new observation about comedy.  People love to watch other people laugh.

There's little that causes genuine laughter like genuine laughter.  

You've seen it. When SNL actors start to laugh in the middle of a scene.  It's a mistake but it's supremely enjoyable.  We imagine the fun it must be to do what they are doing and we watch them enjoying entertaining us.  It's always funny. 

I'm currently directing The 39 Steps, a very funny parody of the spy-thriller.  And it's never funnier than when I notice the actors struggling to keep from laughing.  I don't encourage it. It can hurt the narrative to some degree. But when one actor does something hilarious and it takes the other off guard, it's hard not to enjoy the stifled giggles and covered smiles. 

I've experienced this quite a bit myself.  I have done a lot of improv shows and specifically, I have often hosted those shows.  And as a host I find that the audience is often watching me watch the scenes.  I don't think it's because I'm ridiculously good looking, I think it's because I'm their proxy on stage.  I am the first audience member and I am often cueing them about how to react to scenes.  When I laugh, they laugh, both at the players, and at me laughing at the players.  After shows, audience members often want to talk to me about moments they saw me laughing the hardest.  I've even heard them say "I love watching your reactions to the scenes as much as the scenes themselves."

I think there's an honesty to laughter.  Fake laughter is immediately recognizable and, I daresay, truly off-putting.  But someone caught up in a moment of hilarity is true, honest, vulnerable, and very human.  And, as I always tell my actors, there's nothing more compelling onstage than someone being fully human.  Laughter breaks through the barriers of self-consciousness, especially spontaneous laughter like in the clip above.  

Perhaps it's why we spend so much of our time trying to make each other laugh.  We are trying to spur an involuntary joy response.  Because we know it's real. 

Ten years wiser, ten pounds heavier

I started this blog 10 years ago.  It's been some time since I've blogged regularly, but that's going to change.  

I am a writer. I communicate best through the written word.  And yet, I often don't take the time to do it.  To process my life and circumstances through words.  So, I'm starting back again.  

A lot has happened since I started this blog.  I went to grad school. I've become a professor (assistant) of theatre, I've directed and performed in a whole lot of theatre.  I've raised two boys through the tender years.  They are 11 and 13 now, they'll learn more on the bus and the internet than from me now.  (Kidding, sort of) 

I've gotten divorced, which was very bad.  And I remarried, which was very good.

I've moved a few times (mostly in the same town).

I've taught a lot of students, and learned from more.

I lost too much weight, then gained too much back.  

I have been to Europe.

I have been to Detroit. 

Europe was better.

I might be a bit wiser than I was when I blogged before.  Might.  

I used to have a lot of big opinions and questions. Now I mostly have regrets, a few observations, and a bunch of stories where grace was shown to me in spite of my big opinions.

I'd like to say I have more answers.  Instead, I have more questions, less expectation that I'll find answers, and more peace about that.

I have less hair, more battle scars.

There's less I want to do and more I want to be.  

I started this blog at 30 and in August I'll be 40.  I could never have imagined the path my life would take 10 years ago.  In truth, I wouldn't have picked a lot of it.  Yet, some of it is better than I could've imagined.  

In ten more years, when my boys are both in their 20s and I'm 50, I'll probably have a new list of ways I've changed since I was 40.  

I plan to chart the journey here.  However, sporadically.  You can read along if you like.  

March 16, 2012

In the head

The truth is, love is in the head.
Emotion residing in our body's blood pump is but a folksy construct.
Sure we might feel sadness in our chest, like an empty ache
And yes, you could say that feelings travel through us,
As though the heart is pumping out joy or pain into every extremity.
Some might even argue that heartbreak feels life threating, like cardiac arrest
But that’s all just romantic fancy.
Love is in the head.

December 13, 2011

The Veil

The Veil

I don’t know when it happened
Or how it got so thick
But there it rests
Between me and the Sky.
I usually resign myself to sputtering about
Generously naming the darkness “healthy doubt”
But on days like these I try to lift my head
Straining weakened muscles to look up
And I scan the veil
For a hole, a thinner place
Where the light bleeds through.
With furtive moves and side steps I inch
Toward warmer earth on my feet and a glare in my eyes.
Some days it’s enough.
Some days.

by Dan Buck

August 13, 2010

Pedagogical Crisis - Why should they care?

So, I have begun at Lee.

My colleagues and I have been enduring a number of long meetings. It's lots of good stuff, but it's lots of sitting for a borderline ADHD guy like me.

Wed. we heard from the university president, Dr. Paul Conn. Despite his long tenure as president (25 years) the man is clearly an educator first. He understands the minds and hearts of both professors and students and he has inspiring things to say about how to make the two meet. He's funny and passionate and wise.

Jeanette Norden, PhD
Vanderbilt School of Medicine
Yesterday, we were privileged to hear from Dr. Jeanette Norden who is a professor at Vanderbilt Medical school.  She has won numerous teaching awards and had very valuable and moving stories to tell.  Here are the three primary things I've taken from her seminar.
  1. Teach less better.
  2. Let the end goal(s) of the course inform every class.
  3. Model the kind of thinking you expect from them. (and the kind of person you hope they'll be)
It's numbers 1 and 2 that have me most concerned about the course I just finished putting together.  I have been asked to teach Drama Lit I.  A history course that traces the trends of theatre from Classical to Ibsen.  (that's 500 BCE to 1900 CE).   Anyway, there's a lot you can pack into a course like that and packed I have.

But yesterday I realized I was more worried about what I am teaching than why I am teaching it.  (A common rookie mistake according to Dr. Norden.)  So now I am left looking again at my syllabus with the following questions:
  1. Why will my students care about these plays and playmakers and their historical contexts?
  2. Is there a grand story to be told that will have more impact than details about sundry period styles and drama theory?
  3. Is it wise to try to create a "master narrative" for a class of postmodern students who respond better to multiple layered and fragmented narratives?
Wrestling with these questions is my task for the next few days.  It's scary and intimidating as all true growth is, but it reminds me of the fortunate position I am in.  I get paid to learn more about subjects that I love and devise the best ways to spread that love!  I could do much worse.

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