A Theater Marketer’s Rant

Alli Houseworth, marketing director for Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, achieved an odd distinction at the TCG conference: She was able to redirect the conversation in two sessions by voicing her objections to panel discussions on Twitter. And even though one might think the mere fact that Twitter influenced the discussions is a sign that TCG’s members are adapting to new technology and ideas – one of Houseworth’s gripes – that’s not the case.

“If we were adapting, we wouldn’t be interrupting the session, it would be the session,” she says.

Houseworth’s tweets became a topic of conversation during Arts Journal founder and Engine 28 director Doug McLennan’s discussion, “The Community Formerly Known as the Audience,” when he was giving examples of the social media behavior of young people. “I really wish this audience would stop laughing at the behaviors of gen y,” she tweeted. Because McLennan encouraged people to text during his presentation, the remarks were brought to his attention in the middle of the session, and he agreed. Two days later, Houseworth watched a panel called “What if … the Future of the Field were in the Hands of Today’s Artists?” with playwrights Marcus Gardley and Sage Lewis, composer Mimi Lien and designer Tanya Selvaratnam. When the panelists brought up the topic of marketing, Houseworth didn’t like what she heard. She tweeted, “I’m so over this conversation surrounding #newplays that implies all marketing directors are stupid and evil.” And then, “I am now officially depressed.” And then, “I AM MARKETING DIRECTOR. I EAT ARTIST FOR BREAKFAST. RARRR!!!”

So who is getting Houseworth so agitated?

1. Playwrights

“I feel like lately, in these conversations with artists – and I have to say, I love artists and I love playwrights – but I’ve been in a lot of conversations with them since the New Play gathering at Arena Stage, and I feel like there’s this perception that playwrights don’t think that marketers can do their jobs. This is a blanket statement, but I’m hearing that playwrights don’t think that marketers are reaching out to their audiences in the right way, so the playwrights have to go do that work. I’m just sort of frustrated because I’m wondering what the playwrights think I do all day … Do you think I live in a bubble? And I’m just a machine and I run print ads and radio ads, and don’t even think, and haven’t even read your play? What do you think I’m doing all day long?”

2. Marketers

“I’m very angry about arts marketing. If you’re not talking to the artist, what are you doing as an arts marketer? Why aren’t we on the ground? Why aren’t we developing audiences – and I’m not talking about young people, I’m talking about all kinds of people … I want to serve your art in the way that you perceive it to be true, but I hope I bring a different truth and perspective to it as well. Especially because I’m supposed to know my own community really well and if you’re coming in from a different city, you might not know my community like I do. I think a lot of what these playwrights are hearing is that marketers don’t talk to them, but we don’t do that at Woolly. We talk to artists all the time. And I think that a lot of my marketing peers do the same. It’s very frustrating … I wonder about these playwrights that say these things … Who is this horrible person who made you believe this?”

3. The change-averse

“These people from the older generation say ‘This is how the millennials behave,’ and perhaps it sounds ridiculous that we tweet or something. And they laugh, and you can’t change if you’re laughing at the behaviors of another generation, or the behaviors of another culture. Would you laugh if someone said. ‘Black people do this.’ Would you laugh? No. So [McLennan is] telling you facts. It’s the truth, and you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that, and the teenagers [of the session, "A Holistic Approach for Engaging a Teen Audience] felt that too. It’s as if [older people] think it’s weird that you spend this time online, but that’s a behavioral trait and that’s not going to change. I don’t laugh at you because you read the newspaper.”

But Houseworth isn’t ranting idly. She has a few ideas to reduce the disconnect between marketers and artists so that each can understand each other’s roles in the complicated ecosystem of arts and management.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a take-your-artist-to-work day?” says Houseworth. “Come with me for a day and see what I do, and understand the challenges of having to make the bottom line. Look at my revenue projections and look at my staff that I have to make money for, so they can have jobs so you can have a job. Look at how I am advertising, and my vision for the play.”

Houseworth thinks that if playwrights spent more time with the marketing department, the marketing department could teach them about the community they’re bringing their work to.

“What if you came to D.C. six months before we started rehearsing your play, and you hung out with our staff for a day, and met some community stakeholders?” she says. “And we just talked about our values, and what excites us about this particular piece of work. And then you get to know the community, and see a show and get to know our audience.”

Because really, playwrights and marketers are coming from the same place, says Houseworth.

“Artists are going to hate me for this, but most administrators in theaters started as artists at some point,” she says. “I don’t think that most young people are like, ‘I want to be an arts administrator when I grow up,’ or ‘I want to be a fundraiser.’ those things come out of your passion for the art … I can make a shit-ton of money somewhere else, but I care about the plays and new plays and playwrights in particular … I think that most theater administrators are passionate about the art and the artist.”

Comments

  1. Rants and raves are necessary right now because they can start another and sometimes better discussion. I agree completely that one generation should not be laughing at the techniques and ideas of another. We will get no where with this attitude. I also have to say that some of these conferences need more representation from all generations. If we want a diverse point of view, people of all backgrounds, colors, ages, etc. need to be presenting. If we want a diverse audience, ditto.

    However, I do not completely agree with being agitated with playwrights and other artists and claiming that they are “picking” on the marketing departments. There is a little grain of salt with some of the comments that they have. Believe me, I’m an arts administrator in a sense too, but I have come to realize that there are times when there is a big disconnect between the artists and the marketing department, and it is not all the artists’ fault. Most of the playwrights and artists that are complaining are the ones that would like to be more involved. It’s not the fact that they feel we don’t know what we are doing, but they are the ones that know their art inside and out, and I agree that having them be part of the initial marketing process could be quite helpful. Having them be part of your audience development would be a good idea too.

    On the flip-side, I happened to be a marketer that was practically begging artists/composers/and such to be a part of this stage, and sometimes the artists were the ones that did not want to get involved. If these such artists complain, it really is their own fault for not contributing positively. If a marketing director needs an artist to get involved with branding, audience development and marketing strategy, and they ask the artist, it would be best for the artist to jump at the chance to collaborate on these levels.

    It would be nice if artists came into town early, found out what it is like in the marketing department, and actually contributed in positive ways, but we as marketers also have to swallow our egos if they happen to have a good suggestion for us too.

    All in all, it would be good for each part of the arts to be appreciative and helpful of all the other parts. The other parts could be other departments, other generations, etc. We need to be mindful that we are all a part of a team and everyone needs to connect and understand the arts and the community (of people) surrounding them. Until then, rant on and continue to follow up with considerate suggestions for solutions. It was very interesting how these tweets could steer the conversation. Imagine if we all lent our voice for more constructive thoughts and actions!

  2. I’m not change averse – I just abhor uncouth, ill-mannered young people who do not know how to act.

    Moreover these same fanfarons labor under a misconception that people should accept this uncivilized conduct; simply because these crude young people are going to outlive those who know better and were raised with some standards of behavior.

    GROW UP GEN Y. You don’t know everything and I’m actually relieved I won’t have to live in the future you’re creating; dystopian I’m sure.

    • As opposed to the Utopia created by the Last Great Youth Generation of the 60’s?

      Those ill-mannered long haired hippies who didn’t know the proper way to dress/cut their hair/keep their sexuality repressed? And then transformed into the 80’s, 90’s and the current ruling class that’s doing such a bang up job?

      Generational conflict is nothing new. People and times change. We can be more specific about what changes and what stays the same – based on values and the best-cases as well as worst-cases.

      I don’t love twitter and I don’t love people distracting themselves during a show. But I understand that the technology is there and people find great use in it. Guess my show will just have to be good enough to hold attention, and/or reflect and learn about the kind of attention people are giving. Shakespeares’ audience (to use the cliche argument) were very distracted. Explains the repetition.

      The idea of writers and makers spending some time “in community” and with the people who have to promote the work is a good one.

  3. James Harris says:

    Okay, was she tweeting or was she texting? These quotes are too long to be single tweets. Was she breaking them up? Or were they not on Twitter at all? Her point of view is valuable and interesting, but it seems a little one-sided (just what she’s accusing playwrights of being). She seems to think that playwrights misunderstand producers and marketers, but that she understands playwrights just fine, has valuable artistic insights they need to listen to, “gets” their process, etc. I’m not impressed by the argument that “administrators started as artists at some point.” No they didn’t. They started as aspiring artists. If they were ever artists, that’s what they stayed, even if they DID become administrators as well. Laurence Olivier headed the National Theatre, but he didn’t give up acting for it. He didn’t cease to become Laurence Olivier. Trevor Nunne, Terry Hands, Peter Hall never ceased to direct when they ran theatres. I’m not awed that some administrator of a museum used to be a Sunday painter, and if a theatre administrator “used to be” a practitioner of some art, I’m betting their talents in that sphere were not indispensable. Administrators always seem to be frustrated performers, which is why so many of them insist upon giving curtain speeches.

    • Jason Loewith says:

      Ouch. That’s an ugly comment. We are all theater makers, and if we truly believe theater is a collaborative art, we better have respect going every which way. Alli’s point is well taken and reflects the findings in Outrageous Fortune, which suggested transparency between playwrights and producers is almost nonexistent. Its essential… The perceived divide between artist and administrator helps no one.

      So sez Jason Loewith, Executive Director of the National New Play Network, multiple award winner for ADDING MACHINE, guy who achieves regular budget surpluses, LORT employed director, and curtaispeecher extraordinaire.

  4. Interesting conversation, and i was at Doug McLennan’s session, the first one we’re talking about. One of my takeaways from the entire conference was this: I work for a smaller company. 4 full-time employees and many artistic associates. Because we’re small we face certain challenges. But because we’re small we don’t have walls between marketers and artists, we have no silos, we just talk to each other and attack challenges collaboratively. We work hard, as i’m sure you all do, but we are all in everything together. It works well.

  5. Alli Houseworth rules!

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  1. [...] incredulous and pejorative tone (there’s actually a great article about that trend, focusing on marketing cowboy Alli Houseworth here) that the media in use could actually be furthering the arts in a positive way.  Similarly, the [...]

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