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Marketing Lessons from a 40-Year-Old Theatre Company

Yes, grasshopper, it seems the teacher has become the student.

This fall, I embarked on my first official theatrical Press Reppin’ project with the Billie Holiday Theatre. While I’ve promoted shows before, it’s been as a producer or out of another affiliation with the project, never with the formal PR job title. And while I do marketing and promotional strategy daily for other clients, they’re primarily for-profit endeavors, both in the arts and beyond.

The baggage I hauled to my first strategy meeting with the producing artistic director was packed: ten years of my own experience with theatre and other live events in NYC, creating hundreds of marketing tactics for clients in recent years, and a mental file drawer full of ideas generated through writing here, reading other arts marketing articles, and constantly communicating with other arts marketers. And I’ll admit, the Gen-Y side of me was ready to tear in there and re-brand, re-launch, and refresh the whole operation.

But the Billie has been around for nearly 40 years, producing and selling out shows season after season, so the company had a thing or two to teach me.   At the core, it’s a matter of getting back to the basics, even in the age of cleverness and social media and sustainable audience panic, all coming back to the #1 marketing rule that the audience must come first.

Marketable Products, aka Produce Shows Your Audience Will Love
Artists like to make the jump from “audience-pleasing” to “selling out,” when in fact there’s an ocean in between – swimming with pieces both produced and never seen that can both honor your mission and entertain your audience. The Billie struck a great balance between the two by commissioning the playwright of their last big hit to write original shows for the upcoming season.

Marketing Partnerships, aka Build Relationships with Groups
I almost fell of my chair when I learned many performances were sold out months in advance. Establishing relationships with community organizations and creating incentives for them to purchase tickets in big blocks well in advance is a can’t-miss strategy for resident companies.

Brand Consistency, aka Don’t Fix it if it’s Not Broken
The artistic – and entrepreneurial – itch is to recreate constantly. But this can be death when it comes to a brand. Be clear on your mission and your audience, and get innovative when it comes to new ways of communicating that brand.

Scalability, aka Community over Commercial
There aren’t many off-Broadway productions in New York that aren’t overly preoccupied with the potential of “moving” – to an out-of-town run and eventually Broadway. Of course it’s enormously rewarding for a production to be extended, but there’s beauty in the finite, and integrity in developing a well-balanced group of shows that will play in harmony.

So, a special message especially to the emerging arts administrators out there – bring your ideas, your energy, and your inspiration to new project, jobs, and endeavors, but never forget that you have plenty to learn from those who’ve gone before.

Playwright Jackie Alexander on the Billie Holiday Theatre's 39th Season