Jul 6, 2013

Smaller Audiences, Better Audiences

Years ago, when I lived in New York City as a young actor, I was signed on to my first agency. This agency is the kind that represented those folks that dress as toy soldiers and stand outside the F.A.O. Schwartz Toy Store around Christmas time. They represented magicians. They represented leggy models who gestured towards rotating cars at automobile shows. 

I learned a lot from that first agency. One important thing they told me was "people won't hire you if they don't know about you."

Skip ahead to closer to now...

I had a heated discussion over beers on the back patio of a bar recently with a good friend of mine. He was giving me semi-drunken and very unsolicited advice and, though he did not mean it in such a way, it initially came off patronizing. The advice was about how to get attention from the press at all costs in order to get the press to draw people to my shows. He advocated aggressively pursuing feature stories and profiles above all, even when you might not have anything to promote.

I agreed that features could be beneficial, but I differed in my belief that these sorts of things should necessarily be pursued. I especially drew offense that one should get press even if there was no reason to do so (i.e. nothing to promote). I also caused tension by stating that I don't believe that the press is the be-all-end-all for actually promoting one's work.

Related side-tangent: My modus operandi is one that could jokingly be described as "anti-promotion." I try not to go around shouting from the rooftops about how cool I am, where I've been or what I have accomplished. This is not to say I haven't done anything warranting potential boastfulness. It is just, I do not like that trait in others, so I do not propagate it in myself. I know it is a thin line to walk. As an artist I must promote my work, but so often I see lesser artists way over-hyping themselves. When I look them up, and see that there is way more flash than substance, I am usually let down by what I find. Instead of discovering the tip of the iceberg, I realize I have seen the submerged part first and there is very little left that is engaging. This over-hyping comes off as pretentious boasting. In my book, it is one of the worst things an artist can be... so full of themselves with absolutely no ability to back up what they claim they can do.

It should be noted, nine times out of ten, those folks who need to tell  people how good they are, usually aren't. 

I try to operate more like the people I admire. These people just do stuff, create stuff, relentlessly, and then let audiences discover what they have done gradually. That act of discovery is powerful.

The audience members, or patrons as I call them, come to the work all on their own, in their own time and in their own ways. Supporters of the work build over time, gradually, through word of mouth. I imagine, after a patron experiences a show of mine - maybe two - he or she will look me up online. If they like my stuff and what I stand for as an artist and person, they join my mailing list. They become advocates for me and my work. I have made a connection. Bluster and boastfulness can simply be a turn-off that works as an obstacle to this process.

Taking a for-instance from my own experience: a young improviser last year took one of my workshops. He got a follow-up email from me thanking him for taking the workshop. At the bottom of the email, as part of my signature, was a link to my website (this website). He clicked the link and then once here clicked to other things. The next time I saw this improviser he confessed that he was floored at how extensive my artistic pursuits were. He had had no idea that I had directed this and that, or worked with so and so, or performed at XYZ and so on. He confessed that during the workshop, though he found it really fun and beneficial, he just thought I was "some guy." The improviser asked me why I hadn't mentioned any of that to him before. I replied, "Would you have believed me and whatever I had to say about myself if you hadn't discovered this stuff on your own?" His exposure to me was way more personal and tremendously more powerful since he discovered the bulk of what he knows about me on his own. I became his discovery. He owns that discovery.

It is a powerful way to connect. And connection is what it is all about.

So, I don't really court the press. I don't ignore it, but I don't aggressively pursue it. I don't play that game. When I do stuff that warrants press, I reach out without getting in anyone's face. The press shows up or it doesn't. In the long run this may prove to be a fool's belief and I may well someday change my mind about it, but only time will tell.

"Be so good they can't ignore you."

~ Steve Martin

Plus, nowadays, with all sorts of avenues open for mediating information (outlets such as this very blog), the need for press is not as all-consuming. The artist has more control (well, marginally) of and the where-with-all to get the word out to prospective audience members.

The chief benefits I see from press are pretty basic: lead-ups and reviews do a little bit to generate buzz and online press serves as a nice timecapsule or archive of (what one person thought) of the work. And that's about it.

As my friend was aggressively telling me how wrong I was not to flat out exploit the press as much as possible to get the word out about my projects, especially using feature write-ups, he said something like, "Don't you want to get as many people as possible to see your stuff?"

And to my surprise, without a pause, I replied, "No. I don't want as many people as possible to see my stuff!"

I was surprised because I had never said that out loud before. But it was true. To an extent. 

Let me explain...

Ultimately, I want a great number of people to experience my art, especially my theatre work. But I'm in no hurry. I look at it as a long-term thing. I want word of mouth and build up. I want my hard-earned reputation to carry my work to bigger and bigger audiences over time, like a ripple in a pond. I want people to discover me. The people that see the work now will tell their friends and then those people will tell others and so on. It will take time, but the trade-off is a matter of quality, not quantity.

The early-adopters (so to speak) of my work have something that others don't: they saw it back when... There is an exclusivity to it. A value. The tide will rise, even if it has to happen slowly, and encompass more and more of the shore. My relationship with these individual audience members, these patrons, will deepen, too. They will progress along with me. I will grow and the community will pick up more and more as we go along.

Sirens of yore didn't yell, they sang. They lured. They seduced. I prefer to hum my own little song, not shout as loud as possible, "Hey, I'm here, pay attention to me!"

It is a matter of perceived value. I'm making high quality, small-scale theatre. It is somewhat exclusive.

So, I'll take a really engaged 20 audience members over a disinterested 100 any day of the week. I don't just want butts-in-seats, I want advocates. I know this flies in the face of the usual assumptions, but I am not interested in the usual assumptions.

My friend followed up, though, with a very good suggestion. He asked, "Wouldn't the percentages of people that could be really into your works be higher if the amount of people who were exposed to you in the first place was higher?"

He had a point. The more people who know about me the better the chances of gathering the small number of quality audience members. The more quality audience members I have now, the more that number can grow. Thus, features and profiles from the press are a good idea. I know this. I'm just not convinced I should court them like a love-sick prep-schooler. But if and when they come my way (because I can no longer be ignored), I will embrace them.

After all, if you are doing it right, you don't find an audience for your work... they find you.

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