LA Stage, July/August 2004


State of the Arts: Word of Mouth




Publicists for live performances in Los Angeles have a unique challenge: Selling the "lively arts" in the world's entertainment capital, where the competition for the public's and the media's attention is constant--from movies to TV to Southern California's famous leisurely lifestyle.


Unsurprisingly, those who do it for a living are often as passionate about their challenging mission as the people who make live theatre and music in this town. LA Stage assembled a diverse group for an animated discussion at Engine Company No. 28: Nancy Hereford, director of public relations for Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum; David Elzer, whose independent company Demand PR handles a variety of L.A. theatre companies, from Circle X to the Colony; Tim Choy, a longtime partner in Davidson/Choy Publicity, which handles many major clients, from the local run of The Producers to Cirque du Soleil; Elizabeth Hinckley, director of marketing for the Los Philharmonic, both at Disney Hall and at the Hollywood Bowl; Scalla Sheen, publicist for UCLA Live, which presents a varied program of live events, from music to spoken word, at various campus venues; and Wayne McWhorter, director of publicity for Broadway LA, the local producing wing of the Nederlander Organization.


Q: Let me start by asking what trends you see in press coverage of live performance, whether it's theatre or music?


Hereford: The trend is fewer outlets, and it's scary. Newspapers are being bought up and combined, and there are fewer outlets.


Choy: And less space at those.


Hereford: And the poor journalists who are working on those combined, bought-up newspapers are covering way too much for one person so they have less time to do as many features as they could--and they're doubling as reviewers.


Choy: There's another trend that's a side of that, which is: Our community makes a lot of theatre--a lot of theatre. People don't think of that very often when they think about how hard it is to get coverage. A big show opens in our town once a week. If you were a New York theatergoer and you were gonna keep your habit up here, you'd have more to see than you probably thought you could go to.


Hinckley: Putting it in a little bigger picture, I spent a lot of time with the Getty Fellows--a USC program for arts journalists. One of the reasons the Getty started this program is because they realized that arts coverage in the United States was getting cut. There were two trends: One, papers were mixing culture and entertainment, and so instead of culture writers who specialized in real niche markets, like theatre or music, they'll find someone who'd be a catchall, who would be able to do all music, whether it be classical or whatever. The other part of that was, even at The New York Times, the new culture editor is someone who has no culture background--he comes from the paper's New York section. And at The L.A. Times, [deputy managing editor] John Montorio and some of those folks actually did not come from a culture background either, and they're now responsible for Calendar. I do think it says something about what we represent if they think you don't need someone who has a very fine background in theatre--I mean, is there a theatre critic at The L.A. Times yet?


Choy: No.


Hinckley: Also, John Rockwell from The New York Times was talking about how frustrated he was that arts organizations seem to think a critic's first job is to sell tickets, and that if they write a review, the publicist has the right to call and complain because they haven't helped sell tickets. They don't think that is their first job. It is to critique what they see, and if they happen to like it, great, but they don't feel like they owe anything to an arts organization.


McWhorter: I don't think there's a publicist who works in theatre who believes the critic's job is to publicize the show. It is a critic's job to critique. And I don't think any of us would ever call a critic and say, "I'm sorry, you were supposed to give us a great review, what were you thinking?" It is our job to go to the theatre editors and pitch features.


Hinckley: I need to clarify: It wasn't the publicist who thought that. It was their organization--there's a misinformation about what the organizations think the critic should do.


McWhorter: You mean from above?


Hinckley: Yeah, I get that from my organization. When we get a bad review, I'm told to call [Times classical music critic] Mark Swed. Because I have a good rapport with Mark, I can do it. But there's misinformation on what the heads of the organization think the critic's job is, and what the media's job is.


Q: What about broadcast coverage, either locally or nationally?


Hereford: I'm probably the one who's been in the business the longest at this table. When I first got into theatre publicity, it was common for us to have a story on the local ABC, NBC, CBS affiliates. I remember the days when we were lining those camera crews up at the Taper. That was a number of years ago, and over the years, I've seen one by one all those entertainment editors and on-air reporters slide out of view, and say to me as they're going out the door, "Theatre's too esoteric; it doesn't have mass appeal." It was almost like they went to school to learn that one word, I heard "esoteric" so much.


McWhorter: I've seen a little bit different trend with relation to local television. I can remember at one point, there were two television stations that had entertainment reporters that did any kind of coverage, and the next year there were five.


Hereford: But that's for the big musicals you do. They're not going to cover August Wilson, Edward Albee. They're not going to cover Tony Kushner! It's just amazing. We had Al Pacino on our stage and they didn't cover it.


Elzer: I got some television on Menopause: the Musical because it was a big hit Off-Broadway. But basically, your television is limited. You've got a handful of people who actually are going to come out with any regularity to cover theatre. And you've got to pitch a celebrity.


Choy: Well, I think the whole news business changed somewhere between the Menendez brothers and 9/11, and the 10 or 15 huge stories that occupied the news between those two events. The industry is just so different now--it's all about some giant headline that almost nothing else can compete with.


McWhorter: The news has become entertainment in many of those cases. I mean, we saw the O.J. trial, where basically that became the all-consuming water cooler discussion. It's entertainment.


Choy: What theatre piece could compete with a white Bronco or flying a plane into a building? Not much.

Elizabeth Hinckley: Even national shows like 60 Minutes or CBS Sunday Morning, which used to be the pinnacle for doing more arts-based coverage--their producers, the ones who were pushing that, have changed over, and they have different mandates now. I've talked to producers, and they say, "That's not really us anymore. We do quality programming, and we'll do some of that, but we know that's not what sells."


Q: I'm wondering if you feel like you and/or your organizations have been able over the years to build a reputation for performing arts in L.A. or whether you feel like you have go from event to event, and essentially reinvent the wheel every time?


Choy: Well, we thought that was the fun of the job--that every show was different. Every show had different challenges; it was never going to be dull.


Hereford: For all of us, our primary objective is to have a sustained relationship with an editor and writers, and you have to have that trust to do your job effectively.


Hinckley: With our organization, we have to look at the pinnacles of the season. We know that everything's not going to be covered, so we have to decide from get-go: OK, what are the things that we have to get press on that we know? I really don't talk to the media about the other things that we're doing.


Elzer: At my job, I feel like I have to "event" every show I work on. If there's 40 shows opening up every week, that means 30 of them aren't going to get covered by anybody. And I don't want that for any of the shows I'm working on. So it's: What is sexy about this show? Every time I sit down with a new client, the first thing I ask--and this is the age-old marketing question--is, "What are we selling here? What is it that is going to be the sell that's going to get the bodies in the seats the first couple of weeks?" Because you're not even going to see, in most cases, your reviews break until the second weekend of your run, which may only be a six-week run. So what are you going to do for those first two weekends to insure you've got enough bodies in your seats, so that if the reviewers are fortunate enough to come that first weekend you're going to have a good house, and that will be able to start the word of mouth? Ultimately, good show, bad show, good reviews, bad reviews--after a couple weeks, word of mouth is what's gonna take off and turn your show into a hit or keep a lot of empty seats in that theatre.


Sheen: One of our fun challenges has been competing with our own organization: One week we'll have four events happening, and two are happening the same night. So I hear myself on the phone with one editor from a paper, and the other publicist on the phone with the other editor, and it's like, Good luck.


Q: So, with all the shows every week in L.A., what is your best advice for theatres and organizations to rise above the competition and get the media's attention?


McWhorter: There are a few things. It is the relationship you have with the media. It's being 98 percent honest. That's a quality that people don't normally associate with publicist; they tend to think that we're lying in order to get coverage. I assume I speak for most people at the table: It's not about lying, it's about finding out what is.


Hereford: You better not lie.


Choy: I think that you have to believe that people going to live entertainment, gathering in groups of people that they don't know, is a really good thing for the world, and that that's a big positive all the time. That's something that you just have to renew and renew and renew, and believe that there is a service in helping that process to happen.


Elzer: My biggest tip, especially for the smaller theatres, is to hire a marketing and/or publicity person as soon as you start production. The trap a lot of smaller theatres get into is, they spend so much on their production, they're spilling their blood, their sweat, their tears into getting their baby up, and then all of a sudden it's a week or two before the show opens, and they realize that nobody's been paying attention to the selling of the tickets, and it's, "How are we going to get the word about the show?" Creating the awareness of the show before you get any press on the show is really important. Because if the review is the first thing somebody sees on your show, it's almost going to be too late. You need to create some form of awareness about your show so that when you get the good review, that one plus two is what's going to translate into the ticket sale. Otherwise, they see the good review and it's in the back of their mind. They need to hear somebody else say, "You've got to go see this," before they're going to make that ticket-buying decision.


Hinckley: I think one of the things that is important for the arts community as a whole--not just theatre, not just music, not just museums--is instead of thinking of yourself as a publicist for an event, think of yourself also as an advocate for Los Angeles. We can only help each other if we're all talking about the same thing, if we're all saying: L.A. is a world-class cultural destination. We need to think about not just publicizing our own thing, but also talking about all the quality things that are happening in Los Angeles. You know, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Elzer: I also feel passionate about that. The more people we can get into the smaller theatres around the city, the bigger theatres around the city--any theatre--there's so much great stuff. Especially since--and I'll go out on a limb here--movies suck.


Choy: Tell us how you really feel about it, David.


Elzer: Because of the industry's corporatization, there are fewer and fewer original movies being made. I can't think of a great movie I've seen yet this year, but I can tell you eight unbelievable theatre experiences I've had already this year.


Hereford: That's so cool.


Elzer: And I think as more people get disappointed in the films they're seeing, if we can get them into the theatre, they're gonna say, "My God, I wish I could discover more like this." And that's what we're selling--that expectation you're going to walk into this theatre and a magical thing is going to happen, and then you'll wanna grab four or five of your friends and share it with them. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing.


McWhorter: We don't do it for the pay, do we?


Hereford: Oh, God no!


McWhorter: I certainly didn't sit when I was little and dream, Gee, I want to be a publicist.


Choy: Oh, I did.


Q: As folks who are clued-in to the local theatre scene, what tips would you have for theatregoers? How do you find out what to see?


Choy: We're like everybody else. Word of mouth is No. 1. Somebody says, "Go see this!"


Hereford: Also, you kind of follow the track record of particular writers. So for the most part, you know what a reviewer's tastes are; you read what they say, and you figure out how it fits with your own taste. That's pretty much how I read them. It's like I read the editorials of The L.A. Times or The New York Times; I kind of know where those writers are coming from, and then I can figure out if it's gonna work for me. Although there are surprises, always.


McWhorter: Plus, you become educated yourself. Find a company that's presenting the type of things that you want to see. I think we all know, not everything that we're involved with is a life-altering experience, but the more you see, the more you begin to discern. The more you put yourself out there to see things, you're opening yourself up to opportunities. I think the greatest personal experiences I've had in the theatre have been the unexpectedly wonderful experiences. You go in and you haven't been told how wonderful it is, and you're absolutely captured by something. You can't get those unless you darken the door.


Hereford: Also become educated about the discount programs, because most of the houses--you can get in to see a Taper show for three bucks.


Elzer: And maybe for birthdays, anniversaries, buy your friends or your family tickets to the theatre. Give it as a great gift because that might be something that they're going to remember forever, and they're certainly not going to remember the tie next summer.

Scalla Sheen: Public relations and human relations mean a lot of the same things to me. I myself have great friends and patrons of the arts--generally, older people who had an extra ticket to donate, or decided that I needed to attend. Some of my friends have been attending operas for five decades, and it began for them growing up in Brooklyn when their babysitter was an Eastern European Jewish lady who would force them to sit down and listen to this record and dictate the opera to them, and that got them hooked.

I'd like to play the role of a mentor--to take some kids in my family and get them to start going. That's word of mouth.