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Oct. 15th, 2010

A Free Night of Theater came to Michigan this month...

Back in 2005, Theatre Communications Group - a national theater advocacy group based in New York City - created what has become a very successful promotional effort at bringing new audiences into the country's not-for-profit theaters. What started as a three-city pilot program five years ago has since branched out to 120 cities in 2010 - with more than 700 theaters offering a free night of theater this month to thousands upon thousands of potential new customers. 

It's a great idea - and if you've never heard of it, you're not alone.

Several times over the past few years local theater professionals have talked about getting Michigan theaters to participate, but most conversations ended with "Well, maybe NEXT year..."

Even as recently as early this past summer it looked as if Michigan was - once again - going to sit on the sidelines. That is, until Stagecrafters, one of the best known (and managed) community theaters in Southeast Michigan, decided to take it upon itself to get the process moving - knowing full well the tight time crunch would be problematic.

Their hard work obviously paid off: More than 100 non-profit theaters throughout the state (professional and non-professional alike) were contacted via e-mail in mid August, and in a relatively short time, 11 decided to participate in Michigan's first Free Night of Theater. (While that might sound a little low, it's fairly typical of a first-time effort, I was told by TCG.)

But no matter: Despite some technical glitches early on, more than 1,000 tickets were snatched up in about four days - with a few theaters giving away all their tickets within 24 hours. (A couple of theaters even added extra tickets to meet the demand.) And since the tickets disappeared thanks primarily to online promotional efforts, there was little time (or need, really) to pursue a media campaign to announce the event. (It doesn't make much sense to promote a free ticket give-away when there are no more free tickets to give away! To do so could create a PR nightmare!)

Most of the events were scheduled for Oct. 14 (the official nationwide date), although a few were held earlier this month and a handful have yet to happen. But the bottom line is this: No matter how you slice and dice it, Michigan's first Free Night of Theater has been a tremendous success - and hopefully we'll begin to see new faces in some of our theaters as a result of it.

Therefore, congratulations are in order to everyone who in some way was involved in the event: the participating theaters; Lesley Braden-Phillips of Stagecrafters who championed the cause and did a great job jumping hurdles and managing the process; the Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan (who came onboard as the managing partner when a kerfuffle among a handful of professional theaters threatened to derail the project before it was even announced); and especially the potential new theatergoers who sampled a theater (or live theater in general) for the very first time.

So what can we do to make next year's Free Night of Theater an even bigger success? (Because yes, there will BE a Free Night of Theater here in Michigan in October 2011 - which means theater executives should keep that in mind when planning their 2011-12 seasons!)

(1) For starters, we can put away - at least for one night and for one event - the age-old rivalries between the professional theaters and their non-professional cousins, as well as the disdain some community theaters have for their sister community theaters in the area. Theaters at every level are experiencing many of the same difficulties these days, and the Free Night of Theater is a GREAT WAY for every theater to come together, put on its Sunday best, open their doors on the same night and show potential customers why they deserve their support - and then let the ticket-paying public decide who best meets their entertainment needs! (It's called "competition" - and may the most creative and competitive theaters win!)

(2) We need more theaters to become risk takers - that is, to see the bigger picture that Free Night of Theater represents.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in how few theaters participated in this inaugural event. The reasons for not participating were many, of course, but this is what I heard most often :

  • A few professional theaters wanted no part of anything run by or that included the community theaters;
  • Some theaters assumed the worst and did not wish to be associated with a failure;
  • With such short notice, some theaters' schedules were already set and could not be adjusted - although a handful tried and were unsuccessful;
  • There wasn't enough time for theater boards to research and approve the project;
  • And some simply didn't see the value in it.

 Let's see how that changes with a successful event now behind us!

(3) We need theaters to be creative!

 To participate costs nothing up front - and theaters are free to schedule whatever events they wish on whatever date works best for them, which means they can spend as little money or as much as they'd like to make the night a success. (And if it's possible for the artists and management involved to volunteer their time, a theater's cost could be next to nothing - but the long-term payout could be amazing!)

(4) We need more time to plan the event.

Because of the very short time between when Free Night was announced to the theaters and the event itself, there was little time for theaters to decide whether to participate or not (and then, to plan their event), or for event managers to create and implement a coordinated media splash - with ads and everything! Nor was there time and money (and sponsors) to assemble promotional materials to give out at all of the events. (In fact, there's an entire laundry list of lessons learned, which will be ironed out for next time!)

So here's what's already on tap for Free Night of Theater 2011: Planning is scheduled to begin March 1, 2011. If you'd like to help create and manage next year's event, please contact Lesley at Stagecrafters; your assistance would be greatly appreciated.

And after a very successful inaugural year, I don't think it's unreasonable for at least 25-30 theaters to participate. What do YOU think?

Aug. 31st, 2010

BAD BLOGGER

Yes, I've been a bad blogger this month. With so much happening - including tomorrow night's Wilde Awards - there hasn't been much time to blog. (Trust me...it's not because I haven't had much to say!)

So once I get past the awards and catch up on a ton of paper work, I'll be back on a regular basis.


Don

Jul. 27th, 2010

FOLLOW-UP: WHERE DID ALL THE SHOWS GO?

Back on June 22 I wrote about the lack of shows for the month of July and wondered what the heck was the cause. (As of that date, there were only 35 shows on my calendar vs. 65 the year before.) Now that the month is almost over, here's an interesting update:

As I theorized, a handful of shows DID suddenly appear on the schedule - often after they had already opened or were just about to. So what was the grand total? 51 - which means that 16 shows probably didn't get the promotion they should have because of late PR. A few of the shows I would have LOVED to preview on EncoreMichigan.com, but couldn't because of how late the press information was received. Their loss...

Reviews, however, were another story. In 2009 our team of critics reviewed 9 productions in July, This year, that number will be 15 - thanks primarily to our decision to add the summer theaters to the schedule (but not including Marty Kohn's reviews of a handful of shows at this summer's Stratford Shakespearee Festival.)

So how is August shaping up? Similarly to July's dilemma.

So far we have 34 shows on the calendar, down from 49 last July. And we have 9 reviews on the schedule vs. 6 last year. Both numbers are expected to grow - which I already know will happen, since just last night I heard about two shows that I've yet to get press releases - both of which open next week.

Why is this a problem, you might be wondering? For starters, we have five critics whose schedules need to be worked out in advance. (Some of us DO have lives outside the theater, you know! Plus, others have babysitters to arrange and all of us have other commitments to work around.)  And often it's not easy to get the schedule worked out - especially during those weeks when there are 6-8 openings on the same weekend. So to find out about yet another show to review after the schedule has already been work out requires a lot of unnecessary additional work to reconfigure the schedule (and sometimes a bit of sacrifice)  to make it all work out. (And it plays havoc with our budget as well!)

But equally important is this: When theaters get their press information out late, they rob themselves of potential opportunities for coverage in the media. As Marty and I teach in our PR workshop, decisions on which shows to review or preview are often made by editors and writers 2-4 weeks in advance of the event's opening. So that means if a theater doesn't send out its press information until the week of the show's opening, they'll usually be shit out of luck.

And no theater is rich enough not to need whatever coverage they can get!

In discussions with many theaters over the years I've been stunned to discover that few include PR in their production schedules. If it's important to know when a light plot is due, isn't it also important to know when the press release must be sent out? Or when the publicity photos must be ready?

Because let's be honest: If a theater's PR is ineffective, there won't need to BE any light plots in the future!

Jul. 20th, 2010

ONE LAST CHANCE TO SEE AMAZING THEATER

Back last fall Glen Allen Pruett and Patricia Ansuini returned home to Detroit and presented it with a gift: their production of  The Madness of Oscar Wilde by Sebastian Melmoth.

After their short run, they went home to Chicago and worked on the production some more - and now they're back, this time across the river at the 2010 Windsor International Fringe Festival. Little birds have told me that the show is even slicker and more powerful now than it was several months back - which doesn't surprise me, given Glen and Pat's dedication to their craft and this particular project..

The problem, though, is audiences have been a bit slim - which is a shame, because what I saw at Planet Ant last year was an amazing piece of theater.

So if you want to treat yourself to an evening of great theater, the final performance of the run is late this afternoon at 5 p.m.. Here are the details:

The Madness of Oscar Wilde by Sebastian Melmoth by Glenn Allen Pruett and Patricia Ansuini is scheduled to perform at the Windsor International Fringe Festival at the Pentastar Theatre, 121 University Avenue West, Windsor, Ontario. Tickets are $9, plus a one-time purchase of a Windsor Fringe button ($3). For complete information, call 519-258-9887 or log on to www.windsorfringe.com.

And here's a link to a recent interview with Glen: http://www.encoremichigan.com/article.html?article=3260

if you decide to check it out, I'd love to hear what you think about the show...

Jun. 29th, 2010

EAST DOES NOT MEET WEST

It's common knowledge that Michigan is two different states when it comes to politics, religion and the economy: The eastern half is more liberal/Democratic, the west is more conservative/Republican; Christian Reformed and Christian fundamentalists dominate the west, while the east is home to a mix of belief of systems (and lack thereof); and the east has been hit by the economic downtown longer and harder than its west counterpart.

Interestingly enough, this divide can also be seen in the professional theater community.

I was reminded of this when I headed to Holland this past Friday to review Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's production of I Do! I Do!

As I looked through the extensive program I was handed by a very friendly usher, one thing stuck out: Of all the names and biographies of the staff I found there, including the management and artistic teams and the actors, I recognized only one: actor Chip DuFord. (I also bumped into Chip during intermission and had a very nice chat with him. And afterwards I wondered why he hasn't been working much in SE Michigan lately...)

That made it quite interesting for me, actually, since I was totally unfamiliar with everyone's work I was about to see. The rest of the audience was very familiar with their work, however, as it quickly became obvious that the stars of the show, artistic director David Colacci and Susan Ericksen, are longtime favorites. (I overheard nothing but high praise for their work prior to the start of the performance.)

Hope Summer Rep isn't the only West Michigan theater devoid of east Michigan artists, however.

As I looked at the cast list of Mason Street Warehouse's current smash hit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, only Billy Konsoer's name was familiar. (He recently made his SE Michigan debut at Meadow Brook Theatre.) And as I looked at the company this year at Tibbits Summer Theatre, only Brian Sage (a recent graduate of the Hilberry Theatre program) and Paul Kerr (who just closed a show at The Encore Musical Theatre) have worked in SE Michigan.

So what's the problem, you might be asking yourself?

There is none, actually. It just highlights that great divide that exists here in the state.

In talking with professional theaters around the state one thing has become clear: The professionals on the west side are - for the most part - unfamiliar with the theaters and people who work on the east side, just like the people who work on the east side are basically clueless about the people and theaters on the west.

And that's shame.

Based on our reviews of the above-mentioned theaters - as well as Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo - there's some mighty fine work happening in West Michigan, just like there is on the east side of the state. And it would be really cool if theater executives and thespians alike would take the time to visit one another - not just in each others' seats, but across a table in a restaurant or bar where they could get to know one another, share war tales that would highlight their similarities and differences, and engage in meaningful dialogue on ways they might be able to work together or share resources - which could result in new butts in the seats for west and east alike.

There's much to be learned from one another. And since we're all in a state that's struggling to keep and attract a young, creative class, doesn't it make sense to work together to help make that happen?


Jun. 22nd, 2010

WHERE DID ALL THE SHOWS GO?

As I was going through the upcoming July schedule to start setting up our review schedules, something became immediately obvious: The number of shows on my calendar have dropped dramatically from July 2009.

For July 2010 my calendar currently shows 35 productions scheduled by the state's professional, non-professional and collegiate theaters - which is probably a little low, since I suspect several groups haven't yet sent out their press releases for July performances.

In July 2009, however, there were 65 productions.

So why the significant drop?

Now, to be fair, July 2009 was a very unusual July; previous years were more like how THIS July is shaping up. But that's not the full story.

Part of the drop can be explained by the closures of Lansing's BoarsHead Theatre and Kalamazoo's Whole Art Theatre. And The Barn Theatre in Augusta is taking this summer off.

The balance, however, seems to be the result of fewer theaters staging shows in July. Or theaters producing fewer shows.

After a 2009-10 season that looked to be an improvement over the previous, I'm hoping the decrease is nothing more than the industry settling back to earlier trends. But only time will tell...

Jun. 15th, 2010

A MILLION STRONG AND GROWING

I was taking a look this morning at the data I receive every day pertaining to the traffic on EncoreMichigan.com and realized that on June 8 we reached our one-millionth hit in 2010! That's four months earlier than in 2009!

In fact, the average daily number of hits for 2010 has jumped 63% over the average for 2009 - and it continues to grow every month. (What's even MORE exciting, 37% of the visitors are new to the site, and apparently once they find us, they keep coming back!)

And then I dug a little deeper into the data and examined the latest report of where the traffic is coming from and discovered a few surprises:
  • Of the US-based traffic, 80% of it originates in Michigan. That means 20% comes from the other 49 states - and it pretty much does! The only two states that haven't visited us in 2010 are Hawaii and South Dakota. So where does the MOST interstate traffic come from? If you said "New York," "Illinois" and "California," you'd be correct!
  • Michigan traffic comes from all over the state - both lower and upper peninsula. But as you might expect, it's most heavily concentrated in areas where professional theaters exist.
  • We also get some international traffic, which I haven't verified yet - but I believe it's about 3% of the total hits.
  • Our heaviest traffic day ever was June 2 - the day we announced The 2010 Wilde Awards nominations. We more than doubled our usual traffic flow - and the visitors came from all over.
So in summary, it's safe to conclude that not only does EncoreMichigan.com provide Michigan readers with the latest news and information about our state's professional theaters, we also give our theaters exposure on both a national and international basis. And that's certainly a GOOD thing, don't you think?

(Shall we take bets as to when we'll reach our 2 millionth hit for the year?)

Jun. 1st, 2010

STARTING JUNE WITH RANDOM THOUGHTS

THOUGHT 1: When you see 70 to 80 shows a year, it's rare to see the same show twice, but that's what happened last Friday night when I headed to the Hilberry Theatre to see Palmer Park for the second time. I was at the opening night performance at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company several weeks back, but I also wanted to catch it at some point after it moved to Wayne State. Why? For starters, I wanted to see if a different space would make that much difference to the show. (It didn't.) I also wanted to see if a different audience would react differently to the show. (It didn't.) Plus, I also wanted to see how well the show held up. (Often, a show changes somewhat between the opening night performance and the last.)

And I was quite pleased to see that the show maintained itself quite well. In  fact, a few scenes got even MORE intense since opening night, and that worked in its favor.

From what I've been told, Palmer Park was a box office success in both halves of its run - the Hilberry had one of the largest audiences I've seen there in a few years! -  so congratulations to everyone involved for ending their seasons on such a high note!

THOUGHT 2: I haven't been to the The Purple Rose Theatre much this season - mostly because the rest of the critics all jump at the chance to review their shows.  So I've missed much of their season. However, I'd heard so many good things about Our Town, that I arranged my schedule so that I could be there for its closing night performance.

And the show lived up to its hype.

I've seen Our Town many, many times over the years - and studied it decades ago in high school. So I wasn't expecting any major new insights into the material. However, director Guy Sanville and his cast did indeed surprise me with probably the best and most emotional third act of the show I've ever experienced. And watching Will David Young is ALWAYS delightful!

THOUGHT 3: June is shaping up to be an extremely busy month - with 15 reviews on the schedule if we're able to expand our coverage to include Kalamazoo and the summer theaters in West Michigan. Keep your fingers crossed that our budget will allow us to do so - and stay tuned for details!

THOUGHT 4: Nominations for the 2010 Wilde Awards will be announced June 2 on EncoreMichigan.com.

May. 23rd, 2010

THE GOSPEL TRUTH


There's a reason why Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit is the state's top theater training program for young people - and the answer has been on display this weekend and last at the Detroit Film Theatre.

The internationally acclaimed organization, founded in 1992 by Rick Sperling, produces a spring show each year that always knocks my socks off, but this year's musical, The Gospel at Colonus, was one of the most amazing productions I've seen them tackle yet.

The show is unusual in many respects. For starters, it's one of the rare "non-original" productions Mosaic has staged in this timeslot. And it's a show that has been produced professionally throughout the country - but never by kids.

And for good reason: It's a difficult show for even adults to grasp: It's Sophicles' story of Oedipus at Colonus, but re-imagined as a non-demononational charismatic church service. Yes, you read that correctly.

(It's also the first show in 18 years that did not have founder Sperling and/or former artistic director Ken Anderson actively involved in the production.)

But Mosaic is in the good hands of co-artistic director and director of acting programs Kate Peckham, who - along with co-artistic director and music director Delashea Middleton - conceived and executed a show that brought much of the house to its feet on a handful of occasions throughout last night's splendid performance.

And the cast deserved every minute of the long ovation they got at the end of the show.

What sets Mosaic apart from other youth training programs in the area boils down to a couple of things: Mosaic is run by working theater professionals with a long pedigree of training and experience, and they have created an atmosphere in which the young partcipants are treated professionally and are expected to behave professionally.
 
This isn't an hour-long after-school play group, but a serious and intensive educational experience in which the kids are expected not only to maintain their grade point averages, but to improve them. And while much focus has been directed on Detroit's failing school district and its high drop-out rate, 95% of the Mosaic's kids graduate high school and attend college. (This year's troupe bucks the average, however: 100% of the seniors are off to college in the fall!)

Over the years I've had the pleasure of meeting a handful of Mosaic kids and observing rehearsals, and I've always walked away with the same impression: The kids are just that - kids - but once they hit the stage, they're professionals.

And that showed throughout last night's performance.

Colonus is a large cast show: I think I counted 21 actors, 33 choir members and 15 chorus members, so Peckham and Middleton had their work cut out for them marshalling such an enormous cast around the DFT stage.

But the kids sounded great and handled their roles quite well - even if some in the audience laughed during intermission that they hadn't the foggiest idea what the show was about. (Remember: We're talking Oedipus here!)

One number in the first act, No Never, rocked the DFT like it's never been rocked before - and I suspect customers at the nearby Traffic Jam  must've felt the vibrartions. There was nothing that could possibly top THAT, I thought at intermission.

And I was wrong.

Because in the second act, Lift Him Up lifted pretty much the entire audience out of their seats for an extended period, the likes of which I haven't seen in a long time. Old and young, black and white, male and female were on their feet clapping and coming together as one - at least for a short time.

And isn't that what good theater - or GREAT theater - should do?

May. 18th, 2010

JUST THE FACTS

I get a report that tracks which articles on EncoreMichigan.com visitors go to once they reach the home page. It also tells me where the traffic comes from. The data is presented as a three-month rolling cumulative, and I find it educational to review this information on a regular basis.

The results, of course, are fascinating for data wonks like me. Plus, it's instructive to figure out why some articles attract thousands of hits while others only a few hundred.

But something I saw recently got me wondering: Why are we getting a few hundred hits from a gambling Web site based in Russia? Is someone taking bets on which shows in Michigan are going to be top sellers and which aren't?

Some of the data doesn't surprise me, though. Want to know which story has gotten the most hits over the last three months? Our review of Little Shop of Horrors at Performance Network. (The fact that the show's been extended a few times seems to go hand in hand with our data.)

In fact, reviews are - by far - the most popular "hits" on EncoreMichigan.com. It Came from Mars (Performance Network & Williamston Theatre), Two Point Oh (Detroit Rep) and [title of show] (The Ringwald) are also among the Top 5 stories of the past three months.

The most popular interview of the period ranks as #8 - A Few Minutes with: John Manfredi. In fact, that interview has had more readers than any other over the past several months. (This series is quite popular, which is why we plan to expand the series over the next few weeks.)

There are other interesting facts that can be learned by pouring over the data - such as which days of the week we receive the most hits and what times of the day are the busiest.

But one fact stands out above the rest: Traffic on EncoreMichigan.com has jumped 40% since the start of the year, which means more and more people are coming to us for their professional theater news. And while last year we received more than 1.4 million hits, 2010 is on track to easily pass 2 million some time later this year. Maybe THAT's what those Russians are gambling on!

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