Theatres take to cyberspace stage

Click to the Web site for the new production of Athol Frugard's The Island and you immediately sense Canadian theatre is poised to crank its online marketing efforts up a hefty notch....

Click to the Web site for the new production of Athol Frugard’s The Island and you immediately sense Canadian theatre is poised to crank its online marketing efforts up a hefty notch.

The site promoting the Royal National Theatre of London production, which opens in Toronto May 1 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, is rich with graphics, creative and background information and reviews from its London run. Its java-coded menu follows visitors as they scroll – advanced stuff for an independently produced play in the Canadian market.

The Web site is head-and-shoulders above what most theatre companies in Canada offer, where visitors can typically view the latest production information and purchase individual show and season tickets. With the exception of a revamped site for CanStage, these sites typically lack the depth of information found at theislandonstage.com.

It is, however, not so surprising when you consider that the producer of The Island is none other than Garth Drabinsky.

The Island marks the return of Drabinsky, a promoter whose chief marketing commitment through the 1990s, as chairman of Livent, was to do it bigger and better than anyone else, a strategy that kept the competition perpetually on its toes.

The question now is: What new tricks will the impresario pull out of his hat?

The answer, it appears, can be found in cyberspace.

‘The Internet has allowed us to market a show online through direct e-mail and ticket purchases,’ says Drabinsky, who is in the process of taking full advantage of the new technology, ‘but it hasn’t yet been fully realized in theatre promotion.’

While Drabinsky, who will also produce The Dresser at the St. Lawrence Centre later this year, would not comment further on his efforts, the possibilities available to a savvy online marketer are nearly limitless. These include sourcing outside lists for direct e-mails, contests, cross-promotions, cause-related promotions, strategic alliances and viral marketing – all proven efforts in generating ticket sales and adding e-mail addresses to a company’s database.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for example, ran a five-week contest last year that offered a grand prize ‘Toronto dream day,’ valued at $7,000, which included a stay at the Metropolitan Hotel, lunch at the Four Seasons and an evening at the symphony, plus smaller prizes. The ‘Escape from Reality!’ contest, as reported in Strategy in October, boosted September ticket sales past those of the entire previous year and increased the TSO’s e-mail database by 5,000 addresses.

Such initiatives, however, remain few and far between in the world of Canadian theatre, which is only now taking baby steps towards fully optimizing the Web and the potential of online marketing.

That’s not to say, however, that the major players on the national theatre stage aren’t upping their efforts as well.

Mirvish Productions, for example, targets past patrons who have disclosed an e-mail address with special offers for upcoming productions. Across town, CanStage is in the process of developing similar direct e-mail initiatives that it hopes to implement in the 2001-2002 season.

Yet, regardless of where their marketing efforts stand, one thing is clear: Theatre promoters will have to step up to the plate or run the risk of striking out against Drabinsky.

Thanks in large part to the mega-musical boom of the late ’80s, which Drabinsky helped spark through the phenomenal success of Phantom of the Opera, followed by a string of other hits with Livent, Toronto can now boast being the third largest theatre city in the world after New York and London, based on available seating. One Drabinsky ploy was launching campaigns to make sure the plays Livent produced were front-and-centre with teachers by putting together elaborate educational kits that included sheet music, lyrics, and other learning tools associated with a given production. Drabinsky was also on the vanguard of running full-page ads in the Toronto newspapers coupled with targeted TV promotions that helped Livent draw unusually big numbers to Toronto.

Ever since Livent emerged, ‘There has been a distinct change in the way theatre companies communicate with the public,’ says Richard Plant, professor of Canadian theatre at Queen’s University. ‘To remain competitive, others have needed to market themselves in the language and style of the times.’

Says John Karastamatis, director of communications and marketing at Mirvish: ‘[Drabinsky] added a lot of excitement and a lot of focus on theatre. He believed in doing it big. His advertising was massive, which benefited us because it built up a whole tourist industry around theatre.’

For its part, much of Mirvish’s current marketing strategy stems from the days when it and Livent competed head-to-head. Hence, the print spreads, the TV ads for long-running musicals, and billboard campaign that can still be seen in and around Toronto for each successive production.

With big sponsors like Rogers, Air Canada and GM, Mirvish enjoys the kind of corporate support usually afforded sporting events. Mirvish responds by putting on shows like The Lion King and Mama Mia!, long-running musical barnburners that raise the house and box office to great heights.

In the case of CanStage, the company rid itself of the stodgy old moniker Canadian Stage Company last year and launched new creative for print and outdoor – developed by Toronto-based agency Scott Thornley – featuring a stylized illustration of a young man gazing down pensively under the tagline ‘Staging Passion.’

‘There wasn’t a synergy between our work onstage and how we were presenting ourselves in the market,’ says Michelle De Clair, director of marketing at CanStage, ‘(Scott Thornley) looked at what we were doing and that has helped us take a new, more aggressive approach.’

The moves are beginning to pay dividends. In 2000, season subscriptions were up 26% and box office up 14% from 1999. The theatre company also just clinched a new three-year deal with TD Bank that supports CanStage’s long-running Dream in High Park.

At the Shaw Festival, approximately 12% of the company’s annual operating budget or about $1.2 million dollars is devoted to marketing – not an enormous amount, as Shaw faces major challenges in a diverse market. The Shaw Festival is a destination as opposed to what might be classified ‘event theatre.’

‘We can’t match the full page ads in the newspapers. But by virtue of our destination we have a lot of strategic partnerships with wineries,’ says senior marketing manager Stephanie Westlake.

Those include ‘Theatrical adventures in wine country,’ which are co-sponsored by Bell and targeted towards the 30-plus demographic.

The tourism-marketing approach is a strategy that more and more regional theatres are adopting. By offering getaway packages that often include stays at B&Bs, theatres can package themselves as escapes.

‘We target patrons across the country, the north-east U.S. and in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan,’ says Westlake. ‘We can’t ignore anybody.’

Particularly not Garth Drabinsky.