Marin Theatre Company’s Sara Waugh on her Role as a Marketing Director and Navigating Press and Critic Relationships

Rescripted’s Staff sat down to talk with Marketing Director Sara Waugh about the role of a marketing director, their relationship to critics, and tactics for both good and ‘unfavorable’ press. 

Rescripted: How would you describe what you do?

Sara Waugh: I’m the Director of Marketing & Communications for Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, CA. I create all season-long & show/programming-specific marketing campaigns and outreach strategies employing multiple communications channels through what we call the “marketing mix”.  That’s a combination of direct mail campaigns, digital email campaigns, social media outreach, including sharing content organically, meaning, the level of engagement a post receives when you first post it, will affect how frequently and how many other people will see it, and sharing content that we promote with the help of our “digital presence” agency through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc.  It also includes paid advertising both print & digital, “ earned” media  or features in the press that we don’t  pay for,  and sponsored media. Sponsored media is usually part of our paid advertising contract, though it doesn’t look like an ad, it looks like a feature story. I’m essentially creating a strategized “mix” of efforts—on a budget—in order to get us the biggest return in ticket sales for our efforts.

R: How much do “bad” reviews affect a show?

SW: “Bad” or “unfavorable” reviews are tricky, because sometimes they don’t affect the impact our show has on our community, which in turn does not affect ticket sales, and sometimes they do in such a way that we are unable to recover from the impact the review has had.

For example, when we produced Native Son back in January (2017), the reviewer for the SF Chronicle did not give us a favorable review, but coming off of the “high” our patrons were on, loving us after our holiday show, pre-sales, and name recognition for the play, which is based on a very famous novel, we were still able to fill houses and exceed our sales goal for that show. So in that case, audiences were more willing to take a chance on our show because of the strong word of mouth recommendations from other patrons,  and familiarity with the novel rather than go by the review alone.

Fast forward to April when we produced Guards at the Taj when we received another unfavorable review in the SF Chronicle, and unfortunately our patrons agreed with the rating of the review, if not the actual review itself. The review tore apart the text, while our patrons simply thought the production itself was far too gory. So oddly enough, though patrons were not enjoying the play for different reasons than the reviewer didn’t enjoy the play, the negative way in which it was received all around  inevitably  impacted our sales goal for the show.

Currently, we’re running a play called The Legend of Georgia McBride that our audiences are literally leaping out of their seats to sing, clap and dance along with the finale musical number and curtain call, though we again received a negative review in the SF Chronicle. Here, I’ll note that the Chronicle is the only publication that gave this show such a negative review; all other reviews we’ve garnered in the week since we opened have been glowing. So we’re now really feeling the impact that the review in “the big paper” is having on us, overshadowing not just patrons’ word of mouth, but also the positive sentiments coming from other reviewers. I have to add that patrons who are attending are absolutely loving it. So we can only think that the reason ticket sales aren’t being affected by positive word of mouth while seemingly moreso affected by this negative review, is that people are not even wanting to take the chance on coming because of the unfavorable review in combination with the last show’s negative review and possibly not having a good experience at the last show.

So all in all, ticket sales/attendance are going to be affected by a number of things, but the potential for a “bad” review to harm us is high, and that’s just something we’re always going to have to combat, especially when we see that the audiences who are  here, are enjoying the piece.

 

R: How do your marketing tactics change if a review is negative?

SW: Obviously we will promote all other good reviews, and patron comments in order to paint how the play’s being received in the best light possible. But that’s  always going to come with that an increased personal touch with every message, as if we’re reaching out to folks individually. For example, I might pull the list of attendees from the last play by the same playwright or or featuring the same beloved  actor and filter out anyone who’s already attended or bought a ticket, and then send them a “personal” (we call this microtargeting, because the language gets really specific) email communication to say “HEY—we know you loved that last play, so why not come give this one a shot?? Here’s a promo code for you and your friends to come have a great night at the theatre” or whatever the angle is we want to push.

How we change our tactics is always going to be specific to the show, because outreach efforts will vary based on what the  thing is that we’re trying to sell, but I am also not ashamed to write to people who’ve already attended to ask “HEY did you love this? Tell your friends!” because that personal ask can really work for us too.

 

R: Not every show is a great show, sometimes things fall apart or just don’t work as planned, does agreeing with a negative review affect how you approach your strategy?

SW: You know, going back to the Guards at the Taj fiasco, we started off trying to push the fact that it was an award-winning show and it had been received well regionally across the US, but then we decided we shouldn’t assume our patrons  here in Marin have the same feelings and want the same things from the plays they’re attending as folks in other parts of the country.

So by the last week we just tackled it head on and said “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this SF Chronicle review!!!” and encouraged folks to read both the Chronicle review AND the other, way more favorable reviews, and to attend the show and make up their minds for themselves. This did actually give us  a bump in sales, so we’re glad we didn’t try to just ignore it and push forward. We’re hoping that our patrons appreciated that fact, and truly encouraged the public to make up their own minds.

 

R: Can you give an example of a situation where you’ve had to employ creative tactics to get around a negative review?

SW: Well we can certainly talk about what we’re doing for our current show! We’ve been planting ourselves at way more community events to increase our presence. One of the first things I learned about advertising was that people have to see an ad  at least 10 times before the message will stick, and even more times to actually remind and motivate them to move  to the  purchase point. So we do what we can to get our advertising content out into the world without making people feel like we’re hitting them over the head . But I think pairing those advertising images with some talking heads from the theatre to really help fill out what the show is and what they can expect when they come to the theatre really helps drive that message home,  and hopefully to our website or to the phone or box office to buy tickets! Because it’s one thing to send emails, tweets, etc. but having a presence can make a huge impact. So we’ve had a presence at local events, like the Mill Valley Memorial Day Parade, we’re also attending several Bay Area PRIDE parades and festivals  we’re partnering with other local theatres to have a presence at their Summer of Love events, and we’re employing some guerilla marketing tactics like going to  the LGBTQI+ friendly neighborhoods to leave postcards on windshields, in mailboxes, at bars, etc. It does start to feel like a lot of extra legwork, but unfortunately, when you produce a play with an unrecognizable title that then gets slammed in the community’s biggest local publication, you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and hit the town!

 

R: Do you think the critics who come to your shows reflect the preferences of your audience?

SW: Not necessarily… I can’t presume to know what our audiences prefer to see (outside of the occasional survey response asking us to re-mount show X that they loved 10 years ago), and I also know that many of our critics are seeing so many shows a week all over the Bay Area, unlike many of our patrons, so critics are automatically going to be the more experienced theatre goers of the patrons in any house. But for the most part we can count on the majority of our critics to write meaningful critiques of what they experienced in community with the rest of the audience the night they attended, which, if the experience was positive, that’s a good indication that more patrons will take their word for it and give our little show a chance.

It also starts to get weird if you try to break it down demographically. Especially because Marin County specifically is such an affluent, white collar, white community. So, yes, 99% of our reviewers are also white, and most of them are over forty; though our mostly white patrons are closer to the 65+ range. So my number one struggle is to get more, younger people of color in through the doors, to enjoy the shows we produce that are definitely geared towards that demographic. But do I focus my audience development efforts on more younger [white] people in Marin, or younger people of color who live outside of Marin?

When we produce August Wilson plays—or other plays by writers of color—we inherently see a more diverse audience in attendance: non-white, younger, and even more men.  Those folks are not necessarily interested in hanging out in Marin all the time and seeing all of our plays, but they can count on us being committed to producing these works—aka not an entire season of Neil Simon or Mamet—and they will make the effort to come to Marin because the stories we’re telling and the messages the playwrights want us to drive home are important.

But I digress…. Here’s my main struggle with aligning critics’ preferences with audience preferences in order to attract more, newer patrons: if we’ve got white people critiquing white plays, does that give them more license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was “authentic” representation of the white community because they’re also a member of that identifying community? Probably. But if we’ve got white people critiquing African American plays, or straight people critiquing plays with  LGBTQI+ themes, does that give them license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was authentic representation of that community even though they’re not a member of that identifying community? I don’t have the best answer here but it doesn’t feel appropriate. Because I don’t think African American people need white people to defend them just like I don’t think queer folks need straight folks defending them, but ultimately, I am not a theatre critic, so I can only react to what I think is or is not appropriate with what a critic is choosing to focus on in a review. But when anyone negatively criticizes a show for being “inauthentic”, with no prior knowledge of the content and experiences being depicted in the show, that review is only going to keep more people from said communit(ies) from attending—as we’re currently seeing—because at a glance, readers don’t know that the person writing doesn’t have that experience. They only know that the critic is the person who’s been hired to tell the world what is and is not a “worth seeing” piece of art. And making an assumption about a community/experience which you know absolutely nothing is so damaging to all of the artists involved, especially those who have lived the experiences being depicted on stage.

What I would LOVE to see more of are younger critics, critics of color, and critics that represent the LGBTQI+ community so that when we are producing non-white/affluent-centric plays (in this very white community) we’ll at least be receiving criticism (negative, constructive, and/or positive) from folks who have also lived similar experiences off-stage and who can themselves speak authentically to our company’s depiction of those experiences.

But for the time being, I will still, always, gladly take the positive reviews from the majority [old] white reviewers we have currently attending who, despite not necessarily being members of the communities whose stories we’re telling, can still find the space to appropriately comment on the pluses and minuses of the actors, direction and production quality, vs. criticism from someone who has chosen an appropriated hill to die on.

 

R: What is the relationship like between marketing directors and the press? Is there anything you do to foster long running positive relationships with reviewers?

SW: In many organizations, Marketing Directors do not even deal directly with the press; the publicity department does. So other than promoting reviews/putting content together, such as production photo shoots, interviews with artists,  there’s no direct line of communication. However, published reviews affect my marketing efforts, so the relationship is tighter than you’d think, even if I wasn’t communicating with them directly.

Here at MTC, I double as the publicity rep and the Marketing Director, so I communicate with all the press, all the time. I 100% try to keep relations good with the reviewers because regardless of one person hating everything we produce, we still want them to come back to the next show because there’s always the potential for them to love it, print a great review, and blow our sales goals out of the water.

At this point, because the reviewer for our largest publication, the SF Chronicle, is so unpredictable, I will likely always try to keep the dialogue open with her regardless of her loving or hating a show we produce, because maybe—just maybe!—the longer she’s in her position the more I’ll be able to pseudo-predict how she’s going to review a play. this is not to say that theatres should only choose programming they think reviewers will like. That’s not how this should work at all. Critics are not going to love your theatre 100% of the time. But if you can help the theatre stand out for whatever its mission is, and then stick to that mission, hopefully, all critics (and patrons too!) will recognize your organization for always being on mission, even if individual productions aren’t always top notch, and that’s what’s most important with branding in general. Say who you are. Be that thing. And hope that you’ve got enough tricks/creativity flowing through your team mates at all times so whenever a reviewer slams you, you’ve got extra ammunition in your back pocket to pull out and use to keep those patrons coming in!