Thursday, June 14, 2007

Selling the Cycle: THE KENTUCKY CYCLE as a Blueprint for Promoting Two-Part Plays


How can a theatre company best prepare to sell a two-part production like THE KENTUCKY CYCLE or ANGELS IN AMERICA? Longer plays almost certainly require capacity crowds to justify an extended performance schedule and to cover higher production costs. In the case of many university and college theatres choosing to mount a two-part show, the commitment means devoting a substantial portion of a season or academic term -- perhaps an entire semester -- to a single playwright. For better or for worse, the houses carry double the impact on the box office. Advance planning can help ensure success and guarantee income. This paper follows the marketing planning and process of one theatre department's presentation of the complete version of THE KENTUCKY CYCLE by Robert Schenkkan. As a measure of success, it should be noted that a week before opening night, the decision already had to be made to add more performances to the two-week run.

Advance decisions, in fact, remain more important than ever when planning a two-part play. For THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, public announcements began more than a full year in advance - prior to the half-way mark of the previous season and prior to the first renewal notice to subscribers. After agreeing to have Schenkkan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play represent the full second half (spring semester) of the next season, the faculty felt the immediate urge to begin generating a momentum. It was not simply the need to build future audience expectations; it remained crucial to inspire the students to jump on board and embrace the production commitment wholeheartedly. Any major who could not share the excitement and join the tremendous effort needed to mount the play would potentially feel alienated from the degree program for months, and such negativity could ultimately devastate retention, recruitment, and FTE/SCH totals. But students who truly felt they were being admitted on the ground level could identify with the sense of anticipation and willingly agree to rehearse and perform a script which demands over six hours in the theatre. An additional academic benefit came from a joint faculty decision to integrate THE KENTUCKY CYCLE into all upper division theatre courses during the semester of production: students in theatre history, for example, would receive dramaturgical assignments designed to benefit the director, and students in theatre management would chaperone special public events and provide additional front of house support while simultaneously promoting subscription sales for the season following the CYCLE.

But the synthesis of syllabi and stage was not limited to theatre classes. To help promote THE KENTUCKY CYCLE as a university-wide event, theatre faculty identified colleagues from other departments who might be asked to serve as members of an advisory committee. These professors -- with selected administrators -- were invited to a luncheon where theatre faculty presented the scope o the complete project (still a year in advance), distributed a 12-page booklet of ideas, topics, and summaries, and offered copies of the full script to sign out and review. Instructors had been targeted if they taught classes which touched upon any of the various themes addressed in the play, such as women's rights, labor relations, treatment of Native Americans, African-American issues, political or economic structures, especially with regard to coal mining and the environment, and American history in general. Advance planning provided the lead time necessary for faculty to consider including THE KENTUCKY CYCLE as part of their courses. Any faculty who adopted the play would receive two complimentary tickets; any classes required to attend generated ticket reservations.

Ultimately, the largest contribution of the multi-department advisory committee was the formation of two open-to-the-public panel discussions involving scholars from various areas of the university. Few committee members served as speakers themselves, but their advocacy attracted colleagues who were happy to share ideas or present brief papers. The department chair personally invited the university president to participate, and he willingly joined a panel. One panel discussion utilized "viewing history as entertainment" for its theme, while the other considered matters of historical documentation. In addition, funding was secured to invite playwright Schenkkan to campus for three days of class visits, and he generously agreed to give a public lecture on the professional evolution of his work and THE KENTUCKY CYCLE's brief Broadway run. All events were held on the university theatre stage earlier in the semester of production, with upstage portions of the CYCLE set as a background. Publicity for these academically-oriented sessions also promoted the play itself to the outside community - tickets were even sold in the lobby - while professors who initially may not have favored requiring class attendance at a play were more open to making their students come to panel presentations. Theatre Appreciation students had to pick Schenkkan's talk and one other activity; theatre majors and minors were required to attend all three sessions.

Another of the earliest management decisions involved scheduling. A calendar was agreed upon sixteen months before the play opened. Part One would be given on Friday evening and repeated on Saturday afternoon, with Part Two performing on Saturday night and repeated as a Sunday matinee. Tech crews, therefore, were only required to do one changeover per weekend. Patrons could see the entire play in sequence in one day--also appealing to an out of town audience, particularly parents of students--or attend two consecutive days, or even choose to come once each week for two weekends. The full Saturday schedule included a dinner break, and arrangements were made for audiences to eat on campus, adjacent to the theatre, if they preferred; the dinner breaks, of course, also extended to the cast and crew.

In order to make ticket prices more attractive, an early decision was also made to provide a discount to anyone purchasing tickets to both parts at the same time. Patrons had the full choice of performances and could enjoy the security of two reserved seats with a single transaction. Obviously, by giving audiences such a wide range of options, not every person wound up with the exact same seat for both parts. The "same seat" benefit was first offered to subscribers as much as possible, and thereby encouraged making early reservations. Ticket buyers could also order Saturday dinners through the box office.

The first widespread public announcement came through the university's elder hostel program, geared at offering opportunities to continue learning in retirement. This in-house marketing, which involved no major theatre publicity expenses, stimulated advance word of mouth and later provided both block bookings of seats and the eventual conversion of single ticket buyers to subscriber status. The director and other members of the faculty also agreed to present lectures to the retirees who registered for formal programs. Outreach lectures were not limited to the elder hostel groups. A campus notice offered in-class visitations by actors and other company members to any instructor in any discipline, such as an adjunct instructor of Freshman Composition.

The annual season brochure highlighted THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, and subscriptions reached a five year high. And advance planning continued paying dividends during the season. By combining the announcement of special events with the calendar of play performance dates, only one bulk mailing flyer was needed for the entire spring semester. An order blank for tickets appeared on the back, but the front was designed so that it could also be re-printed on heavier stock, on only one side, to serve as a poster. By the time traditional production press releases and PSAs were sent, the majority of tickets had already been sold. The final two dress rehearsals, one of each part, were sold out as previews, and two additional weeknight performances were added prior to the closing weekend. Was the overall experience worthwhile? Freshmen associated with THE KENTUCKY CYCLE were still talking about it their senior year, leaving a positive impression on incoming majors. Reflecting the spirit of Schenkkan's script, history had indeed been made.

Richard Hansen is Assistant Professor of Speech and Theatre at MiddleTennessee State University.

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