Theatrefolk - The Drama Teacher Resource Company
Marketing the Arts

Marketing the Arts

Episode 192: Marketing The Arts

You are overwhelmed with production tasks and the last thing you want to do is add marketing to your overloaded plate. But marketing is important, even in a school setting. Marketing allows you to educate your community on the value of your program. Where do you start? Right here! Our guest gives you the four questions you need to answer when marketing your show.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.

I’m Lindsay Price.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

This is Episode 192. Woot woot! And that wasn’t a very good one. That wasn’t very full-bodied. This is Episode 192! Woop woop! And you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at

All right, marketing – that’s what we’re talking about today. How much marketing do you do with your shows, with your productions?

Do you do a press release? Maybe a poster that goes up around the school? How many of you don’t do any marketing at all?

Now, I know, there’s got to be a lot of you who are thinking, “Marketing? You want me to add marketing to the list of things I have to do?” Well, I don’t actually want you to add anything to your list. I want you to take away things from your list which this little conversation might give you some insight into just that very concept.

We’re talking marketing – specifically, for the education context – and that means you, dear friends, and you, dear friend, should grab some pen and paper – or your laptop or your phone, I’m not picky here – because there will be notes. There may be things you will want to write down.

So, let’s get to it.

LINDSAY: All right. So, I am here with James Van Leishout.

How are you doing, James?

JAMES: I’m doing great.

LINDSAY: Yes, and we are at the International Thespian Festival where you are packing the houses with your workshops.

JAMES: I have had a few people come to them. My first session on Monday had 91 people so it’s been good.

LINDSAY: I think that’s pretty awesome. Well, first of all, it says a lot about the stuff that you’re teaching and that you have something to teach.

Where are you from? Where are you located?

JAMES: I’m in Olympia, Washington, which is the state capital just about an hour south of Seattle.

LINDSAY: And what’s your arts background?

JAMES: I have a BA in Acting and an MFA in Directing.

LINDSAY: Ah, okay. Let’s start with that question.

Acting or directing?

JAMES: Well, you know, I started out, I loved acting – that’s why I got into it in the first place. But I discovered that I loved the rehearsal process more than the actual performing process. So, I tend toward the directing side although I force myself to act every once in a while, just to remind myself what it’s all about.

LINDSAY: When I started out, I was an actor/writer and you hit it on the head. I love rehearsal and character analysis. I could do script analysis for days. And then, the performing didn’t have the same feeling. And then, when I started writing, it was like, “Oh, this is really what I want to do.”

JAMES: Yeah, I’m a nervous actor; I enjoy it but the nerves just drive me crazy.

I often say, as a director, I actually get to see the best performances because, often, the actors are more open, feel safer in the rehearsal process than they do in front of the audience. They kind of pull back emotionally in front of the audience so I get to see the best performance.

LINDSAY: That’s really awesome.

Today, we are going to talk about marketing but, also, very specifically, marketing in a high school theatre program context which seems like it might be a little weird because I’m sure there’s not a teacher – well, there’s not a lot of teachers out there – who think about marketing their program.

JAMES: Well, part of it is that they don’t have a background in it; part of it seems like an extra load, an extra amount of work that they just simply don’t have time for. But, really, the rewards are worth the effort that they’re going to put into it.

LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you have said before that theatre requires an audience.

JAMES: It’s the only artform that does. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life and, you know, there’s community dances and there’s all sorts of other artforms that don’t require an audience. But it’s not really theatre unless there’s someone there. Maybe that’s because it started with a ritual beginning where there was a participation between two parties. And so, that may be why it is but it really has to be an audience.

P.T. Barnum once said, “What if you put on a show and nobody came?”

It really is you need to get the audience there. Otherwise, you put in all of this effort for what?

LINDSAY: It’s interesting too because one of the things I find about student performers – and, also, student writers of writing plays – is that they don’t instinctually think of the audience. They don’t think, “It’s not actually about me; it’s actually me communicating to someone,” and about how building in that notion of the importance of audience into your program I think is pretty important and that means you need to have one.

JAMES: Right. Interestingly, I think one of the downfalls of method acting is it’s about what the actor feels.

As my wife, Lesley – who is a long-time high school Drama teacher – says, “It doesn’t matter what you feel. What’s important is what does the audience feel.” Even going back to Aristotle, he said, you know, “Fear and pity in the audience is not what the actors do; it’s how the audience is reacting to that.”

LINDSAY: Yeah, totally, totally!

So, we’re going to go through some questions. Our listeners are Drama teachers. Some may have fallen off their chairs at the concept of adding another thing to their plate but it’s totally doable, isn’t it?

JAMES: It is doable. In fact, with a little bit of training, students can do it.

LINDSAY: See, that’s the best.

JAMES: It’s not really the teacher having to take on something. It’s another skill set that you can teach the student.

LINDSAY: Awesome. Let’s make sure we keep coming back to that. We can add how students can take on some of these things.

If you are a teacher and you are starting out and you’re marketing your program, what’s your first question that you need to answer?

JAMES: What is your product?

A lot of people don’t understand what their product is. “I’m only putting on a play.” Well, that’s not really a product. What you’re doing is you’re selling an experience. Maybe you’re selling a message. Maybe you’re doing something but there’s something that you’re selling to the audience. If you can identify that, then you have a good idea of what that is.

LINDSAY: It all comes back to the audience.

Let’s say, if you’re putting on something, if you’re doing children’s theatre, the product you’re selling them is much different than if you’re doing a family musical which is much different if you’re doing Christmas, you know?

JAMES: Right, exactly. So, if you understand what that is.

In the class, I use some posters to illustrate that. If you’re looking at a production of Star Wars, what you’re selling is science fiction. If you did it in such a way that that wasn’t communicated – that there weren’t starships, there weren’t lightsabers, there wasn’t some future science in there – then you’ve missed what you’re selling to the audience.

There’s a poster for a production of Odd Couple on Broadway with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. Their names are mentioned three times on the poster and the image is of them. Now, what are they selling? Remember when they were in The Producers? Well, they’re back again. That’s what they’re selling. They understood what they were selling and what the audience is going to be looking for.

LINDSAY: You say you’re marketing your program and the show you’re doing is for your Drama Club that’s after school. This is something you can bring into the classroom by asking the students, “Here’s the play. What are we selling? What image could we use to sell this play?”

JAMES: Exactly, and that kind of leads into the second question which is, “Who is your audience?” and you have to know who you’re selling to. If you look at Madison Avenue, they do a lot of researching. Who is the ideal audience for this?

In theatre, especially in high school theatre but even in moving into semi-professional, your number one audience are family and friends. Gary Sinise who was one of the founders of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago said that he knew it was a success when he looked out and didn’t recognize anybody in the audience.

At a school especially, family and friends – that’s who’s going to be the first audience that you’re going to want to appeal to and how are you going to reach them. The second is your school community and then it spreads out from there – other schools, theatre departments, other theatres in the area, the community as a whole. You have to look at where are those audiences going to come from and how can you build them.

Surprisingly, one of the best audiences – untapped audiences – for a high school are local senior living homes. They will bring busloads of people to see a high school production and will be very appreciative of it.

And so, it’s a great way to spread your program, donations. It just builds so much for your program when you have an audience.

LINDSAY: What this really circles back to is advocacy. We know so many programs that are struggling, so many programs where their administration doesn’t see their value, and I’ve talked to a number of drama teachers where how they saved their program was by being of value in the community where people were talking about them – well, the parents too but people in the community were talking about them, people in the community were coming to the shows, and it just makes a huge difference because it’s tangible. You can see that kind of value.

JAMES: Now, one of the things that high schools could do – if they’re allowed, it depends on the school – is selling advertising for the program. It accomplishes several things – (1) it helps pay for the program but (2) you’re out there connecting with the community. You’re educating the community about who you are and that educational component is very important. The same thing needs to happen when you’re sending out a press release. Send it to the district offices. Send it to your administrators. You want to educate them just as much – if not more – than the community at large. And so, this becomes an important element.

I often say, when you’re trying to sell this advertising, include two tickets to the opening night of the play. If you buy it, you get two tickets, because then they’re going to come see what they’re investing in. Again, it’s that element of communicating to the community.

LINDSAY: I’m going to reinforce two things which I thought were really important – that notion of sending that press release to administrative and district offices or don’t be invisible. I think that’s what marketing is, right?

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: We don’t want to be invisible. We want to be seen, we want to be known, we want people to be talking about what you’re doing.

And I love that two-ticket thing for advertising. I think that’s a great bonus but also initiative.

JAMES: And it doesn’t cost you anything.


JAMES: That’s the great part of it. It doesn’t cost you anything.

I think one of the other things, one of the other questions you have to look at is, “What are your benchmarks of success?” That is really important. Some people think that you have to make money – you have to be profitable – that’s nice but it may not be what the benchmarks of success are going to be. If you’re doing some cutting-edge piece and what you want is for the students to learn about how to adapt a play for a modern setting, if that is accomplished, then it’s a success.

Now, obviously, marketing is going to help put butts in the seats and that’s going to help with the financial aspect of it as well. But, really, what are those benchmarks?

I once did a production of Romeo and Juliet where I decided I wanted the audience to cry at the end. I didn’t realize how hard that was. This is the most known play of all time, the most produced play of all time. Everybody knows the basic story so I really had to work at making Romeo and Juliet so wonderful, so childlike, so warm, so funny in Act I and Act II that, by the end, when they die, it matters to people. I think that, for me, the show was a success. Now, because I accomplished that, it sold well and that follows often. If you’re doing a good production, if you have a good product, a lot of those other things will fall into place.

LINDSAY: Well, that’s part of it, too. Marketing has to be – I think, in this framework – it has to be honest. You can’t just sell the sizzle.

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: I don’t know what I’m trying to say. The show has got to be good, I think.

JAMES: It does have to be good. But, as I often say, never lie, but tell the truth creatively so that you are doing those things.

P.T. Barnum took this huge elephant called Jumbo. It’s where the word came from – that, when you talk about Jumbo, that’s where the word originated – with this elephant. He would parade it through town. The biggest, boldest thing he could get to draw the most attention to say, “Hey, folks! The circus is in town!”

And so, I think you have to do that. You have to find a way on how and that’s kind of the next question. You know what the product is, you know who the audience is, you know what your benchmarks are. Now, the question is, “How are you going to reach those audiences?”

LINDSAY: How do you hook ‘em in?

JAMES: And that hook is the important thing. It’s what are you going to do. What’s going to be special about this production of Oklahoma for all the other productions of Oklahoma? Why come see this one?

My wife and her high school did a production of “Kiss Me, Kate” and one of the things she did is that she talked members of the school board, the city mayor, the superintendent all to put on costumes and come onstage for cameo performances. She then pitched this to the newspaper. “Come see the mayor in tights.” And so, it was all of this kind of piece. The show was good – great singing, great dancing – but the little hook to get the newspapers interested and really that’s what a hook is.

What is going to get the press interested? What is going to get your audience interested and coming? That’s what’s going to bring them in and that’s the basis. Then, how are you going to do that? Postcards, media? How are you going to do that?

LINDSAY: That’s the thing, too. Again, if you have a class, what a great brainstorming exercise! What makes this production of Oklahoma different than all the other productions of Oklahoma? What a great exercise to just let’s not throw any ideas. See what all comes in and then you just sort of start to narrow things down.

JAMES: The next step in the process really is great for students to do as well. In fact, in the class, there is a chart attached to it where you put your audience on one side and how you’re going to reach them on the other side.

Then, you kind of brainstorm. How am I going to best reach family and friends? Well, a little flyer that you can put with a magnet on the refrigerator and maybe it’s going to be a postcard that you mail out to people. Again, all of these things go out to your schoolboard, city councils – put them on your list.

Now, that’s going to take a little bit of research to put that contact list together.

LINDSAY: Students!

JAMES: Students, exactly! But, once done, it’s there and it’s available to use. You put all that together and you have to figure out what that is.

Now, one of the things is you have to know what different media exists and what they’re best at. Newspapers are best at kind of a general thing. They’re kind of disappearing though and they don’t have the power they once had. Radio is good because it has a quick turnaround. You can send something to them a week before and they can put it on the air for you.

The big move right now is into the internet.

LINDSAY: Social media.

JAMES: Social media. There are two aspects of social media, of the internet, where marketing is done. One is social media – know where all of those. Surprisingly, even though it’s passé for the high schooler, Facebook is still the number one social media out there. Interestingly enough, number two is LinkedIn which is a business kind of one. But it goes on with all of the other ones that exist out there and how can you look at those and how are you going to best do that.

The other aspect to look at is called search engine optimization. It sounds really weird but it’s just how you make your website and build that website so, when someone goes searching, your stuff is going to come up.

LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s one of those science math things of how the internet works and how the internet works is, again, are you searchable? Again, it’s another great exercise for students. What are the search terms for your show? From location to themes to the actual show itself – all of these things can really help people find you – which, again, that’s what marketing is for – to help people find you!

JAMES: Right, and the purpose of marketing is so that you stand out in the crowd.

You search “Shakespeare” – write “Shakespeare” in – and several million results come up. So, it is a real crowd. But, you know, if someone’s looking for “high school Shakespeare” and all those words should be in your intro, you’re going to have a better chance because you’re narrowing it down to what they’re looking for.

LINDSAY: Yeah, how do you narrow down? High school Shakespeare, modern Shakespeare.

JAMES: Right. The more relatable terms that exist is going to do it.

Now, there are some caveats to that. There are people who put in things just to draw them that have nothing to do with it. Don’t do that.

LINDSAY: Because then you have to ask the question, “It’s all about your audience.” If you’re just trying to draw numbers, are they really your audience? Who’s going to enjoy the show? Who’s going to want to come?

JAMES: Right, exactly.

LINDSAY: Awesome!

Just as we’re wrapping up here, we’re just talking about what the purpose of marketing is, what do you think is the ultimate definition? What is the thing that people need to know when they’re going to say, “I’m going to do marketing for the show!”? What does that mean? What is marketing?

JAMES: Marketing is drawing attention to your product. You want to do it in an honest, sincere way. But then, you know, it’s like that old saying in acting, “Acting is all about sincerity and, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” But, in many ways, marketing is much the same way. You’re trying to let people know.

I had some kids here at the festival who were in one of my workshops. When it was over, they came up to me and each of them had a business card and a flyer about their production. I went, “That’s marketing!” They’re letting me know about their product and I think that really is you’ve got to let people know.

I think one of the stories I tell in the lesson and I taught this to my wife’s students and they did the marketing. For a two-year period of time, they got an article in the local newspaper on every production they did and they were doing seven a year. A teacher from another school came in and complained, intimating that there was some special arrangement going on. He was under the assumption that, just because they were doing a show, that the newspaper would know about t.

LINDSAY: That’s another interesting thing, too. I think lots of people think that. Lots of people just sort of think that marketing is this magical thing that just happens. You should just come see my show because it’s on and I gave you one little piece of information.

JAMES: Surprisingly, when I was talking to the editor of the newspaper about this, he said that 60 percent of all press releases he receives are missing some vital information – the location is not there, the date is not there. He says, “It’s phenomenal and I don’t have time to assign a reporter to go out and search the information that you didn’t give me and then you’re upset that we’re not covering you. Well, you didn’t give us the information.”

The rule of thumb I give is complete and on-time because that’s what’s going to get the information and, really, marketing is about getting information about your product out to the media. Their job is to report that so help them out.

LINDSAY: Yes. Also, they want an interesting story.

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: It’s not another production of Oklahoma. What’s going to do draw them about that? But something that is interesting. The principle is in Oklahoma or we’re doing our cross-curricular.

JAMES: Another rule of thumb I use is, if the newspaper or the radio covers local sports, you have a chance that they’ll cover you. Your high school in New York City is not going to get coverage – with the exception, if you have a director from the Royal Shakespeare Company coming into your high school, that’s the hook! That’s the hook. But most local newspapers are interested in students. So, if you have a student say, “This student took first place at the International Thespian Festival and they’re starring in our production of Oklahoma,” there’s a human-interest story that could potentially pull them in.

LINDSAY: Awesome.

We want to draw attention and we are going to do that by knowing what is your product, who is your audience, what are your markers of success, and what is your hook. What’s the thing that’s going to draw them in – be they media, be they audience.

JAMES: Exactly.

LINDSAY: As we round up, what is one piece of advice for the overwhelmed drama teacher who wants this but doesn’t know?

JAMES: Use your students. That’s what I will say. This is all stuff that students can do.

The young woman I talked about that I trained at my wife’s school now does PR work for a company up in the north part of Washington State. It turned into a career for her.

LINDSAY: That’s awesome.

Thank you so much, James!

JAMES: Oh, you’re welcome!

LINDSAY: Thank you, James!

Before we go – oh, I sang that one! Thank you, James!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

So, of course, any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes at and one of those links is for the education arm of Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Academy.

James has a new course on marketing – Marketing the Arts – and it is our DTA professional course this month. Not only does he go into great detail about the four questions to answer when marketing your show; he does case studies, exercises for you, exercises for your students to do, how to shout your production from the rooftops and implement a marketing plan.

You can learn more about the DTA and this awesome course at – that’s all one word. You can also find the link in the show notes at

What else? If you are producing one of our plays, we really want to hear from you. We want to see a picture. We want to see some rehearsal footage – not long, just 30 seconds, a little bit. And then, we want to brag about you. We’re doing production features that showcase your successes. We want to share what you’re doing. We want to show others what you’re doing because it is a wonderful community we’ve got here and we want to make sure that no one is alone, no one is in the weeds. We want to hear from you and we want to get it out there.

So, all you have to do is send the info to us at and we want to share your experience.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast?

We post new episodes every second Tuesday at and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes. Just search for the word “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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