“Even bad publicity is good publicity” – (attributed to) P.T. Barnum
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde
“We can give you a photo with a caption,” pause, “if there’s room.” Always that disappointing caveat when requesting space in the two dailies. Publicists or publicity committees still sent in press releases with black and white photos (only the Sunday edition was color) and hoped against hope.
The Allied Arts Council (AAC), now defunct, submitted Calendar information to the papers, printed once weekly. Occasionally papers would publish a feature article if the editor found some exceptional aspect to a production deserving attention. That was pretty much the extent of things.
Radio and TV stations did public service announcements, but the number of requests far outweighed the available airtime. Broadcasters, bombarded by submissions, (still) dump names into a hat and the luck of the draw garners a few precious seconds. What could be more Vegas?
Along came a guy from another town. You know, one of those cities we’ve heard about where the media coverage for the arts beats anything around these parts! The more grousing he heard, the more questions he asked, the more he was told how difficult it could be to get any cooperation from the media. He met with a few key folks on the grass in front of Reed Whipple, and a week later both the Review-Journal and Sun printed a two-paragraph announcement. On a bright Saturday afternoon, The Meadows Playhouse, packed to the rafters, gave birth to the Metropolitan Theater Guild (MTG).
MTG formed a Board of Directors, filed for non-profit status, and got a foot in the door with the Las Vegas Press Club. Things began to improve with Press Club members, Sally McManaway and Mary van Kirk (local actresses), encouraging increased media exposure for theatre. Features began popping up with more regularity. The newspaper critics started getting more than two or three paragraphs for their reviews. But, try as we did, TV and radio never bought into putting critics on the air. Hoping to fill the gap, MTG snail-mailed a monthly publication to its membership announcing auditions, production dates, and numerous articles of interest.
Nevertheless, groups still struggled to keep the doors open. For instance, Las Vegas Little Theatre (LVLT) was constantly in debt. Michael Mack (as in Thomas and Mack), a shareholder in the mini-mall Little Theater called home, helped as much as possible but he eventually had to present an eviction notice. MTG, working with company co-founder Jack Bell, and the Sands Hotel and Casino, assisted in getting coverage. Both papers and all four of the local television stations ran the story about the community theater in trouble. Checks arrived in the mail. Volunteers picked up pledges made over the phone. The Sands offered the Ballroom for a fundraiser. In all, they raised over $9,000.00. Yet, it didn’t cover the back rent. Several days later, a phone call from Mack sent a sigh of relief echoing across town. The investors had accepted the money as payment in full. A statement to the press, released through the Sands, announced the success of the campaign.
Less than a year later, rumors flew that The Meadows Playhouse was about to permanently go dark. This time the media came calling, asking what the Theater Guild could do to help save the only “professional” theatre company in town. It was great to be strolling across the greenway at the university with reporters and cameramen following; to be at the day job and have the media stopped by security as they tried to enter the building for interviews. Finally, theatre was newsworthy.
After a little more than two years, the AAC proposed that MTG merge with them. The Council had a larger donor base, a very slick monthly publication, and a large membership. A few months of negotiating resulted in the Guild becoming the Theater Division, bringing a bank balance along with it. A bank balance? That fact itself garnered media attention. Allied Arts efforts produced more and more attention for theater.
But, media coverage has never stayed consistent. Over the years, it has always waxed and waned. Meetings with the Editor would sometimes get positive results, sometimes not. “Space is available by the amount of advertising,” become a droned answer. Advertising purchases by theatre companies found it helped garner feature articles. Unfortunately, sustaining that broke budgets.
The John McHugh Memorial Awards, created in 1983 by the AAC Theater Division, honored a man who’d been a staple in 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood. John was a special kind of actor; funny, talented, loved by everyone he worked with and he worked with everyone. News of the awards (established after his death) realized added media interest.
What is important within the theatre community may not necessarily even warrant a blurb as a human-interest item to the editor. It may not seem fair, yet, like it or not, that is the way the media world operates. News outlets are there to report the news, and, thankfully, award-winning theatre was news. The results published each year generally produced more butts in the seats.
Editors, whether broadcast or print, make decisions about what is newsworthy during any given news cycle. Local section editors also want to cover what they believe matters to their readers. During my tenure as critic and monthly columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal I would, via Facebook, encourage response to my reviews and columns. “Leave a comment on the e-edition, or write a letter to the editor. Tell them you hate me and I don’t know a prop from a costume, tell them I’m the greatest thing to come along since the fresnel – just tell them something!”
In the 80s the best return on a marketing investment derived from direct-mail postcards. But it took time and effort. Gathering addresses, inputing the data into an IBM Jr. PC, printing and affixing the labels to postcards printed with a very expensive (for the time) laser printer. Then those needed to be pre-sorted by zip code, counted, and a specially coded sticker placed in the proper corner – otherwise the US Postal Service would reject the bulk mailing. Time consuming and expensive, but still the best bet for putting butts into seats. Now, there is bulk email. So much faster and cheaper.
Today press coverage is again sporadic. And, perhaps, we should be thankful people in the community embrace digital media, because the future does not bode great tidings for daily print publications. As more people turn to the Internet, many newspapers across the country have already folded. Doing a Google search for “live theatre + Las Vegas” you find most theatres have a decent presence on the Internet: websites, Facebook pages, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
They may want to spruce those up and keep them current, link to any media outlet that gives them publicity (like this one!)…and give those outlets a mention in programs. It helps patrons find more theatre. After all, one hand washes the other. And cooperation bests competition, anytime!