Look at the recent headlines:
Coconut Grove Playhouse Closes its Doors (Miami, FL)
Empty Space Theatre Calls it Quits over Debt (Seattle, WA)
Charlotte Repertory Theatre Closes its Doors, Lacking Money & Support (Charlotte, NC)
Crisis at Papermill Playhouse (Millburn, NJ)
I hope that the current crisis in American regional theater will be addressed at this year's Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference. Below are my completely unsolicited and biased opinions on what regional theaters (and the marketing professionals working at them) can do to help stabilize the industry:
1. Invest in Education Programs & Market them Aggressively.
I truly believe that investing in education programs will prove to have the best return on investment in the future. Consider it an R&D expense (research and development). No Child Left Behind has had disastrous effects on arts education, and one of the very few indicators on arts participation in adulthood is an early exposure to the arts. Future marketing directors will thank you for focusing your resources now on exposing children to the arts.
2. Take a Look at Your Programming.
Try to become a trusted advisor to your artistic director, so you can advise him or her on the development of your organization's programming. In my opinion, regional theaters have a responsibility to push the envelope--expand the craft of theater. Too many are ignoring this responsibility in favor of developing "safe" seasons packed with shows "guaranteed" to bring in revenue. I would classify Papermill Playhouse and Coconut Grove as two theatres who had very "safe" offerings, and it didn't seem to serve them well. On the other hand, there are those theatres who have such progressive seasons that they ignore the preferences of the majority of their audience. I believe Empty Space and Charlotte Repertory may have chosen seasons that wouldn't attract a majority of theatergoers in their respective cities. So, I suggest everything in moderation--give your audience a sampling buffet. Go ahead and choose a show that will push the envelope. Throw that ever popular musical in your lineup. Feature a world premiere by an unknown playwright. But balance your season...too much of any one thing might lead you to a disaster.
3. Continue Your Education.
Always focus on keeping up to date on the most current marketing theory and practices. Just as a doctor needs to attend continuing education classes, you too must stay current. I hear too many marketing directors say that they just don't understand new technology because they are from "the old school." How would you like it if you went to a doctor who advocated using 1970's technology because that was how he was trained and he never focused on keeping up to date on practices? Go to conferences. Read books. Scan blogs. Keep current. Talk to your colleagues—I have learned so much from my friends in regional theaters across the country.
4. Be Passionate About What You Do.
There is almost one thing in common with successful marketing directors--a passion for the work of their organization. I have been successful primarily because I truly love the organizations I have worked for. When you begin to "phone in your performance" as a marketing director, be mindful of that and recognize that it might be your time to leave. To many people become bitter and trapped because they don't leave when they should. If you no longer have the passion, it will affect your work, which will in turn affect the earned revenue of your organization.