Saturday, June 30, 2007

What is viral?

Theatre is one part of my life.

Movies and television another.

And then there's this thing called advertising which pays bills.

It kind of uses mutated forms of the first three elements to interest people into thinking about products and services differently than they did before. And, lately, it's been leaning ever more heavily on those things than before becasue of this little thing called Viral marketing.

However, the definition of what viral marketing is seems to vary widely.

Hell, even the definition of viral varies depending on who you talk to.

Oh, the big, broad, basic definition is the same - something that gets passed around a lot - but as the video spoof above suggests, what leads to "pass around" is something to be debated.

What leads to useful or good "pass around" is even more debatable.

The video below is a case in point. Created by Chuck McBride and company in San Francisco, it's for Ray Ban. There are clues to this within the video (they're wearing the damn glasses, throwing the damn glasses in every frame and, finally, the Ray Ban tagline is written in the dust of a dirty car window), but most people I know - outside of the advertising industry - don't or haven't picked up on these clues.

To them it's just an entertaining video. And it is.

Then there's Mascot Roommate from the Coffee Bean.

Apparently, the marketing folks at the Coffee Bean asked a couple of guys to make some viral videos that used their mascot. Somehow they bought a bunch of comic videos in which a lot of fun is made of the Coffee Been employee who has to stand around in a big Frostee Mascot suit.

It's long, but funny. But once I know that it's sponsored by the Coffee Bean, I'm not sure I think it's all that cool.

However, it got a lot of attention. As you can see from the clip below, CNN - among others - bought the trick hook line and sinker.

Again, however, branding is incidental, rather than stamped at the end with a card a la a TV commercial.

Which is not to say that TV spots can't be viral. Certainly if a spot is funny or interesting enough it will garner attention. The VW spot below has something like 3 million hits. (I count for at least a hundred of them).

Anyway, lately, my clients have been asking for viral ideas.

What many don't seem to understand is this: in viral the emphasis is on entertainment, not product (per se). So the idea behind anything "viral" needs to be easy to understand and grasp, hard to misinterpret (which by the way, seems to me like a very good summation of the much bandied-about but not-often-defined phrase "Big Idea") and the schtick must be interesting enough for people to WANT to watch it.

This doesn't mean you can't talk about yourself. You just can't be talking to yourself.

Ie, you need to have a lot of confidence in your brand, so much so that you're not afraid to make a little fun of yourself. More importantly you need to have a strong understanding of your brand so that no matter what you say, to whoever you're saying it, you are second-nature re-inforcing your brand.

That is to say, your brand must be more than a few words on a piece of paper. It has to be an actual culture, with real values that live in the organization. No, actually must be the organizing principles around which a company has grown.

Perhaps you can fake some of that, I don't know. But I do know that it'll be easier for you to get a successful viral compaign if these kinds of things are already in place throughout.

Every Apple message is simple - simple to look at visually, simple verbally to understand. EVERY ONE.
Every Apple message has an understated ease about it. EVERY ONE.
Every Apple message has a charming and not-over-the-top sense of humor (even when it's schticky like the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" campaign). EVERY ONE.

Is it any surprise that one compoonent of iPhone viral marketing looks like this?

Note that these video don't demonstrate anything about the new iPhone except that it will make old phones seem obsolete. The demonstrations are left for the sales floor.

So, what's the best viral campaign I've ever seen?

Probably one of the first. In fact, I think it's the model for all the best that's come after. It has a site that houses the overall idea and where it can all be viewed at once. As you can see below, the videos are also episodic but self-contained, they are all availabe on YOUTUBE and they are all funny enough to want to see more than once. Finally, they are structured around the product in a way that's emphasizes what's great about the product - ie, they're neither pointlessly entertaining nor are they so self-effacing about the product that you have to wonder if the damn thing is any good (a question that I have about the Coffee Bean after watching Mascot Roommate).

Which is to say, someone might actually want to buy Chad's Monkey Ball game after they watch it.

For more on viral, check out: Feed Company.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

If they do it with songs, they'll do it to everything else too...

My friend Dave Tutin heard about a music competition that evaluates the quality of the entries through a "Music X-Ray."

From his blog:

"First, all songs will be analyzed by the innovative new Music Xray™ technology, which analyzes the underlying mathematical patterns in music and compares them to the patterns of past hits. All songs that score “blue", meaning that they have tremendous hit potential, will move on to the second round of judging, which includes deeper Music Xray™ analysis as well as human input."

Dave had some pretty strong feelings about it.

I do too.

For years, of course, we've had versions of this for movies from people like Syd Field and others. It's lead to a predictable three act structure in film that's meant boredom for two hours in the dark instead of real excitement. (Sorry, to advocates of the Campbell idea of universal stories, but I don't think he meant all stories should be told the same way.)

Painting by numbers....

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Chairman for the NEA tells it like it is at Stanford

I found this over at Crowded Fire's BANTER.

It's quite a beautiful argument for the need to re-adjust the way the arts are understood in America.


Prepared text of June 17, 2007, Stanford Commencement address
by Dana Gioia,
chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts


Good morning.

Thank you, President Hennessy.

It is a great honor to be asked to give the Commencement address at my alma mater. Although I have two degrees from Stanford, I still feel a bit like an interloper on this exquisitely beautiful campus. A person never really escapes his or her childhood.

At heart I'm still a working-class kid—half Italian, half Mexican—from L.A., or more precisely from Hawthorne, a city that most of this audience knows only as the setting of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—two films that capture the ineffable charm of my hometown.

Today is Father's Day, so I hope you will indulge me for beginning on a personal note. I am the first person in my family ever to attend college, and I owe my education to my father, who sacrificed nearly everything to give his four children the best education possible.

My dad had a fairly hard life. He never spoke English until he went to school. He barely survived a plane crash in World War II. He worked hard, but never had much success, except with his family.

When I was about 12, my dad told me that he hoped I would go to Stanford, a place I had never heard of. For him, Stanford represented every success he had missed yet wanted for his children. He would be proud of me today—no matter how dull my speech.

On the other hand, I may be fortunate that my mother isn't here. It isn't Mother's Day, so I can be honest. I loved her dearly, but she could be a challenge. For example, when she learned I had been nominated to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, she phoned and said, "Don't think I'm impressed."

I know that there was a bit of controversy when my name was announced as the graduation speaker. A few students were especially concerned that I lacked celebrity status. It seemed I wasn't famous enough. I couldn't agree more. As I have often told my wife and children, "I'm simply not famous enough."

And that—in a more general and less personal sense—is the subject I want to address today, the fact that we live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists.

There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.

I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.

The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture's celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.

There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

Of course, I'm not forgetting that politicians can also be famous, but it is interesting how our political process grows more like the entertainment industry each year. When a successful guest appearance on the Colbert Report becomes more important than passing legislation, democracy gets scary. No wonder Hollywood considers politics "show business for ugly people."

Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial.

I have a reccurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the "Creation of Man." I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.

When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something? A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?

Don't get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free market. I have a Stanford MBA and spent 15 years in the food industry. I adore my big-screen TV. The productivity and efficiency of the free market is beyond dispute. It has created a society of unprecedented prosperity.

But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything.

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.

There is only one social force in America potentially large and strong enough to counterbalance this profit-driven commercialization of cultural values, our educational system, especially public education. Traditionally, education has been one thing that our nation has agreed cannot be left entirely to the marketplace—but made mandatory and freely available to everyone.

At 56, I am just old enough to remember a time when every public high school in this country had a music program with choir and band, usually a jazz band, too, sometimes even orchestra. And every high school offered a drama program, sometimes with dance instruction. And there were writing opportunities in the school paper and literary magazine, as well as studio art training.

I am sorry to say that these programs are no longer widely available to the new generation of Americans. This once visionary and democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning but myopic school boards, county commissioners, and state officials, with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue. Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have paid the price. Today a child's access to arts education is largely a function of his or her parents' income.

In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline? There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture.

This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life.

There is no better place to start this rapprochement than in arts education. How do we explain to the larger society the benefits of this civic investment when they have been convinced that the purpose of arts education is mostly to produce more artists—hardly a compelling argument to either the average taxpayer or financially strapped school board?

We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

This is not happening now in American schools. Even if you forget the larger catastrophe that only 70 percent of American kids now graduate from high school, what are we to make of a public education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

The situation is a cultural and educational disaster, but it also has huge and alarming economic consequences. If the United States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

It is hard to see those qualities thriving in a nation whose educational system ranks at the bottom of the developed world and has mostly eliminated the arts from the curriculum.

I have seen firsthand the enormous transformative power of the arts—in the lives of individuals, in communities, and even society at large.

Marcus Aurelius believed that the course of wisdom consisted of learning to trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones. I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.

Entertainment promises us a predictable pleasure—humor, thrills, emotional titillation, or even the odd delight of being vicariously terrified. It exploits and manipulates who we are rather than challenges us with a vision of who we might become. A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.

If you don't believe me, you should read the statistical studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out—to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

Why do these issues matter to you? This is the culture you are about to enter. For the last few years you have had the privilege of being at one of the world's greatest universities—not only studying, but being a part of a community that takes arts and ideas seriously. Even if you spent most of your free time watching Grey's Anatomy, playing Guitar Hero, or Facebooking your friends, those important endeavors were balanced by courses and conversations about literature, politics, technology, and ideas.

Distinguished graduates, your support system is about to end. And you now face the choice of whether you want to be a passive consumer or an active citizen. Do you want to watch the world on a screen or live in it so meaningfully that you change it?

That's no easy task, so don't forget what the arts provide.

Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.

Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, "It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget." Art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity. You don't outgrow art. The same work can mean something different at each stage of your life. A good book changes as you change.

My own art is poetry, though my current daily life sometimes makes me forget that. So let me end my remarks with a short poem appropriate to the occasion.

[Part III of Gioia's poem "Autumn Inaugural"]

Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,

old robes worn for new beginnings,

solemn protocol where the mutable soul,

surrounded by ancient experience, grows

young in the imagination's white dress.

Because it is not the rituals we honor

but our trust in what they signify, these rites

that honor us as witnesses—whether to watch

lovers swear loyalty in a careless world

or a newborn washed with water and oil.

So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—

and let the old be touched by youth's

wayward astonishment at learning something new,

and dream of a future so fitting and so just

that our desire will bring it into being.

Congratulations to the Class of 2007.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

5/5 Meme

E. Hunter Spreen tagged me with a meme started by Laura.
...its purpose is to get people talking about their passion in life. It’s called the 5/5 meme. Five questions, then pass it to five people. “Expertise” could be your profession, hobby, or area of intense interest.
If I haven’t named you specifically and you would like to do it, feel free. I’d love for everyone to answer these questions. I’ve named five just to get it going.
Remember: This is a “get to know you” meme. It’s supposed to be breezy and fun.

1. Name your area of expertise/interest:

Writing - specifically in theatre.

2. How did you become interested in it?

I studied theatre for a year at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. It was accidental becasue I was really there to just be abroad while continuing my English program from the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. Between reading a lot of socialist literature, Bond's SAVED, Pinter's HOMECOMING, visiting Stratford every month and seeing a production of GODOT at the student union by a group travelling from Moscow, I became what you might call "hyper-interested."

I then wrote a play in response to FIVE FINGER EXERCISE (which I thought was terribly corrupt and middle class) but my own play was so awful I quit and returned to writing short stories. Years later, I took a class at Chicago's Second City in an attempt to meet people in advertising which I hoped would support a bad novel writing habit.

I had no real agenda to be any good and I loved the class. However, I was stone cold broke and so I quit, vowing to take another class later in life. It was alomst 6 years before I was able to scrape a few hundred bucks together to take a class at Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis.

I did a regular children's improv show on Saturdays at the Bryant Lake Bowl in the Twin Cities and was invited by Mo Collins (later to go onto MADTV) to join a late-night show based on my performances there.

I started writing sketches when I moved to San Francisco for an advertising job. The sketches became scenes and the scenes became plays. In 1997 I produced my first show, THINKING LTD. It was a fun show with a lot of talented people, but not any kind of high art. But I was totally hooked after that.

In 2004 I got my MFA in playwriting from Columbia.

3. How did you learn how to do it?

By making lots of mistakes. And I feel like the riskier the mistakes, often the more successful were the results.

4. Who has been your biggest influence?

Sam Shepard, Edward Bond, Pinter, Mamet, Viola Spolin.

Anne Bogart taught me a HUGE amount at Columbia while Eduardo Machado and Kelly Stuart taught me to never be afraid of taking a play to the most dangerous place it could go, even if the conclusion meant making the audience unhappy. TRUTH was the only thing that counted for them and I appreciate that even now.

I'd also say working directly with directors, actors and dramaturgs has had a bigger impact than I'll ever know about.

And then, of course, there's my wife whose involvement in my life has injected a lot more hope into my plays than they had before.

5. What would you teach people about it?

Trust your instincts. And follow the voices that are speaking to each other in there.

Don't "think" about your play until much later - long after you've written the whole thing at least twice. It will show you how to think about it and it will tell you what it wants to be.

If it's ugly, let it be ugly. It it's funny, let it be funny. Just don't try to tell it what it should be. Let it tell you.

I tag three people outside the theatrosphere but who read here regularly: Jeff Shattuck; Dave Tutin; Ms. Food Musings. I also tag Patrick and someone I don't know very well, though I've seen some of his work: Enrique of Pimp My Blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

When Bohemia left New York, it probably moved to Austin. Who knew?

For reasons I can't go into right now, I've found myself in Austin, Texas tonight where I had dinner at Stubb's (just a block down from the Club de Ville shown here) and was given a tour of the place.

A shack outside. Wood tables inside. Very cool.

Meanwhile, Les Claypool from Primus (he's the pink blob in the blue light between the women - he wore a "pig" mask for one of the numbers) was playing in the backyard. Literally. Apparently he just happened to be in town.

In the process, I checked out the area. Probably one of the most bohemian cities I've come across - and I've lived in a few places (NY, Wasshington DC, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and LA).

Anyway, very interesting place Austin - about as different from my idea of a place in Texas as it could be. Cheap to live in, I understand it's got a big art community and a fantastic small-house theatre scene.

This, by the way, is the "pit" at Stubb's. It holds a thousand pounds of meat. They go through something like 2 and a half tons of meat a week.

I'm not sure this "meat fact" is all that appetizing, but it is astounding.


In a side note, I've seen George Hunka has replied in appropriate bemused way to my post below about his assertion that marketing theatre is useless. While he's right that the work should come first, I stand by my opinion that he's mistaken on the marketing matter. And I disagree that audiences are getting smaller because of what's being put on stage. That kind of purism is great, but the reasons are much more complex. And they can be countered.

Ultimately, I believe there's lots of good theatre out there. I believe we could all use a fresh look at how we talk about it to people who have crossed theatre off the list of things that might be enriching for their lives.

There is an opportunity today to make a space in our society for the kind of direct intellectual, physical and emotional engagement that only theatre offers - and that I love. "Marketing" correctly helps.

That marketing, whether we like it or not, begins the moment a playwright drafts a letter to an artistic director as part of a submission.

Finally, as noted, while I find George's thinking often provocative and interesting - and I'm sure he does take joy in them working them out, I'm not gonna pretend his expression of those ideas doesn't occasionally cross into pretension for me. Which is why I definitely take exception to Alison Croggon's comment on George's blog that pointing out pretension is equivalent to anti-intellectualism.

You just have to read George on a regular basis to see what I'm talking about. And while I know George has threatened not to change, and while I'll always take a look at what he's saying even if he makes good on that threat, I think you can call for a "radical rethinking" in theatre without sounding like a 12th grade teacher, can't you?

And didn't Hemingway get everyone to rethink American literature with simple, bold sentences?

Anyway, here's a really great and thoughtful summation of the heart of the matter from Store Front Rebellion.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Is this the right way to market the arts? Not for me, but at least it's a start. I guess.

These ads were done by GSD&M in Austin. As you can see, they are exceedingly clever.

While that cleverness is a good thing, they are not what I would consider to be examples of "good" marketing for the arts.

Why? Simply because their big point is that the arts are necessary but underfunded.

Not until you get pretty far into the copy, do you discover why the arts are actually worth funding.

Here's an excerpt from the AD COUNCIL site about the subject these ads are supposed to address:
An impressive 89% of Americans believe that the arts are important enough to be taught in schools, and that it fulfills an important role in a well-rounded education. And they are right; studies show far-reaching benefits of an arts education:

• The arts teach kids to be more tolerant and open.
• The arts allow kids to express themselves creatively.
• The arts promote individuality, bolster self-confidence, and improve overall academic performance.
• The arts can help troubled youth, providing an alternative to delinquent behavior and truancy while providing an improved attitude towards school.

Unfortunately, the truth is that the average kid spends more time at their locker than in arts classes. This PSA campaign was created to increase involvement in championing arts education both in and out of school. Parents and other concerned citizens are encouraged to visit to find out how to take action on the behalf of the arts and arts education. The campaign stresses that some art is not enough and reinforces with the tagline: Art. Ask for More.
But who do these ads actually talk to and what do they actually tell us?

They alert people with the mildest knowledge about dance, classical music and American Jazz to the less-than-secret truth that kids today don't know much about those subjects.

(Big whoop - I also remember a study that showed students at the University of Florida could not identify the state of Florida on a map of the United States.)

Worse, the ads do it with a self-congratulatory joke.

Are they funny? Sure. Are they well art-directed and written? Yes and yes (and they've won a few very hard-to-win advertising awards). But people who don't know the figures in the ads will miss the jokes. And I don't care what the focus groups said in a white room over soggy sandwiches and luke warm sodas, I'd bet a ticket to a Broadway show that those people will not be likely to care more about the arts after they see the ads than they did before.

And let's face it, every year we hear how much shrinking arts spending.

School band programs that get dropped. Art classes that get canned. Theatre programs pushed aside to make way for football jerseys.

So what should the ads be about?

Since the ads are meant to get us - as a society - to put more $$$ into the arts, the ads should tell us something we don't know about why the arts are valuable to us - as a society.

So, I go back to the block quote above and this is what I think these - or any ads about the need for arts funding - should be about:

...studies show far-reaching benefits of an arts education:

• The arts teach kids to be more tolerant and open.
• The arts promote individuality, bolster self-confidence, and improve overall academic performance.
• The arts can help troubled youth, providing an alternative to delinquent behavior and truancy while providing an improved attitude towards school.
Don't you think these three points are all excellent reasons to fund the arts? I do.

And I believe if you want to get a country that's at least half Republican to reconsider the value of an arts education, the last two points are especially convincing because they show that the arts add value to all parts of the educational system.

Which brings me to my last question: Why the hell isn't the TCG lobbying like crazy for more theatre funding based around these findings?

But here's what really pisses me off: I know - as a working creative - that the people who did these ads don't care if these ads are the right message for this category.

The people who did these ads did them for their portfolios - to show how clever they are. And the ad agency let them do the ads this way because it gave their creatives a chance to stretch after working on more corporate clients who make them do rate ads for Southwest Airlines and other bullshit to keep the lights on.

Perhaps I'd be less bitter if I had done them - they are funny.

But it's the WRONG MESSAGE and, according to the people who hired GSD&M to come up with this campaign, the ads received more than $118 million in donated media.

That's wasted money to my way of thinking since it means a lot of people saw the ads, got a laugh and then went on with their day.

Frankly, I think we can do better. I know I could.

Friday, June 15, 2007

And you wonder why people don't go to the theatre...

44. The attempt to market and sell theatre is as useful a concept as an attempt to market and sell air.

This is from George Hunka's superfluities as part of his "Organum".

It was brought to my attention by Don Hall.

George says a lot of theoretical things about theatre that I agree with - or find worth thinking about - on his blog. Unfortunately, it's often so pretentiously written, that when someone says to me they hate theatre because it takes itself too seriously or makes fun of it by pronouncing it "the-ah-t-ah", I think of George's blog.

However, the gem above is really sad. It's a demonstration of a myopic understanding of how people in our culture value information. And more importantly, how information is disseminated.

Of course, maybe George is working from a different definition of "marketing" than the rest of us.

But that would be telling too.

If this is the way many people in theatre think about spreading the news that there's a show in town worth seeing, theatre deserves to die the slow horrible death it seems to be enjoying.

I, for one, think marketing theatre, marketing shows, marketing anything that might make people think, act or reconsider life very very useful.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Getting people to look at something they don't care about: Theatre

You have a magazine in front of you.

A magazine that you can only go through in the sequence some editor you don't know has laid it out in. And while you can't skip ahead and you can't go back - you can page through it as fast you want - or as slowly as you need to.

What's more, you don't really remember how the magazine started or when the magazine will end.

You only know that you are moving through the pages and each page - love it, hate it, feel excited by it, be bored by it - is its own experience.

That's right, the magazine is your life. And inside it are all the things you will ever know or feel. And it's up to you what you're going to pay attention to. The articles, the pictures, the cartoons.

But of course, knowing that life is short and that your magazine may end at any moment, there are some things you're not sure you ever want to look at.

Namely, the ads.

Yes, those pesky ads that are always trying to get your money with promises of everything from good real estate to stopping that bald spot to finding bliss in a bottle of gin.

And if it's not enough that they suggest you can have impossible things, they've been placed there by people you've never met right smack in the middle of articles you really care about.

Articles on things like, finding your soulmate, building a home, having children, enjoying friends, getting over the loss or death of loved ones - you know, articles that you're pretty sure you bought the magazine for in the first place.

Now, at first you might have paid attention to some of these "ads". In fact, you might've thought they were part of those articles. But they weren't. And when you learned they weren't, well, you decided not to read them.

At all.

Occasionally, however, you find yourself chugging through your magazine and you find yourself stunned by a page that's a little out of the ordinary.

A little angry or warm or loud.


But it stops you and there you are, reading an ad.

Why? Because it's visually arresting in a specific way. A way that throws the rest of the page into relief. A way that has an internal logic that makes you actually want to read it because that logic actually connects with something inside you that maybe you weren't even aware was there.

Let's call it a universal.

Interestingly enough, you occasionally find yourself realizing that this universal is not only something you already know, but something other ads may also say, but not in a way that had ever found its way into your heart before.

So why does this ad get there when others don't? Partly because this ad doesn't use a cliche, visually or verbally, and yet isn't so original you can't recognize it or understand its value. And, in fact, all the things that make it something you notice are also all things that make it relevant to where you are in your magazine.

That's right, a page earlier, not interesting. A page later, not worthwhile.

This is why people experiment in theatre (or any art for that matter).

Some of the experimenters know they'll fail, but they do it anyway.

Others only want to succeed - which is why they fail.

And still others have enough money to be able to place their ads so often in the magazine that we can't not notice them no matter how much we try - or how uninteresting they actually are.

Which also means that the people with no money except for the tiniest ads must be that much more innovative to get your attention. Afterall, the space they have to work in is so small, they may never have much of an audience - though, if they put their ideas up often enough, in the same space, in generally a similar way, they may, after a long period of time actually have an audience that means they can step up in a space size or two.

And that is what small theatre must do if it wants to survive.

But the worst thing an ad can do is pretend it's something it's not.

It's not a television show. It's not an editorial - though it could make you look at editorial differently.

It's not a movie.

It must be true to the idea of the original creator in every way (the playwright or the director or the actor) or it will do something more tragic than bore. It will fail to put the original energy of the creator into the magazine - and thus the magazine you have would be less interesting than it was before.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Relevance and Innovation in Theatre - Whattup with all THAT?

It seems the "theatrosphere" is in the throes of examining why theatre has become a third wheel on a bicycle for a culture that's been doing everything via rocket-powered motorcycles.

A lot of it has been focused around postings by Scott Walters that include a list of how great theatre artists should go about being great theatre artists as well as some interesting responses to an essay by Peter Birkenhead at Salon about why more people will be watching the Sopranos tonight than the Tonys.

Between the posts, the articles and the responses, everything is blamed from the "formal experimentation" of off and off-off Broadway theatre that is apparently not very experimental to the play development system in the US which over the past 12 months I've been taking blogs seriously has been very very well explored and torched.

And the advice about how to right all this ranges from "stop being ambitious" to "stop thinking your work is important" to "stop pandering" to "stop thinking you're smarter than your audience" to "stop trying to be so thoughtful." More positive exhortations are made to "start being more entertaining" and "start listening to communities" and "start thinking locally".

I have, of course, paraphrased. And the quotes emphasize what I heard in the conversations - ie, they aren't literally (in most cases) what was said.

Or maybe they're the things I want to hear - after all, some of these bandwagons are very attractive to jump on. It all seems so contrarian. It seems to say, hey, there's a better way.

And I'd be the first to say that the current system hasn't really worked to my advantage in any kind of big way.

I'm not getting done by big, well-established non-profit theatres.

And it's slow going in the downtown off-off broadway scene for me - despite some good things with CLUBBED THUMB and the SOHO THINK TANK.

And let's face it, depending on what kind of work you do, what theatre companies you work with, where in the country you're doing that work, well, a lot of these critiques about the state of theatre ring as completely true.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more it all felt a little, I don't know, generic.

I mean, depending on what kind of work you do, what theatre companies you work with, where in the country you're doing that work, well, a lot of these critiques will strike you - at best - as pretentious to offer, and - at worst - completely baseless.

These "depending on" factors that determine how you see these things are part of problem, aren't they?

Another part of the problem with all this conversation - for me anyway - has to do with the absurdity of the Birkenhead essay to begin with. It compares apples and oranges because the medium of TV allows him to - not because it's appropriate, or even helpful.

To state the obvious, television is a cheaply distributed mass media. Its popularity is in no small part due to this. At any point in time, in any day, millions of Americans are watching it. Even at 3 in the morning. In the battle for the biggest number of eyeballs, the powers that be have found certain tried and true formulas to ensure people are watching their shows. Eventually it's lead to a lot of programming that's violent or funny or thoughtful or salacious or sexy or whatever that keeps people watching. Television that can't prove people are watching, even if it's interesting television for some people, usually disappears.

More importantly, television's cheap access meant that it surpassed theatre's popularity almost before television even got started.

Which means that it will never matter whether theatre addresses any of Birkenhead's criticisms. Television shows about theatre in ANY capacity will NEVER be watched in big numbers. Period. (If more people were watching the Tonys than the Sopranos tonight, it would not even be news, because the real news would be about why the power failed everywhere across the country to prevent anyone from watching TV.)

I think we'd all be better off to look at something else when trying to address how to fix the woes of theatre.

We should look at advertising.

Yes, corporately sponsored, pro-capitalist, evil advertising that nobody ever wants to watch.

Just like theatre.

And I don't mean television advertising. I mean the lowest of low advertising, the stuff no-one cares about, the stuff that no longer brings in real money (as opposed to TV money): Print advertising.


Because even with TIVO, print is still the most ignored, least read, easiest to avoid kind of artful messaging there is in the world. Plus, print has to BE READ to be understood, which means you have to work at it to "get it."

Just like theatre.

So, what does it take to get someone to look at something they don't care about?

Friday, June 08, 2007

A good woman.

That would be my wife, who, when I arrived in LA from Denver, made a summer dinner of grilled ribeye, corn, tomato & mozzarella salad, biscuits and a dozen beautiful cupcakes.

She put some candles on the cupcakes and here was the result.

***In a strange, ironic side note, I understand I was also the victim of a theft tonight. My Nokia campaign which got into the AICP, was inducted into the MOMA and featured on NBC's TODAY SHOW last summer, won a bronze EFFIE tonight in New York. However, I was not credited as having worked on the campaign by the offices of Grey Advertising a part of Martin Sorrell's WPP Group.

The Effies are a measure of advertising Effectiveness that also takes into account the quality of the creative - IE, it has to work and be interesting for people to watch.

It's a big deal.

The theivery is sad.


It's one more than the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.

And it means, I remember television not just before cable, but before remote control.

I remember Howard Cossell on Monday Night Football and the first Star Trek series and Vinny Barbarino.

I remember when the Cubs played every home game in daylight.

I remember the Vietnam war as the confusing thing that my son may remember the Iraq War as (should it, god forbid, continue much longer).

I remember when you got on an airplane and were treated like a king.

I remember having a Sting Ray bike with a banana seat and one speed: Yours.

I remember not just CDs, but albums and mix tapes and 8 track tapes.

I remember when Secretariat was the greatest Athlete on the planet.

I also remember the World Trade Towers - I lived for two months in the summer of 1983 in what was then the Vista Hotel between One and Two.

I remember when CBGB's was not only open, but was still a place where music lived (the last years are the years I like to call the "museum years).

I remember reading REMAINS OF THE DAY in its first printing.

I remember seeing Star Wars during its first run at the Eden.

I remember Burt Wieman, your TV-Ford man.

And I remember a lot more - only I also remember that nobody really cares about old men who remember.

Released today, 3 years after I was born.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Weather in Denver - Whattup?

Last night, there were 100 mph winds.

Last week, hail the size of chicklet gum fell from the sky (see pic below).

I'm going back to LA tomorrow for the weekend.

Definitely looking forward to it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Take Me Out

No, not to the Greenberg play. To the real thing.

Here's a few pix of us at COORS FIELD on Saturday.

The Rockies won. So did we.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Can you balance one of these on a pen?

Heather's been looking for them on the Web.

Finding one that fits into a MINI is very tricky.

Finding one that fits into a life shared by a writer and an actor is even trickier.

But we are looking forward to the ride - which is supposed to really start in LESS THAN 60 DAYS!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tagged by another Meme

It's Laura's fault.

Here's the deal.

Bloggers must post these rules and provide eight random facts about themselves. In the post, the tagged blogger tags eight other bloggers and notify them that they have been tagged.

1. The hospital I was born in was pink.

2. My grandmother Mary Kay was raised by her Uncle Malachy after a boating accident took her father's life. That's how I got my name.

3. My paternal grandfather worked in a Tin Mill on the South Side of Chicago.

4. My maternal grandfather was a Doctor and a Marine serving in the South Pacific during WWII.

5. My cousins Larry and Andy used to play "French and Indian War" instead of "Americans versus Germans". This totally confused me when they told me I had to be the British since I didn't even know the British were involved, due to the title.

6. My brother Christopher and I got into an all out fist fight when he was still in HS and I was a Freshman in college. I don't think I've ever regretted anything more.

7. I think that most plays that are more poetic than they are emotional are fairly boring.

8. I sleep on my stomach.

Okay, the bloggers I tag are Dave, Jeff, Food Musings, Fred, Aram and Sarah, Kyle and, uh, Don Hall.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Brainstorm - Why, OH, Why?

It's not to be found on a weather map and you don't have to be outside to feel it coming.

Oh, no. Rather, all you have to do, is look at your email to see the clouds gathering that will eventually produce it. The emails have headers like, "THOUGHT STARTERS?" and "MEETING REQUEST" and "IDEA FORMATION CONFERENCE".

Other tell-tale signs include hallway meetings in which people constantly scratch their heads and business briefs about projects with vague objectives and very short deadlines.

Yes, we're talking "Brainstorm" time and boy do I hate it.

It's not so much the idea of it. No, it's more the misuse of it. The insistence on holding one to make everyone on the team feel like we're all going someplace. The irrational belief that every problem can be solved in a group - especially those problems that simply require one person to sit down and write out a thought or two. The utopian business belief that useful ideas can be group-generated.

I think we all know what I'm talking about.

Here are a few things I've noticed happens in these "idea formation conferences".

1) One person dominates and everyone is frustrated.

2) Junior people wait to find out what Senior people say before they say anything.

3) (Conversely to the above) Junior people use it as a place to prove their value to Senior people and say whatever comes into their head.

4) Men and women flirt with each other shamelessly.

5) You find out the Woman at the whiteboard who is supposed to write everything doesn't write down what you said and you get frustrated - meanwhile she writes down what Frank says every time he says it.

6) You find out the Woman at the whiteboard has a tattoo of Chinese letters on the small of her back when her shirt rides up because she has to write at the top of the whiteboard. (And you wonder where she got it and what it means.)

7) Senior people use the Brainstorm to make sure their ideas win and pretend that the group came up with it and now endorses it.

8) You hear the same idea a hundred times even though it was no good the first time.

9) The people who think the number of ideas are more important than the quality of ideas feel a lot better.

10) After the meeting, the lowest person on the totem pole has to type it all up and send it out in an email.

11) You get an email 24 hours later that the lowest person on the totem pole has typed up with a long list of ideas from the brainstorm but none of it makes sense.

Unfortunately, I'm working at a place that's very very fond of them.

Now don't confuse what I'm saying here to be a condemnation of meetings where people hammer out something - a la "The Room" in sitcom and television writing.

Nor is it a condemnation of large meetings where an open discussion between participants comes up with a thought.

These are often useful because they're spontaneous and specific, usually built around a concrete detail. They're not a conglomeration of people throwing things up at the barn to see what sticks.

Is there anything that can be brainstormed successfully? In my experience, yes, but only one thing. NAMES.

Okay, enough. Back your regularly scheduled blog about theatre and writing.