“If you build it, they will come” may have worked in Field of Dreams, but theatre audiences generally don’t go to see shows that they don’t know are happening. Not only do you have to build the production, you need to tell people about it and an effective publicity strategy or campaign is how you reach media and audiences.
While often used synonymously, publicity and marketing are actually two different things:
Publicity is any FREE opportunity to promote your work ie: previews, reviews, interviews, guest appearances, social media shout-outs
Marketing is exposure you pay for ie: ads, commercials, trailers, promoted posts
Both publicity and marketing are used to promote your show and your brand, but the tools of how that is accomplished are different. While people may debate the exact differences, it may be useful to think of publicity as relationship-building - bringing media and audiences to the stories around your piece and engaging with them, whereas marketing is more broadcasting your brand - you control/pay for the exact image or ad without any external interpretation you would have when being interviewed or reviewed by a media person for example.
If you are running the publicity for your production, your job is to know everything about the show, and be better than anyone else at communicating that information and through multiple channels. Not only do you need to know the practical points (when it is happening, where, how to get tickets), you need to know the show itself: it’s style, context, who’s involved, who this show would appeal to, and how it relates to what’s currently happening in the world.
A publicity schedule keeps you on track with all the different pieces you need to collect, stuff you have to write, and tasks you need to do and when. Some examples:
- List of Cast and Creatives
- Headshots and bios
- Up to 3 top credits per person to be listed in the media release
- Logos - production company, partners, sponsors
- Any text or materials previously written about the show including reviews, quotes, awards and nominations
- Finalized graphic design elements for posters, postcards, website, etc.
- Social media handles (cast/creatives/partners/sponsors/media) or specific hashtags
- Links for website, box office/ticketing, venue
- Accessibility instructions and/or disclaimers for production or venue
- Emails for media, Artistic Directors, cast comp list, opening night invites, other VIP guests and general mailing list of audience members (building over many productions)
- Photos: promo, production, in rehearsal action shots, costume pieces or set design, etc.
- Playwright or Director’s notes (can be useful to pull their language when writing the media release and/or to include in a media kit)
- Prizes or giveaways for online contests if applicable
- Website content - show specific or website as a whole depending on the company’s history
- Box office info and blurb
- Text for posters, postcards, etc.
- About the Company info (unless already written in which case just collect it)
- Media Release/Press Release
- Media Kit
- Show program
- Opening Night Invite
- Quippy or attention-getting social media posts
- Get artists’ sign-off on programs, photos, etc as per their contracts
- Send out media releases/press releases, media kits, opening night invites, eblasts
- Arrange program stuffing, contests, or ticket swaps
- Collect RSVPs for opening night, coordinate media tickets and VIP comps with box office
- Create front of house display
- Welcome media to Opening Night and ensure they have all the information they need
- Promote, promote, promote ALL ACTIVITIES
- Create and post engaging content to social media
- Coordinate with photographer and share photos with media
- Pitch potential stories or angles
- Share reviews
- Coordinate with the Producer and Box Office regarding ticket sales and whether there is need to adapt the Publicity strategy accordingly.
This is not necessarily a complete list, but it should give you a solid foundation to work from. As every production is different and the audience they want to attract can be very different, how productions promote themselves can also be quite unique or creative. However, certain things, like sending a media release are very standard practice if you hope to get reviewed.
Be warned: publicity takes a lot of work and requires quick responses including during the run of the show. If you are performing in the show, you probably don’t want to also be the publicist welcoming media on Opening Night when you are supposed to be warming up to perform. Even if you are working with a publicist, there is still information they will need from you the producer to be able to do their jobs effectively, so you aren’t entirely off the hook.
If you are working with a Publicist, they will give you a list of materials they require from you. They will then give you a Publicity Schedule of deadlines and dates for when they propose things will happen.
If you do not have room in your budget to hire a publicist, there are many different ways you can build a publicity schedule for yourself. Here is a sample TEMPLATE.
Create a calendar (Excel, Google Calendar, Template all options) that usually starts at least 3 months before Opening Night.
Using the list above, work backwards from Opening Night to assign deadlines for the Definites (ie. Send out Media Release), and then schedule tasks that need to happen prior to be able to meet those deadlines (ie. you can’t send a media release without box office being set up).
Start with the definites that you know for sure, then schedule and adjust the rest leaving room for slow email responses, multiple drafts or edits, missed deadlines, approvals and sign offs, etc. Some definites to build from: Opening Night, Closing Night, Tech Week, First Rehearsal, Dora Registration, Media Release sent out.
If you are producing within a Festival, they will have a schedule for when they need specific things from you as they have to plan and go to print a lot earlier than if you were producing on your own. Their deadlines would be definites to add to your Publicity Schedule right away.
A schedule tells you when you need to have things done, but a strategy informs how you intentionally use the materials you are making (according to the schedule) to maximize effect and impact.
Strategy includes, but is not limited to:
Platforms you use - Which method of communications are most likely to reach your target audiences? How does one affect the other?
Timing - ie. Don’t start heavy promotions for your Christmas show in August. Can you piggyback or partner with another similar show, event, etc. that ties into the theme or location of your production?
Language and tone - Swearing, acronyms, shorthand, distinct cultural references or slang might welcome or alienate people and is that an intentional choice?
Which stories you pitch and to whom will depend on what narrative or brand you are trying to project
What you choose to disclose and not disclose - Is it a secret location? Is there a special access code online? Think Secret Shakespeare and how much of the publicity comes from not knowing which play is being done that night or who the cast is playing.
Ticket cost and accessibility - Which audience members will that include and exclude? What does the ticket price say about your production and company values?
Public Partners - What are their brands? What does it say that you are aligning with them?
Whether you plan it intentionally or not, everything you put into the world - its narrative, quality and how you put it there - will tell a story to people about you and your production. A successful publicity strategy will ensure the story they are getting it the one you wanted them to hear that also entices them to come see your show and TALK about it. Word of Mouth is still the BEST publicity tool.
Publicity is like a many-headed hydra - you can’t rely on only one tool to be enough. A Media Release is very important, but it still needs support from social media, or a website. A Facebook event can be handy as people can easily click to share, but it shouldn’t be the only way you are letting people know about your show as some people aren’t on Facebook, ignore event invites and/or social media algorithms are challenging. Here are some of the tools you should know about.
Also known as a Press Release, this is a tool that you send directly to the media to inform them of all the key details of your production. By sending it to them 4-6 weeks in advance of your Opening Night, you are hoping they will:
1. Add it to their listings - either in print and/or online
2. Respond that they’d like to attend the show and review it.
3. If they can’t review it, maybe they can write a Preview or do a story about it.
There are many different styles and approaches to formatting a Media Release/Press Release, but the essential information to communicate is more or less the same. In an effort to clearly explain the components, we’ll describe one version of a media release as per the attached SAMPLE, but please note this is not the ONLY way. If you’d like to see more examples of different formatting styles, many established companies have media releases/press releases available on their websites (usually under the Media section).
A Media Release is the first time experience most people will have of your show.
Breaking down the page:
- At the top: “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” and “Please add to all event listings” in the header. Say who is presenting the show – can denote your relationship with another company or a venue (“in association with” vs. “with support from” vs. “presented by”, etc.)
- Date and city at the beginning of the text
- First paragraph is the intro paragraph – Similar to an elevator pitch, everything they need to know about the show should be in the first paragraph. Be catchy and concise. Include link to box office information and DATES
- Second paragraph gives context – about the play, why come see the work, esteemed playwrights, historical reference, what type of adaptation it is, if it’s an unusual theatrical form maybe give explanation of it, etc.
- Third paragraph – credits of cast and crew.
- You can break it up if there are many names.
- Generally each person gets three artistic credits, unless it’s a large cast in which case maybe only 1 credit.
- Formatting Credits: Some variations around the industry, but we’ve done: Jane Doe (Show Title, Producing Company; Show Title 2, Producing Company 2; Show Title 3, Producing Company 3)
- Title italicized, theatre company not italicized, generally don’t list character role unless they played “Hamlet in Hamlet at Awesome Theatre Company”.
- If there is no producing company, it’s not a useful credit (ie. it is not helpful to say “Sandy in Grease” - high school production vs. Grease on Broadway is a significant difference)
- Non-professional credits should be left off. If they have no professional credits “and introducing Jane Doe” works well.
Include set designers, producers, etc. It’s polite and they might also want this document for their portfolios.
- Last paragraph – company history and mandate
- Show/Listing info – Venue, dates, times, ticket prices, LINKS!, social media/website on bottom and hashtags, accessibility information.
- MEDIA CONTACT - contact info for publicist or person on your team who is reliably going to respond quickly and know all the answers.
- To signify the release is done, historically there is -30- OR ### at the end.
- One page is best, 2 MAX (unless it’s something like a Festival or Series, like The Riser Project)
Other things you may include:
- Quote from a previous review, or line from the script that really helps give context for the show or its style/theme.
- Running time is an option - especially helpful during festivals when reviewers are trying to schedule many shows simultaneously.
- If you’ve received grant money for this production, you need to include the language and logos they provide
- Link to photos (NOT your poster image) - while Toronto companies generally send this later in the media kit, in Vancouver you won’t get any attention on a media release that doesn’t include photos.
- Trigger warnings - nudity, violence, enclosed space, strobe effect, explicit language, etc.
Things to keep in mind when writing and formatting a Media Release:
- Make it easy for them! When you send this out, it gets seen and used by different people in different ways. Some listings will include the release in its entirety, some will copy one paragraph only, others will give you one sentence and the ticket information. Build your media release in a way that is super-easy for any of those three needs to be met. You don’t want to make them search it out or cobble together a description because they might get it wrong or not do it at all. Ideally, they should get all the information without even reading beyond the first paragraph.
- Length - 1-2 pages is more than enough for a single show announcement
- ACTIVE language - this isn’t a grant and it isn’t intended to be read by a theatre-trained audience. Less emphasis on the types of things you explored intellectually when writing it, more on the action or experience the audience can anticipate.
- Language in general - As noted under Strategy, language choices should reflect the tone of the show. If every word is 5 syllables or longer, readers will assume this is not for children and probably more of a thought piece than a Second City special.
- Hyperbole - Tell us it’s a comedy, but don’t tell us it’s the funniest thing in the whole wide world. You cannot guarantee that your show will be the BEST thing we have all seen this year so don’t tell us it is - it’s lazy and makes us want to call you a liar (bad start to our relationship). Unless someone else saw it and said so (ie. not a member of the creative team or producing partners) which is totally valid - see next point:
- Who said it? If you are quoting someone (reviewer, artistic director, etc), say who said it. Also unless it is from a published review, make sure you ask permission to quote them.
You can either send it as a clearly-labelled PDF attachment (SHOWTITLE-ProducingCompany-MR) with a short intro in the body of the email, or format your Media Release in a program like Mailchimp or Mad Mimi. You can also send via. Canada Post but email is so quick and easier on your budget and schedule.
Different people have different opinions on whether PDF or Mailchimp/Mad Mimi is best, but we like Mailchimp/Mad Mimi for these reasons:
- Formatting looks great, can adjust colours, fonts, include links and graphics and the program smartly adapts depending where it’s viewed (desktop, phones, etc.)
- All the info is right there in their inbox - no downloading and saving the file before you can even see what’s in it.
Easy to replicate campaigns - very easy to adapt your media release into an eblast to subscribers by adding some more photos or personalized messages
- Each campaign has a digital version or url link which makes it SUPER easy to share your media release or eblast to your social media. This is our FAVOURITE reason to use it.
- Mailchimp and Mad Mimi have analytics so you can track how many people open your email, whether there were clicks through on links, you can even find out how many times a person opened your email (in case you need to just send a polite follow-up nudge to get them to commit to coming to see the show).
Do some research to see who is reviewing shows by companies in your circles; newspapers, magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc. If you are just starting out, there are good odds you won’t get the “Big Papers” coming to review your first show, but by sending a Media Release to them, they will start learning your name and your work.
In cities like Toronto, there are also a lot of niche publications for certain communities who are usually thrilled to be given content if your show relates to their mandate (cultural, religious, interest-based, different languages, etc). Remember, while reviews are very useful, you are hoping to get the word out through their publications to potential audience members. If you can get your kids show in some mommy-blogs or Parenting magazines, that could potentially be more useful than a review in NOW Magazine. Remember, this is all about finding audiences for your shows so which publications are read by your target audiences?
Some other good places:
Canadian Theatre Opening Night Directory - curated by Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail
The Play Map of Canada - run by Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, you can post productions of Canadian plays
Toronto Theatre Database - dedicated to the recording and preservation of the production histories and performance dates of Toronto’s professional theatrical productions, send them a digital copy of your show program and poster.
A Media Kit is the follow-up to a Media Release that includes more information that reviewers might need to write about your work. Traditionally these were given out close to Opening Night, but if it’s ready earlier, you can send with the Media Release as hopefully the info in your Media Kit could inspire a story.
Things you can include:
- Media Release/Press Release (first page)
- Full list of Cast and Creative Team
- Production History of this show
- Director/playwright notes
- Context for the show (either specific historic research or inspiration that may be included in playwright/director notes)
- Company history (more indepth than paragraph in Media Release)
- Link to photos (maybe with thumbnails as preview)
- Bios and headshots of all artists involved.
- Media Contact - preferably on every page (header or footer) in case pages get lost or separated
- A note on inclusive language - especially if your artists use specific pronouns, or have a disability that want to be framed in a particular way for instance. Here is a sample Media Guide from Touretteshero.
Promo photos are taken before you necessarily get into the theatre. They don’t necessarily have all the production elements, but should support the content and style of the show and show off some actors. If a media outlet wants to do a Preview of your show, they will need an image to go with the article. While it can add to your budget to have two photo-shoots (negotiate with your photographer on a rate for both promo and production photos), these photos are great to have for your website and social media posts = worthwhile investment.
Fun fact: You cannot submit your poster graphic as a promo photo because next to an article it will look like an advertisement and therefore something you should be paying for.
These are from the production - including costumes, lighting, sets, etc taken during tech week. These accompany Reviews.
For both Promo and Production photos, remember:
- These are going online and maybe in print - quality is very important. Don’t assume your phone camera can handle it, especially with stage lighting.
- What kind of images do you find appealing in the newspaper or magazines? Aim for those qualities - contrast, brightness, clarity, colour, eye-catching
- Photos in landscape orientation are more commonly used than portrait orientation.
- It’s good to give options: 5-10 photos lets them choose which one they want to use and hopefully some diversity of images between reviews.
- A common mistake is to pick photos that have the entire cast in it vs. picking the most visually interesting photos or ones that tell a story.
- If there is no photo credit, they won’t be able to use it.
CASL explains how your emails can be used as spam and the legalities around spam that you may encounter. Be careful before sending out mass emails to everyone you know.
The Vancouver Fringe has put together a great Youtube series about self promotion, applicable to both the Fringe and other independent producing. A great series to watch and learn some new tips and tricks from Fringe alumni!