Drama Desk presents:
You Gotta Have a Gimmick … or a Star!
Moderated by Randie Levine-Miller
Panelists Peter Filichia, Josh Ellis, Susan L. Schulman and Leslie Bader Papa
Monday, February 10, 2014 at 6pm
Stage 72, The Triad, 158 West 72nd Street
event web site and panel addition addendum

  • “Our resources evaporated with the Internet.” But then new resources developed. (Susan Schulman)
  • “The press agent’s effort is to create the image.” (Josh Ellis)
  • “What you do in the eighth year of a show’s run is not what you do in the first.” (Josh Ellis)
  • “I like to be a theatrical match maker, finding the audience.” (Peter Filichia)
(L-R) Susan L. Schulman (winning the Carol Channing placement competition for the evening), Josh Ellis, xxx, Peter Filicia, xxx.
(L-R) Susan L. Schulman (winning the Carol Channing placement competition for the evening), Josh Ellis,  Rondie Levine-Miller, Peter Filicia, Leslie Bader Papa.

flyer-jan2014-bg“Can a show rely on good reviews alone? How is “buzz” created? These were the first among many provocative questions, and many humorous, illustrative, and wise answers offered by professional promoters and writers about the business of Broadway. On the little stage at the Triad Theatre on West 72nd Street on a recent Monday evening, five theatre professionals gathered to talk about the business of promoting the ephemeral theatre arts. Peter Filichia, writer and theatre historian (who is working currently on a book about the 1963-1964 Broadway season); Josh Ellis, pres agent; Susan L. Schulman, press agent and memoirist (Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from the Theatre Press Agent); Leslie Bader Papa, publicist; and Rondie Levine-Miller, Drama Desk member and host.

71fSiP-a1ZLTo begin, several panelists set a fun tone of  historical “lessons learned” combined with examples that added up to providing entertaining chapters from a “casebook” on the business of show. Ellis told of Eva Le Gallienne, not known for her sense of humor, earnestly auditioning a pig for a role in a production of Alice in Wonderland — the pig audition was intended as a simple televised publicity stunt became more successful than expected with Le G’s camera close-ups earnestly examining the competing pigs. Schulman followed up with a pig story of her own connected with a national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s State Fair, the inspiration of holding “Most Beautiful Pig” contests in each town in which the show landed. Squealing pigs, earnest pigs, publicity stunts, and Broadway. With a laugh, we were ready for the serious stuff.

Q: How do you keep a show running today?

Leslie Bader Papa (LBP): Few shows have long runs. Those that do, in her view, are shows like Wicked that aren’t dependent upon stars. Some shows in her experience, like Rock of Ages, were able to hold publicity stunts like incorporating NFL players in walk-on roles during the Super Bowl, to great success.

Q: How do you saturate the media and create excitement in this day of hundreds of media outlets?

Susan Schulman (SS): As press representatives, our main tools were our mailing lists.The internet changed all that. “Our resources evaporated with the internet.” Schulman amends this comment a bit later to say that different resources were developed, but the old power of old-school mailing lists evaporated with electronic communications.

Q: Can blog critics make or break a show?

LBP: Broadway producers will ask for roundups of blog reviews.

Josh Ellis (JE): News now breaks immediately, before you can come up with a “reason slash excuse” for whatever has occurred.” In the old days, he noted, “we had relationships with folks and we knew the photo editors.” They didn’t just email pictures.”In a way,” he continued, ” the press agent’s effort is to create the image — create pictures that seduce them.”

On billing.

JE: Carol Channing had a preference, he noted, for standing in the position at the far left of any group picture. This had nothing to do with a preference for being photographed from that side, he continued, but the simple knowledge that her name would be listed FIRST in any listing of folks in the photograph in press coverage that ensued.

Q: What methods can be used to increase theatre attendance today?

The group named creative producers such as Cameron Mackintosh and Ken Davenport. Filichia noted he thought some shows might be best served by six matinees and two evening shows to comprise the 8 show week, depending upon the audience the show is attempting to attract.

JE: David Merrick, late in the run of one of his long-running shows, played with the curtain time, moving it from 8pm to 8:15pm. His tag line was “David Merrick is holding the curtain for you.” Ellis concluded that “what you do in the eighth year of a show’s run is not what you do in the first.”

Peter Filichia (PF): There is a theory that shows with emotional content last longer because people go back. Shows that are funny have shorter runs because you know the jokes. He went on to muse on revivals of comedies. “It’s amazing to me with revivals how many jokes don’t land.”

SS: The change came with Cats. You can look at any show poster and see if the production is star-driven. With Wicked — “they didn’t know what hit them.” The show isn’t about witches at all really, noted Schulman, but about girl power.

PF: The problem with star vehicles is that the star is going to leave. You can’t make back your money in a year, he continued.

Q: How do you get stars from the movies to cooperate with the needs of theatre publicity?

SS: It’s a challenge, but “it’s called show business .. generally stars have a percentage and it behooves them to be cooperative.”

Q: Is there a community among press agents and critics? [NB: almost all of the members of the audience for this panel were theatre and arts critics.]

PF: “Critics have no friends.”

SS: “My philosophy is that we’re all in this together — press agents and critics — this is a community.”

PF: “We want the same thing: we want people to go to shows.” He continued, “I like to be a theatrical match maker, finding the audience.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 10, 2014)

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