Theatre in Wales

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Big Contrasts in Public Communication

Theatre in Wales: Comment

The Changes in 2017 , Theatre in Wales , January 10, 2018
Theatre in Wales: Comment by The Changes in 2017 The quantity of theatre communications thins in the fourth week of December. That made a Christmas greeting dated 23rd December the more likely to be opened. In fact its content turned out to be substantially more than bland seasonalities.

“2 Finalist Nominations for the Peter Brook Empty Space Award & Holden Street Theatres Award” ran the first line. “3 Invitations to transfer work internationally” followed. “4 Wales Theatre Awards”, “4 New Writing Commissions”, “4 Co-producers”, “4 Presenting Venues”, “38 Participants in our Young Artists Festival”, “ 123 Performances...A further 87 performances at venues across the UK”, “35 pieces of new work in development staged as part of SEEN”.

These were among the bullet points. The Other Room had a story to tell in 2017 and its marketing communications told it. However, it was not the first company of Wales to communicate what it considered its achievements to be. Its co-producer for the December run at the Soho Theatre had done the same in the autumn.

Theatr Clwyd has a well-established marketing programme that includes print. The brochure for September 2017 to January 2018 presented a full page before the productions in large print and graphics. 12 productions, 5 premieres, 300 plus actors, 702 performances, 158,000 tickets, turning over £1.6m, 200,000 at the touring shows, 9,000 “having a skate.”

Is this significant? It matters and for three reasons. Firstly the companies project pride. Secondly it is an acknowledgement that they operate within a public space. They are in the public domain but theirs is not a private dialogue conducted with arts council, sponsors and others. Thirdly, all companies exist within an environment of homeostasis for which feedback loops are essential. Positive feedback loops are source for growth. But unimpeded positive feedback causes erosion and ultimately collapse. This is simply the way things are. Without communication there can be no counter-communication to maintain homeostatic equilibrium.

By contrast with these two companies the National Theatre of Wales made deep changes in its marketing communications in 2017. It was also recipient of a feedback loop in the autumn. Planet Magazine 228 published an article on art and illness. The author, Frances Williams, was well-informed on her subject. One of her topics was “I'll sing this song”, a smartphone app put by the company. “Feels like a branded promotional” was her opening view. The quotation by Patrick Jones “feeling a bit like a salesman” was not lauded. The main critique was that it evaded discussion of actual policy towards both illness and arts. “Thus the app's notion of voluntary participation feels somewhat contrived.” This was considered and serious feedback that is of value, although it may not be recognised as such, for the company. But it is a basic of system theory that in the absence of negative feedback loops entropy results.

The company pivoted its marketing communications away from talking about theatre. Its main thrust was towards asking for money. “Supporting artist’s [sic] journeys” was the purpose. The positioning was “As a registered charity, we need to raise the money to create more opportunities for new ideas to flourish and grow.” The money donated would go among other things to “£5 for a coffee meeting for a scriptwriter to pitch an idea.”

Asking for a fiver for a cup of coffee is obviously novel for a national theatre- it simply would not be sanctioned in England or Scotland. But, apart from the questionable lack of dignity in a state company with a seven digit budget using its marketing channels for this purpose, there is a broader issue. This kind of self-imaging is not good for theatre culture but most of all it is not good for the company itself.

The company is ten years old but for the recipient of marketing messages from many companies it feels akin to having a teenager in the house. It conveys the impression of mainly hanging out with mates. The website is a teenage bedroom that has not seen a tidying hand in a while. The language it uses leans towards jargon that is outside the ken of average theatre-goers. But most of all is the tone. A message does not belong to the sender and assertion, also teenage-style, is not assurance. Although not intended the communications project uncertainty; for a company at ten years of age this really should not be the case.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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