Marketing & exposition
Punchdrunk are going to a lot of effort to make The Burnt City accessible financially, with £45 tickets, discounts for local residents, and the ticket lottery, etc. However I think you can also make the show more accessible in non-financial ways, in particular:
– the marketing of the show
– the exposition in the show
These are both types of storytelling:
– marketing is what the show is
– exposition is what the show is about
Let’s start with the show’s one-line description.
The “iPod pitch”
I think that everything should have what I call an “iPod pitch” for it. Tony Fadell was one of the architects of the first iPod, and said that the iPod was successful, not because it was the best MP3 player out there (it wasn’t, Zen were making better ones at the time), but because Apple did a better job than its rivals at describing its benefits. Apple’s one-line description of the first iPod was:
“1,000 songs. In your pocket.”
That phrase not only instantly told you the value of owning an iPod, but was such a good description that an iPod user could easily use that phrase to describe the value of owning an iPod to someone else.
Whenever I make something, I try to come up with an “iPod pitch” for it, e.g. my website musophone “teaches music like a language”, my second play is “a kind of Muslim Annie Hall”, etc.
So what’s the current one-line description for The Burnt City on the website?
“Gods and mortals rise for a party at the end of the world.”
Why do the gods and mortals “rise”? Why are we describing the show as a party when there are only two 5-minute party scenes in the entire 3-hour show? And I don’t remember the world ending at the end, although a lot of people die and go to the Underworld. No-one is going to use this phrase to describe the show to someone else.
More importantly, this phrase doesn’t tell someone that:
– the show is vast
– an audience member chooses their own path through the show
– the storytelling is largely non-verbal, non-linear, and non-literal
The last point is not so much a selling point but is there to set expectations, so that audiences are not expecting a spoken, linear, literal narrative, and then frustrated when they don’t get one and leaving negative Google Maps reviews. Inaccurate expectations can ruin a great product, e.g. the marketing for Fight Club famously ruined its release, and the recent disastrous marketing of Babylon (which I loved) showed that marketing is not a question of budget, but of narrative.
Let’s start with the scale. I heard Felix say in an interview that Sleep No More contains 100 rooms.
I don’t know how many rooms there are in The Burnt City (kind of a moot point when one of them is that vast space in Mycenae), but let’s say that it’s 100. Put that in the iPod pitch. I suggest:
“Weave your way through 100 rooms in a waking-dream retelling of the Trojan War”.
“Weave your way”: an audience member gets to choose their own path
“through 100 rooms”: the production is enormous
“in a waking dream retelling”: the storytelling is non-verbal, non-linear, and non-literal
“of the Trojan War”: what the show is about
(Also got some alliteration in there.)
You can come up with your own version, but it needs to have those 4 elements:
“[Navigate yourself] [through an enormous production] [that is non-verbal, non-linear, and non-literal] [about the Trojan War].”
You need to make it easy for a fan to tell someone else what The Burnt City is. Do the hard work of describing it for them so that they don’t have to.
Of course, the one-line description is not going be the only thing that someone reads before seeing the show, but it the most important thing that someone reads about it, and needs to be intriguing enough that they want to learn more.
(Incidentally, in Felix’s interview with Time Out New York, the interviewer asked him to describe Sleep No More in 10 words, which goes to show that there’s a demand for exactly this kind of description. Felix came up with:
“Macbeth as a Hitchcock thriller across three warehouses in Chelsea.”
This is better than the current Burnt City description as it conveys the vibe and the scale, although it doesn’t set the expectation that the storytelling is non-verbal, and also relies on someone being familiar with Hitchcock.)
The marketing is the show
There’s a widespread misconception that you make a show and then “do marketing” to get people to come and see it. This is wrong. In a sense, there is no marketing. The marketing is the show. (Namedrop coming up.)
When I visited Stephen Sondheim in his home in New York, I remember him telling me that “the show starts the moment someone enters the building”. I’d actually take that further: the show starts the moment someone first hears about the show, so you need to think about that narrative unless you want to 100% rely on your audience members doing that for you (which apparently you don’t, based on the fact that you’re spending money on things like tube posters).
In a sense, I’m not suggesting that you improve / change your marketing, I’m suggesting that you do something completely different: that you spread the show beyond its walls into people’s homes. When someone sees a poster or video or webpage about the show, they should not be seeing something that’s telling them about the show, they should be beginning to experience the show itself. You need to make the “marketing” just as beautiful, shocking, intriguing, ingenious, and genre-bending as the show itself, because the marketing is the show.
A good example of a company doing this well is Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart videos. Their public service announcement about mislabeled lemons doesn’t tell you about the show, it’s an extension of their show in a video, and therefore in someone’s home. (Note that it got 2.9 million views.)
Different genre, but another company who do this well in the UK are Mischief Theatre. When you see a Play That Goes Wrong poster that doesn’t fit on the side of a bus, it’s not telling you to come and see the show, it’s an extension of the show itself.
Both of the above examples are essentially free samples that are presented to the public with the implication, “if you like this, buy a ticket to see more”.
Now what to do once people buy a ticket.
Exposition as stepping stones
The last few times I saw The Burnt City, I saw people:
– rushing through the opening museum exhibit part
– studying the family tree afterwards
It’s a bad sign if people are:
– skipping the exposition
– trying to work out who’s who after seeing the show
I think the way to convince you that you need to improve the exposition is to point out that if people can’t follow the story, you’re massively underselling Maxine’s extraordinary choreography, which is deeply character- and narrative-based. Watching the choreography without following the story is a little like watching a violinist without being able to hear them: you can see that someone’s exerting a lot of effort and are emotionally involved, but don’t really know what they’re exerting effort for or what they’re emotionally involved in.
I mentioned before that I have 35,000 paying students online. Teaching well is working out where someone is mentally, and building a series of stepping stones from them to you, which means giving people information in a memorable way, at a speed that manages their cognitive load. At the risk of stretching the stepping stone analogy too far, what Punchdrunk is currently doing is standing on the other side of a river, saying, “swim, it’s great over here!”, without exactly saying what you’re doing on the other side. You’re relying on hardcore fans like me telling friends, “no, it really is worth crossing the river”, and then laying out the stepping stones for them. And Punchdrunk putting a family tree in the entrance to the show, when audience members are busy doing something else, is the equivalent of dumping a small pile of stones by the river which people only realise they need to cross it once they’re in the water already, and it’s too late to go back and get them.
How to lay out the stepping stones
I once worked with a director (Tom Attenborough) who never wanted to tell me what to write, so when he wanted me to convey a dramatic point better, he’d say, “the sh*t version of this would be …”, so that I could then write the good version. Similarly, I don’t have your experience doing what you do so don’t want to tell you what to do, but am going to give you a few “sh*t versions” of what I think clearer exposition could look like, in case they’re useful. Everything I write comes from the perspective of an audience member with a deep affection for the show, who has experience of playwriting, teaching, and marketing.
1) The the exposition should not be optional
You don’t want audience members rushing through the museum exhibit and then getting confused and frustrated in the show. You need to stop them for 10 minutes and have Sam Booth, or someone, show them round the exhibit, so that audience members have at least grasped the main storylines before entering the show proper.
2) Split the exposition into Greek and Trojan sections
The show is split into 2 parts, in 2 buildings: Greek and Trojan. So split the exposition into 2 parts: Greek and Trojan, and give each a distinctive visual characteristic that corresponds to that section in the show, e.g.:
Greek = tents
Trojan = neon
That way, when an audience member hears about a character in the, e.g., neon (Trojan) part of the exposition, they know they’re going to see that character’s story in the neon (Trojan) part of the show. It needs to be so clear a toddler could follow it.
3) Don’t try to teach the audience characters’ names
Apart from the odd headed letter, there are no character names in the show. So why are you trying to teach the audience characters’ names? It makes them think, “oh no, I can’t remember all these names, I’m not going to follow this”, before they go into an environment where there aren’t any names anyway. Not only can you not expect audiences to memorise 30 ancient Greek / Trojan names all at once (especially when 3 of them start with “Poly-”), you don’t need to them to, and it’s actively counter-productive.
What audiences need to know to follow the show is:
– which characters are Greek and which are Trojan
– what a character’s role is
– what a character’s relationship is to other characters
That’s it. Of course, you want audience members to be able to find out characters’ names if they want to, but you should be constructing the exposition in such a way that, instead of trying to get an audience member to think “Polymestor”, you’re getting them to think “Trojan guy who has his eyes ripped out because he betrayed his friend’s son”.
4) Link characters in the exposition to characters in the show visually
Then, once you’ve taught the audience what characters’ roles and relationships are, link them to performers in the show visually rather than using their names, e.g.:
Greek daughter who’s sacrificed => red dress
King of the Greeks => military jacket
So when an audience member is in the Greek section of the exposition, they’re going to learn that, “the daughter wearing a red dress is going to be sacrificed by the King wearing military jacket in the Greek section of the show”. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but when you factor in how many other novel things are assaulting the senses of a first-time Punchdrunk attendee (masks, geography, design, etc.), you need to make the fundamental stories as simple as possible.
I have other ideas about exposition but can save those for if you want to hear more.
Putting it all together
When you put marketing and exposition together with the show, you can see that these are actually just 3 different stages of one story:
– “marketing” is storytelling from the moment someone first hears about your show until the moment they buy a ticket
– “exposition” is storytelling from when an audience member buys a ticket until they put on a mask
– “the show” is from when they put the mask on until the end
That last stage is category-definingly good. I think those first 2 stages need work to better support it. When you get all 3 stages right, you end up with a story that starts in someone’s home, and ends up with them witnessing a group of mortals pledging allegiance to Hades in the Underworld, and having their minds blown.
Currently, people in the know are aware that something extraordinary is happening in Woolwich, but with the right marketing and exposition it should be the consensus that London is the most exciting city in the world culturally because it houses the greatest theatrical experience on Earth.