After performing some improv the other night, I’m standing downstairs after the show. A young couple approaches. They say they loved the show (yay!) but that they’d learned of the show from TripAdvisor.com. They’d never before seen improv, and they were immediate converts. They loved it! The girlfriend even mentioned wanting to sign up for improv classes.
Then they asked, “So how do we see your troupe again?”
And I was flat footed. Here were two members of the public — the non-theatergoing public — who had watched 80 minutes of improv, come out loving it, and promised to tell their friends. And there I was, unable to give them a quick and easy way to learn about my troupe, my show. No card to hand them, no snappy URL to tell them, no sticker, no nada.
I impotently offered, “We have a Facebook page!” Yeah, so does my grandmother. Big whoop.
Before we dive into the specifics of improv promotion, let me emphasize that there is no substitute for doing good improv. The best way to gain followers — to create honest-to-god fans — is to put on a damn fine improv show. Whatever your style, whatever your format, bring the heat. El fuego. This means rehearsing regularly. With a coach. It means working hard to do good improv. Improv is often called “playing” — e.g., “I’m gonna go play with Carl tonight!” (lucky Carl!) — but we should play seriously.
Besides, you’d hate to pour effort into promoting a show and filling the space with people, only to then drop a steaming pile onstage.
That said, here are some strategies for promoting your improv show.
Strategy #1: Be Selective & Strategic
A couple of weeks ago, a former improv classmate contacted me. She’s in a new troupe, and they’re about to begin a full month of weekly shows — four total. Did I have any ideas for how to promote them?
My primary advice was: Be selective. Don’t promote every single show you’re in with the same techniques and ferocity.
You’ve got a month-long run? That’s awesome! Congrats! Now, pick one of the four shows — probably the very first one — and promote the hell out of it. Do everything you can to get people to the theater that night. Don’t try do this for every week. Do not promote every show equally.
Why? Because scarcity creates desire. It’s an almost universal rule of human behavior. It’s the reason people want to go backstage at the concert. It’s why we desire those people who seem too busy to give us much time. If you promote infrequently, your promotions are more credible. They carry more weight than the troupe who makes a Facebook Event for every one of their farts.
Now, sure, if you’re in only one show per month, being selective is easy. But if you’re doing about one show per week, then maybe only promote one of them every 2-3 weeks. (By the way, mentioning once on Facebook that you have a show tonight isn’t “promoting.”)
Strategy #2: Blitzkrieg
Once you’ve identified the show(s) you want to promote, pull out all the stops! No holds barred! Do all the usual things that everyone does: plaster Facebook with notices right up to, and then just beyond, the point of being obnoxious; send a mass email to your contacts; send a dozen personal emails to individuals — quick messages that beg them to attend; ask a half-dozen friends to post your event to their various social networks.
One technique I don’t see very often: Asking people to promote for you. Seriously, email a handful of people and say: “Will you please promote this event on your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram”? Don’t be bashful, son. Promotion is a hustle. Tell your co-workers three weeks in advance, then one week in advance, then the day before, then the day of.
I used to be really into poetry slams. There are spoken-word poets who make a (good) living traveling the world yelling earnest, non-rhyming poetic compositions into microphones. “Talent” and “success” in the performance poetry world aren’t the same thing. Plenty of mediocre poets have built a poetry career because they are unashamed to ruthlessly promote themselves. Promoting themselves is their job. They’re not embarrassed or shy about it.
So do all the things. Some of these things are:
• Place your event on as many calendars (online and printed) as possible. In Austin, that includes sites like The Austin Chronicle and Do512.com. But those are just the big ones. Think big, ask friends, use all the cheesy touristy sites you can think of.
• Get posters designed, printed, and put up around town. This require some planning (obviously) — at least a month or so before your show — but they’re not expensive (If you want specific recommendations on how to do these three things, shoot me a message.)
• Get onto every social media platform you can stand to manage. Whichever social media outlets you create for your improv thingy, make sure you keep them updated often. Don’t create content only to promote shows. Create content that is interesting and engaging. Then, when you do promote your show, people will pay more attention. (This subject deserves a whole post of its own, which’ll be in Part 2.)
Strategy #3: Get a Thing
Accepted wisdom in the advertising world is that a consumer must see an advertisement at least seven times before they’ll consider making a purchase. We see lots more ads than our parents did. The ordinary American 14-year-old sees approximately 4.2 million advertisements in a day.*
And hey everybody, let’s keep in mind who we want to come to our shows: The General Public. That’s who should come to our improv shows. It’s perfectly fine if our improv buddies fill some seats, but we should be craving a room full of improv virgins, people who decided to “check out this whole improv thing.”
And that’s the thing: you need a thing. Your improv show needs a thing that defines it and sets it apart as “special.”
What qualifies as a “thing”?
Right now, the best example of a “thing” I can think of in Austin improv is The Starborn — a troupe that performs every Thursday in February at The Hideout:
This duo improv show (featuring Ryan Austin & Mia Iseman) has three things going for it:
1. They wear crazy costumes
2. They play the same outrageous characters the entire show (with German accents)
3. They do a ton of audience interaction.
One of these would be enough. Three is just showing off.
Now then, I think that a specific “show format” can be your thing. But you shouldn’t necessarily promote it as a the format. The General Public doesn’t know, nor do they give a shit about, the La Ronde or The Movie. But they might care about “A revolving cast of outrageous characters who all share a particular secret!” or “Fully improvised Hollywood Blockbusters!”
Your thing could be costumes. It could be the size of your troupe, e.g., my troupe Array had, at its height, 15 improvisers onstage at once).
Your thing could be a genre, e.g., “Improvised Duck Tales!” or “Improvised Buddy Cop!” Your thing could be that you do only serious improv, or attempt to re-tell historical events, or focus on love stories. You could be a short-form group that does “comedy like you saw on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?'”
Your thing might be simply that you are just adorable to watch, like puppies.
It truly does not matter what your thing is. Just get one. Get one and then heighten it and promote it. Separate yourself from the foggy mess, instantly. And if your thing truly is “three chubby bearded guys making dick jokes” then emphasize the hell out of it: “Dick Jokes: Improvised Dudes”
Memorize this Elevator Speech (Or Make Your Own)
I worked for nonprofit organizations for years. Nonprofit organizations love Elevator Speeches. Elevator Speeches are 30-second “pitches” for the nonprofit–what it does, why it’s doing good, why you should support it and give it money. Apparently, fancy executives travel in elevators constantly and must be prepared at any moment to evangelize.
Become an improv evangelist. No need to be a creepy, dead-eyed cultist who chants the Gospel of Improv to everyone in the line at Juiceland. But if someone asks, or if someone makes a screwy face when you mention “improv,” then you should be prepared to explain, quickly and clearly, what exactly it is that you do. You can speak about improv generally or about your show specifically; those are two different Elevator Speeches.
Here is what I say, more or less, when I’m explaining what I do with my free time to someone who doesn’t know anything about improv:
We create these funny, one-act plays on the spot. We don’t have a script, but you probably wouldn’t know if by watching it. We tell a story, we act it out, and we play these big funny characters, and it’s all a lot of fun. You will laugh your (dick/tits) off.
Use this version or create your own. Practice it three times in a row. Know the main things you want to hit — e.g., made up on the spot, funny, like theater — and say them aloud. There is no harm in getting a bit hokey for improv.
This tip comes from none other than the Artistic Director of The Hideout Theatre, Roy Janik. I asked Roy how he and his internationally touring troupe Parallelogramophonograph promote themselves (because they do it better than most). Among a list of tips and tricks was this one, which was a “Eureka!” moment for me:
The thing that PGraph realized while traveling is that we don’t have to leave the stage when our show is over. Even if the host is hovering, we can stay down center and say “Thanks for watching us. You’ve been awesome. You can find us online at pgraph.com or Facebook, and our next show is Friday the 10th at The Hideout. Thanks again!”
That was kind of huge. Then after the show, if we remembered, we hand out stickers as the audience leaves. ESPECIALLY when traveling, we make sure to book it to where people exit and be available.
Too many troupes sprint offstage the moment the show ends, waving aggressively at the crowd and screaming something about “Please welcome to the stage the next troupe!” — as the next troupe jogs on. It’s a fucking mess. I’ve done it myself plenty of times.
Let’s all agree to slow down when the show ends. Do a little curtain call. Bow. Let the applause die down and then promote yourself. Make it quick and snappy. But take a beat, take a moment, own the space. This is your space for the time being. Your show doesn’t end when the lights come down; it ends when you leave the stage. Bonus: This lets you give the next troupe a proper introduction.
There’s a lot more to say about how to promote your improv show. Hell, I’ll do an entire post on Posters. And Facebook alone deserves a detailed critical analysis. But for now, let’s keep it simple:
• Get a “thing” for your improv thingy
• Promote selectively
• Promote unashamedly
• Have something worth promoting