Have you ever brought your solo show back to your city of residence where the show had its world premiere? So you’ve had to rally a whole new audience because everyone who was bound to support you…already did?
I have, and I’ve got some observations and tips for you along with my own tale of the highs and lows of this experience.
1. Bringing your show back for another run can be rewarding. I performed Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey in Los Angeles again as part of the Solo Queens Festival, which closed a few weeks ago. There were numerous benefits to that experience, but the most valuable were:
- sharing it with my two brilliant sister solo queens, Kristina Wong and Valerie Hager, whose solidarity and camaraderie were encouraging and steadying.
- sharing the play itself with new audience, especially adult Third Culture Kids, for whom the show tends to be cathartic and healing. I was warmed through and through to learn that it continues to have that effect on ATCKs and other people who grew up in the intersections of identity like I did, as well as on audience members whose upbringing was very different from mine.
- giving myself permission to perform the show in new ways that made it fresh and fun and vital for me as the performer, which made it unpredictable and dynamic for the audience. In some ways it felt like a new show…and for me that was priceless.
2. The lines and blocking will come back to you even after a long, long break. It had been 18 months since I last performed my show and I was worried. What if my memory, which of late has been extra special (that’s a euphemism) failed me? What if my back problem forced me to change the blocking so completely that the show lost its spine?
Turns out that if you’ve performed your show regularly over a few years, an 18-month break won’t break your ability to do it again. You just have to ease back into it. Over a month before opening night, I started running lines in chunks. When I got to the point at which I could run the entire script without blanking out, I started putting the show back on its feet, again in chunks.
By opening night I was ready to open.
3. You must practice kind yet strict self-care during the run no matter what…or things could get wonky. I had a few moments of flubbing lines slightly, of getting the timing wrong, of almost doing the wrong blocking (moving my body to get into a certain character’s pose when I was about to play a different character entirely, and having to adjust quickly when I realized my mistake).
And…I made most of these mistakes during the closing matinee. My eighth performance in four weekends. What was going on? I had slept the night before, I had eaten breakfast, I had done my vocal and physical warmups and tongue twisters. So I had no excuse.
Or did I?
I had injured my calf during a performance midway through the run and it hadn’t fully healed by that last show. I had a cough/cold that I had been nursing for 10 days. And I had been working 10-14 hours per day plugging the show via the internet, snail mail, and in person. Not to mention doing run-thrus at home once per week mid-week so I would be warmed up for each weekend of shows.
But…my two performances before the final one were still sharper and fuller, injury and illness and constant self-promotion notwithstanding, than in the last matinee. So I don’t know what happened. Maybe the accumulation of stressors finally got to me?
My point is, we can never become complacent about performing our shows. At least I can’t. It always requires all of me, and if all of me is starting to wear out, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. And the only way to avoid the bumpy ride is to be ruthlessly self nurturing, as I detailed in an earlier post…
..which can feel impossible when you’re trying to fill the seats.
4. Just as you suspected, filling seats for a second run is entirely different from filling them for the first run (the world premiere!) in the same city, even if your show has toured internationally in between those two gigs. In 2013, my show premiered in a 32-seat black-box theatre in L.A. for a five-weekend run. I didn’t know if anyone would care enough to come to the show. I didn’t know if anyone would care even if they did come to the show. I didn’t know if I would have to cancel performances and perhaps the run itself due to lack of audience.
To my relief, people came and audiences grew. Then the show toured on three or five (depending on where you were educated) continents*, in six countries, and in 11 states in the USA, plus Washington, DC. So it’s safe to say that it has had a strong trajectory.
However, I couldn’t surf on that trajectory when I brought the show back to L.A. I’m not a celebrity and the majority of my performances have been on college campuses and international schools. The show has garnered wonderful responses and thus more bookings on those circuits, but L.A. theatre-goers tend to attend shows based on reviews, local word of mouth, or knowing someone involved with the production. My show got great word of mouth in 2013 and I’m lucky to know a lot of people in L.A., so everyone who really wanted to see it, saw it. In 2013.
I did get new audience and even some repeat audience from 2013 this time around! But it was hard, hard work to pull them in.
5. Pulling in new audience is exhaustingly difficult and you need to begin far in advance of opening. I spent 10-14 hours per day promoting the show for seven weeks, but that included the four weeks of performance. It wasn’t enough because I didn’t start early enough. My two festival colleagues began promoting their shows a month sooner than I did, and their audiences were much larger. All three of our shows are a Very Worthwhile Time At The Theatre, and each one is unique, so audiences who saw all three shows tended to rave about the entire festival. But I had already had a five-week run in this city, and I started promoting my show weeks later than I should have. (I explain why further down in #7.)
I also chose not to send out my own press release. The theater sent one for all three shows and the festival at large. I was wary of critics because, while I’ve gotten mostly positive reviews and great pull quotes, only one critic has ever actually understood the show. Meanwhile, most audiences have understood it quite well! So this time around, I merely emailed a personal invitation with no PR to a few respected critics, and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show since, again, I’m not a celebrity.
Perhaps I should have been more optimistic.
Regardless, I needed audience. So I begged.
I begged on this blog, on my monthly e-newsletter, and all over social media. Check out these stats! In October and November I plugged the show 300 times on Facebook (Pages and Groups), 152 times on Twitter, 46 times on LinkedIn, and 38 times on Instagram. I hawked it in 199 Direct Messages on Facebook; 106 private email messages (to professors and student groups at nearby universities, consuls from the countries I grew up in, the above-mentioned critics, and more); 75 private messages to LinkedIn connections; 16 direct tweets to casting directors (three-four people per tweet); and five e-newsletters to all of my email contacts (starting in August). I plugged it to 174 people who donated to my past online crowdfunding campaigns. I snail-mailed carefully worded professional letters with attached postcards for the show to 49 casting directors (the same ones I tweeted). I sent lovingly crafted personal letters to 28 celebrities who grew up the way I did (globally). I posted invitations on at least seven YahooGroups (remember those?) three times each. I attended two networking events at which I knew no one; I listened to people intently before mentioning my show and handing out postcards.
I invited the Obamas via their website. Same with Anna Deavere Smith, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Yaël Farber. Because why not dream big?
I created and promoted discount codes for five of the eight performances.
I spent $80 on Facebook ads.
It was exhausting.
6. Certain audience-enticing strategies are more effective than others. Would you like to know which ones worked?
- The 199 Direct Messages on Facebook. Many people actually came because of those, which put 25% of my audience’s butts into seats.
- The two in-person networking events. I followed up with people I met there via email. A few bought tickets and brought more audience. You may think a few is nothing to crow about, but they were all strangers who praised the show after seeing it. For me, those people were a big deal, because I’m an introvert and it was hard to “sell” my show in person. But I did and it worked.
- The discount codes. Except for opening night (a Friday), the Sunday matinees were consistently better attended than the evening shows. The last three matinees all had discount codes that I mentioned in my promos.
We know people love to save money. So why did the other two strategies also work?
We know why: we’re all so inundated by social media that it takes a personal touch to actually reach people. You have to communicate privately or in person to get past the noise.
We all know this. I just finally learned it for real.
Also, word to the wise re: Facebook Direct Messages: you have to be willing to hit up every single “Facebook friend” in your city who hasn’t seen the show, including people you’ve not met in real life and people you’ve met but with whom you’ve not had a real conversation and people you haven’t laid eyes on in a decade or longer. Quite a few may come to your show and they are gold.
Other than those three strategies, I don’t know to what extent any of my other promotional efforts worked. At least 50% of the audience were people I didn’t DM who are friends, theatre colleagues, extended family, or workshop participants who were excited to see the show again or for the first time because they somehow missed it in 2013 or we didn’t know one another back then. I’m not sure if they needed to see my numerous social-media posts to be convinced to attend.
You know what they say: 20% of your effort brings results. The other 80% is usually unnecessary.
I’m nonetheless curious about the 25% of audience I didn’t know. How did they hear about the show? Was it through my constant promotional efforts or something else? For instance, did they know someone who worked at the theater or had they heard about the show directly from a friend? I’ll never know.
Regardless, when I open my next show I’ll stick to Facebook DMs and tone the rest way down, because it’s too much work.
I should clarify: despite never selling out the show, people loved it. Overall I got loads of fantastic responses both in person and on the internet. Of course there were folks who didn’t love it—that’s part and parcel of putting one’s work out there—but for the most part the show received powerful, validating praise.
Plus, this theater had 99 seats…so of course it felt emptier even when the larger 2017 audiences were the same size as any of my larger 2013 audiences.
By the last matinee, I was a wreck, as I mentioned in #3. Perhaps if I had spent at least one quarter of my promotional time just resting, journaling, reading for pleasure, strolling outside, and daydreaming, I might have saved myself the injury and onset of illness in the second-to-last weekend of shows, and those peculiar errors in the final performance.
7. If something else is happening for you at the same time as your show, do not be surprised when the former gets neglected and affects the size of your audience for the latter. An enormous thing happened right before my show re-opened. I released the movie of Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey on DVD! It had its world premiere at an intercultural conference in San Diego just one week before my opening night!
The movie was nearly two years in the making. That’s going to be its own blog post, but my point is: I was so overwhelmed by my promotional efforts for the “live” show that I gave short shrift to the huge accomplishment of making, premiering, and distributing a movie. Conversely, I had worked so hard on getting the DVD ready that that cut into the time I ought to have been promoting the “live” show, which is why I started plugging the show a month late.
Oh my, it was such hard work. You can apply “it” to the remounting of the live show in L.A. or to the movie. Either way it’s true…but I want to focus this blog entry on the show.
On the bright side: more people came than I had feared in my lowest moment. A couple of weeks before opening night, I was desperate to bring in 80 audience members total. That would be an average of 10 people per show, which would be 900% more people in the house than on the stage. I could live with that.
I’m happy to report that the average number of people in my audience per performance was markedly higher than 10. Nonetheless, it couldn’t hold a candle to my solo queen colleagues’ audience numbers, which were jaw-droppingly impressive.
Every Monday or Tuesday the theater would send us our ticket sales for the upcoming weekend, and every time I saw my numbers I would go numb. They were invariably abysmal, so there was no question of reducing my promotional efforts, or so I believed.
Fortunately, people came. No shows were canceled. The smallest audience consisted of nine people, which was rough, but they were terribly kind. That was my worst performance—you know how your body and face and voice will do the show, and you’ll channel all your energy into it, but your brain will be over to the side thinking I’m Not In It I’m Not In It It’s On Automatic Help Help Help?
Nonetheless, one of the people who came that night bought the DVD of the show, and two others posted high praise on Facebook. This was early in the run, and I finally accepted something very important for a solo show creator and performer:
8. If the show is good, you don’t have to be at your best for it to work for audience members. If the writing, direction, and design elements are good, and you commit your energy to the performance even if your brain feels disconnected from your body, the show will still work.
Granted, there may be theatre pros in the audience who will recognize that you’re not “on fire.” But if your words, face, and body language tell the story clearly, the show’s merits will come through. Of course it’s a shame that it won’t have that spark, that emotional immediacy that an “in tune” performance would give it, but it will still be a solid 80 minutes of theatre. You will not have wasted anyone’s time or money. They’ve never heard your story before, after all.
Meanwhile, I learned a ton from watching my sister solo queens promote their shows.
9. Make your marketing count by making it reflect who you are in your show. Valerie’s posts were often vulnerable and raw. She would tell her followers outright how it felt to do her show in L.A. and that she needed her peeps in the seats. Meanwhile, Kristina’s posts tended to be smart, funny, and non-stop. Their marketing reflected aspects of their stage personas that attract audience.
My marketing…well. I intended to be vulnerable…and a few of my posts were (kind of)…but mostly I just quoted lines from the show and attached production stills or video and mentioned discounts. It took forever to create and schedule those posts on Hootsuite, and post them directly on Facebook Groups, not to mention all the other ways in which I plugged the show, so I believed I was accomplishing a lot with that as I was doing it.
In hindsight, I should have made every post personal. And I should have posted more praise from audience and positive reviews from critics from previous bookings—of course, because people do what other people have done. If I had posted praise every single day, more people might have thought “Well if they liked it maybe I will, too,” and I might have had larger audiences.
10. As long as your show connects with the people who need it the most, you’ve done something good. I’m happy and relieved to say that people who needed to see Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey this time around did so and it helped them. One person came a second time and bought the DVD. Others now want to take my workshop. The people who found validation and understanding in the show are the people for whom I created it in the first place.
I don’t need to do this show for me. I processed and purged every lingering emotion that the stories evoked by the fourth performance in 2013. Since then I’ve done the show for people who need to see themselves reflected on stage. I never know who that will be, but they always show up. It happened again for numerous audience members this time around, and I’m very gladdened by this.
I’m also very glad to have made a movie of my show that is now on DVD and will soon be streamable online, so that people worldwide can see it in their own homes and at their convenience…without my having to rehearse beforehand or beg them to fill seats. (Wink.) Stay tuned for my next blog post about my filmmaking journey!
In the end, I’m pleased to have performed my very first solo show again in the city where it was crafted and where it had its world premiere. I hope you feel the same way about having brought your show back to its “city of origin.” Also, through my mistakes I learned how to market the show for future runs, which is valuable. I hope you were smarter about it than I was, but if not, I hope you’ll apply what you learned to future runs. If you’re still in the planning stage of bringing a show back to a city, I hope this blog entry will be of use. (Perhaps we should consider sticking to shorter runs (two to three performances) if we want to bring a show to a city where it has already played…)
Whatever the cost, for me the rewards were worthwhile. Plus, we never know where our performances might lead us. A stranger in the audience could become a client, an advocate for our work, and/or a dear friend.
The possibilities are endless.
*If you were taught that North and South America are two different continents and Central America is part of South America,
you were also taught that Europe and Asia are two different continents,
then in your mind my show has toured on five continents: North America, Central (which to you means South) America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Plus the island of Iceland.
If you were taught that America (or The Americas) is one continent because it’s one land mass with sections called North, Central, and South,
you were also taught that Eurasia is one continent because it’s one land mass with sections called Europe, the Middle East, and Asia,
then in your mind my show has toured on three continents: America (or The Americas), Eurasia, and Africa. Plus the island of Iceland.
I split the difference and say that the show has toured on four continents.
BONUS: A terrific blog post/rant by a well respected award-winning UK-based performer who ekes out a living via grants and bookings and is very, very tired of being asked to tour and perform for free.
You show me yours… by Bryony Kimmings
Announcement: I’ve got new workshops coming up in the new year. Take a look! Click on “click for more” under “Group Solo Show & Memoir Workshops.”
Thank you for reading my twenty-seventh post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.