Politics and theatre go hand in hand. Many of the world’s most famous plays have come out of political upheaval; from the Reagan administration during the AIDS epidemic (Angels in America) and the Bosnia war (Blasted) to the Red Scare (The Crucible) and the War of the Roses (Richard III), playwrights have used theatre as a way to express criticism or interpretations of a political narrative. From theatre as political propaganda, to arts funding – the two are linked in so many ways.
There is one other key impact that the political environment has on the arts, which is discussed far less frequently. Marketing is hugely sensitive to the political situation, and that’s what this blog is about.
Before I continue, I must say that I know that across the world, political upheaval has far worse repercussions than the impact on the sales and marketing strategy of a small arts organisation in Oxford. However, poor sales for our shows do have an impact. If we don’t sell well, our Education department suffers, a department which currently has ten children on fully-funded bursaries. If we don’t sell well, our next show suffers, meaning that we employ fewer people, and before you know it, another arts organisation bites the dust.
Although it seems somewhat flippant, the current Trump administration worked wonders for the marketing of 1984. Two weeks before opening a production about propaganda and re-writing history, Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts”, actively defending a falsehood about inauguration attendance. Within four days after Conway uttered this now ubiquitous phrase, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had increased by 9,500%. Sales of the Creation production of 1984 also shot up – over seven days, we sold 51% more tickets than the previous week.
Of course, we capitalised on the Orwellian tone of Conway’s remark and the Trump administration. We rewrote some of our marketing copy to involved “alternative facts”, and created a forbidden literature display at Blackwell’s Bookshop (which also featured a window display based on the Newspeak dictionary, it was excellent).
However, despite the sold out shows, we don’t want a Trump government, and it is pretty disheartening to admit that some of the excellent sales came from a Twilight Zone-esque political situation across the pond. Here at Creation we would like, at the risk of sounding like a Miss World contestant, world peace, and a decent political landscape where the arts flourish, those who need help get help, the NHS survives and the cycle lanes in Oxford remain pothole free.
However, recent times don’t support this. It was a matter of lucky timing that we had a dystopian production running this spring. Political strife when you’re trying to promote a show which celebrates joy and laughter isn’t very useful.
In 2016, A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened on Thursday 23 June. The day the nation went to the polls to vote on leaving the EU. In Oxford, 70.3% voted to Remain, and the Leave result shook the city. Oxford. People broke the age-old Southerner rule of not-speaking-to-anyone-else as they shared their sadness across counters in shops and cafes, at school gates and over fences.
That first week of the show, no one was in the mood to see a madcap immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and to be perfectly honest, that first Friday we weren’t exactly in the mood to market it). However, the first audiences loved the show. They came out saying it was the perfect escape from scrolling through Brexit-related newsfeeds, talking about how it made them feel so alive, so engaged and so happy. Audiences needed that feeling of being greater than the smugness, the chaos and the monotonous slogans that surrounded us in 2016. Sales perked up, and soon we had sold-out shows, waiting lists and a real sense that we’d created something which had meant so much to 3000 people, which had cheered them up and made them smile.
“Let’s bring the show back for 2017”, we thought “so it can get the sales it deserves”. However, our wills and fates do so contrary run and this year, our first London transfer is opening a week after the General Election declared a hung parliament, two weeks after a terrorist attack in the capital city, at a time when the national still feels as divided as it did last June. Marketing this summer will be a challenge, but bring it on.
If you’re looking to escape the relentless rolling clickbait articles, if you want to feel connected to your community, if you just want a laugh and a chance to be silly as a grown-up, come along to A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer. When times are dark, you have to out where there’s music and there’s people, to keep your sanity. Life has a habit of going on, regardless of how unstable the world may seem. We can be politically engaged, sign petitions, exercise our democratic right to vote, and we can still have fun. We can fill our own world with the things we find life-affirming, and make it worth voting for.