It’s a fact of life in the performing arts now. Crowds no longer just show up and fill theaters on cue. Ticket prices are higher (in some instances dramatically so), and everyone is being pulled in so many more directions than they were even as recently as a decade ago.
In the performing arts, It’s isn’t easy anymore to find and hold on to an audience that will eventually become loyal subscribers and — the ultimate! — donors. So marketing has become a top priority — a job that is essential to position an arts group to achieve maximum attention and entice the public to pay whatever the going ticket price is.
Certainly Lyric Opera of Chicago learned about that new reality last winter when, for the first time in its history, it aggressively advertised its hit production of “Show Boat” with a cleverly-realized television commercial. The result was overflow houses filled with customers apparently eager to pay for tickets that topped out at over $200 each, far more than a ticket to a typical touring Broadway theater production in the loop might have cost.
Changing the perception of the Joffrey
Now comes the Joffrey Ballet’s turn to try and command the attention of would-be customers as it begins to mail out its annual season ticket brochure for the 2012-13 season.
Since a core group of Joffrey stalwarts exited New York in the mid-1990s and, in essence, restarted the company here in Chicago, the famed dance troupe has become a major institution in a city that, alas, is known beyond its borders for being more of a theater than a dance town.
But the Joffrey is doing its darndest to help change that perception. And the company has made great strides in a relatively short time. Joffrey now has its own home in a striking glass and steel tower in the heart of the Loop — fittingly known as the Joffrey Tower.
And as of just a few years ago, it has brought on board Ashley Wheater as artistic director to set a new course for the company in the wake of the one carefully charted for so long by Joffrey’s deceased legendary co-founder Gerald Arpino.
New marketing director’s unconventional ideas
The company also has added new blood in its marketing department. After stints in marketing and development at the Chicago Loop Alliance. Lookingglass Theatre and the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.), Brian Smith joined the Joffrey last summer as chief marketing officer.
Smith, with input from Wheater, masterminded the 2012-2013 subscription brochure that is just beginning to hit mailboxes in Chicago. Because of his background working with arts groups known for pushing the new and unconventional, Smith wanted to bring some of that same sensibility to one of his first major marketing initiatives for the Joffrey Ballet.
The dance troupe certainly has name recognition in Chicago, but many don’t know much more about the company than that — its name. The new subscription brochure seeks to help establish a better — and dare we say more accessible — positioning for the dance company via a few carefully chosen and rather surprising visual images, coupled with minimal ad company.
In fact, to ensure this Joffrey subscription brochure had a feel and look that were markedly different than those from previous years, Smith went outside his and the company’s comfort zone and selected a photographer, Sean Williams, who had never worked in the dance realm.
Photographer Williams’ “Rat Pack” kitchen imagery
Williams came to photography relatively late in life after working for a long time as a writer. Increasingly, however, he found life as a scribe holed up in his apartment to be too isolating for him. So Williams picked up a camera, went out on some assignments and found he loved the profession.
Perhaps Williams’s most striking and — at first glance — bizarre image in the new Joffrey brochure is a shot of several pairs of dancers arrayed around a large industrial kitchen in Logan Square.
Williams said the idea for the kitchen imagery came to him from photographs he had seen of the Rat Pack moving through various kitchens on the way to whatever party they might be attending on any given night. The most famous members of that particular Rat Pack, of course, were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Why the Rat Pack? Well, one of the dances the Joffrey has on tap for next season is the tuneful, high-energy “Nine Sinatra Songs,” choreographed by veteran Twyla Tharp. So in thinking up ideas for photography for the new brochure, it wasn’t hard for Williams to start channeling the Rat Pack.
Still a kitchen? Yeah, a kitchen. Joffrey marketing honcho Smith said the kitchen imagery, like Williams’ other work, actually “tells a story and draws you in.”
In this instance, the dancers have left a party in progress behind a red curtain we see pulled across a door at the back of the kitchen. The dancers are continuing to celebrate on top of the stainless steel-clad tables and in close proximity to the pots and pans and other stuff that are part of any large kitchen operation.
Goal is 8,500 subscribers for the season
High energy. A partying, flirtatious sensibility. The Rat Pack. “Nine Sinatra Songs.” It all, somehow, fits together. And Smith and Williams are hopeful it will help pique the curiosity of brochure recipients and interest them in buying a season subscription.
Smith said he hasn’t set unduly high goals for season ticket sales. “If we reach the 8,500 subscribers we got for this year, I will be happy,” explained Smith. Of course, more would be great.
To get out the 150,000 subscription brochures he has printed, Smith isn’t using one distribution conduit used in the past — namely daily newspapers. “We want to be sure to get the brochures into people’s hands, and we have found direct mail works best for that,” added Smith.
Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com