When a marketing glitch left Rahul da Cunha with a stage play ready to go but no audience to fill the theatre with, he posted fliers on social networking sites on the Internet. The message spread like wildfire, and when Chaos Theory opened five days later, it was to a full house.
Da Cunha is among a class of theatre producers with commercial savvy, who are gradually waking up to the possibilities presented by a changing profile of theatre-goers. With audiences getting younger, and bringing with them a new mindset, producers are increasingly borrowing from lessons learnt from cinema and are rethinking conventional strategies in their bid to fill houses.
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“I filled the house purely based on Facebook,” says da Cunha, one of the founders of Rage Productions. “Facebook is the killer one. Kids are coming in droves now because they are looking for new activities. They will speak in Hindi while buying tickets to an English play. There used to be a huge disparity between Hindi films and English plays, but what has happened since, I lay at the doorstep of the multiplex phenomenon. It is the same audience, and the lines are now getting blurred.”
Along with social networking sites, theatre producers are harnessing the reach of cellphones and blog sites on the Internet in a drive to attract attention and raise awareness, as well as taking out advertising space on hoardings above main roads and highways, and setting up online bookings.
Among the most prominent proponents of this tack is Mumbai-based theatre producer Ashvin Gidwani, who spent Rs55 lakh adapting Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist for the stage. As part of the marketing blitz ahead of the opening, Gidwani, who refers to producing theatre as an “art” and brings on board corporate sponsors for all of his projects, publicized the play from hoardings across the city as well as through television, radio, print, the Internet and mobile phones.
“Even during a recession, theatre is good entertainment,” says Gidwani, who is already looking ahead to the next level, having secured deals for three Indian theatre productions in London’s West End from 2011 onwards.
“The Alchemist took two years to make and was sold out in 48 hours. The marketing has to be brutal. It is not about how much you spend but about how you spend it. And the target group is very important. You have to know who you are playing to. Every project is commercial and, though I spent 50% more on the The Alchemist than I should have, I always make sure I recover my costs because I have been burned too many times,” he added.
Attracting attention: Ashvin Gidwani, who spent Rs55 lakh adapting Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist for the stage, publicized the play from hoardings as well as through TV, radio, the Internet and cellphones.
Strategies such as this, which have been gaining in momentum over the past couple of years, mark a departure from the standard approach of taking out advertising space in the corner of newspapers, and signals the coming of age of theatre production, according to da Cunha.
“Mentally, we were all being too lazy. Let’s not market in the traditional way any longer with an advertisement in the corner of Bombay Times. Students may not get the paper, but they will be on the Internet. We’re learning from them and the stakes have gone up. This is about us getting our act together and the producers are growing up. We’re mentally starting to seek new ways to get out there because if we continue with the old way of marketing, then we will die,” says da Cunha.
While theatre producers may seek to emulate some of the promotional practices favoured by film production companies, they are still hindered by a shortage of venues, as well as the difficulty of securing sponsorship to cover the costs of production.
With the budget for a stage play production ranging from anything from Rs5 lakh to Rs50 lakh, the promotional spending for stage plays is still just a fraction of the amount spent on movies, where the marketing for a small budget film can easily run into several crores.
“In terms of visibility, one has to keep looking for other options,” says Raell Padamsee, of ACE Productions. “The profile of the audience has changed a lot over the past two years and we now get a lot of 20-30-year-olds as youth theatre expands and students now have the option of going on to study theatre. But the costs of running a theatre are really exorbitant, and even if we play to a full house we will be lucky to cover our costs. And, though audiences have increased, we get a lot of competition from the multiplexes.”
“The challenge now is how to take theatre to people when there are limited venues,” says Anuvab Pal, the playwright and scriptwriter whose credits include Loins of Punjab and Chaos Theory. “I think people are upping the game and audiences are getting younger. Theatre is now a viable proposition, so producers need to employ the marketing techniques one would for movies. But until we start creating new venues, we can’t attract new audiences.”
Pal, who regularly updates on rehearsals though the online communication tool Twitter, argues that innovative theatre will only come when people move into abandoned spaces and make the space work, in the way that galleries did. In addition, he says that the economics of a production won’t stack up until productions have the flexibility to travel around.
Adds Pal: “But what makes me happy is that the size of the audience is not determined by the type of play. In the same way that multiplexes changed the notion of the kinds of films that were made, new kinds of audiences have changed the notion of the kinds of plays being put on. There used to be a second-guessing of the audience, in terms of how background and aesthetic taste will determine what theatre is, but that has changed.”
Audio by Saabira Chaudhuri