PR Guru Tells Indie Theaters: When the RSC Arrives, Make the Bard Your Bitch

Peter Zumthor's St. Benedict Chapel (1988) is a humble, human-scaled church perched on a Swiss mountain slope.

Veteran theater publicist (and noted beauty blogger) Karen Greco has launched a do-it-yourself website called PR for Smarties and we already like it. Traditionalists may have a fit over the idea of a PR professional giving away state secrets, but then, are there really secrets anymore? There is no reason I can think of for artists in all disciplines, and folks who aren’t even working in the arts, to glean some wisdom.

The first post on the site considers the upset that erupted when Charles Isherwood, second-string critic of the New York Times, wrote rapturously, even deliriously, of the upcoming six-week residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory. As noted on the CFR and elsewhere in the Twittersphere, various Off-Off-Broadway companies had a colossal and fully justified fit over Isherwood’s piece, as it represented a monstrous bitch-slap in their face.

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So what to do? Bitch-slap the RSC.

Here’s PR for Smarties:

I would love to see a young company take action and present the exact same Shakespeare play at the exact same time. Throw down the gauntlet and be the scrappy underdog. And take it even further, let’s inject a little Bronx Bomber pride into this. The Brits may do “proper” Shakespeare, but the scrappy New York companies do it kick ass.

Maybe show up at the RSC’s turf and stage a brilliantly bloody fight in front of the Armory. This has to be some seriously Vampire Cowboys-style brutal choreography. And do it again. And again. And again. Be in front of the Armory for days at a time, several hours a day. Hand out postcards and fliers to the circle of audience that surrounds. Hell, pass the hat and make a buck.

Added bonus? It would make a hell of a photo op.

What say y’all?

CATEGORIES: Theater

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  • I LOVE that bit of advice! And what I’d suggest (as a producer on the Board of a company which WILL be trying to sell tickets to its upcoming summer NYC Parks tour of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing” ) is that we find a peaceful (but nonetheless ballsy) way of reminding the native theater community that if England did everything best we’d still be living there and accepting our sausages as meat and variegated jawbone protrusions as real teeth. That was nasty. I know it. But I couldn’t resist.

    We live and work and create here. It is wonderful to have the RSC Vi-si-ting. VISITING. But this is our turf. And it’s worth protecting.

    Perhaps a little banding of the various active companies with Shakespearean offerings… a bit of a bonding experience, if you will… coming together for a little peaceful insurrection…

    Look out, Armory: I smell a flash mob.

  • What a fantastic idea! I’m game for trying it out. Any other company want to get in on the fun? I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Center Festival, though I think they can handle a little gorilla publicity skimming anyway. Also, it’s clearly not their fault that the New York Times needs a new arts enema.

  • Hi Cas and Kristin

    Maybe a Sausage and Mash Fund Raising Dinner to kick the whole thing off?

    I do hope that the various companies will look at this as a great chance to cooperate. Too often I have seen “partnerships” derailed b/c there are too many agendas in the room. Small, independent companies need to work together right now and pool resources.

    Seriously, if everyone Flash Mobs (and how cool would that be), PLEASE be sure to spread the word! Would love to see how this pays off.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Uh – Don Hall may think this is genius, but the RSC’s audience – not so much. Methinks the beautician should stick to blogging about her nails.

    • With all due respect, my friend and colleague and columnist, don’t ever rag on Karen. She has successfully and brilliantly publicized and marketed many more New York productions than you have. That she chose to segue out of the business and move into beauty is not to be dismissed (and frankly, and again with all due respect, I fear the comment has a sexist tone!), and it shows in the traffic her beauty blog receives.

  • Tom, thanks for your assessment, but I don’t do nails, nor do I blog about them. If you actually visited that site, you’d know. But you aren’t my target demo.

    You are more than welcome to disagree with the idea, but my work in and with the beauty industry has nothing to do with my 15 plus years publicizing entertainment clients, in theater, film, television and music. (Look at the media today, wouldn’t YOU have a Plan B if your livelihood depended on working with the mainstream media.)

    At any rate, your tone is sexist. And elitist. I haven’t heard the term “beautician” since my grandmother went for her weekly up-dos. And she’s been dead at least a quarter of a century.

  • RLewis

    Thomas, as someone who has hired Karen for her terrific PR work and wish I could afford her greatness more often, can I just say that your comment is just damn assinine. You are a very smart man when you stick to what you know, but when you make such assumptions, I’m embarrassed for our entire community.

  • RLewis (and I *think* I know who you are) thank you for that. And you do good work too.

  • Stanley

    Anybody claiming that the RSC does “proper English Shakespeare” doesn’t know what they are talking about. Please read this recent review of Goold’s Romeo and Juliet to educate yourself on the kind of groundbreaking work the RSC is renowned for:
    http://theaternewsonline.com/LondonTheatreReviews/STAR-CROSSEDLOVERSTHEREMIX.cfm
    We ought to be embracing the opportunity to see Shakespeare done well and not seeing it as some sort of invasion or insult. Go see all six shows and bring your notepads. You might learn what “kick-ass” Shakespeare looks like.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Exactly, Stanley. And sorry if my comment came off as being dismissive of people who blog about beauty (male OR female) deciding to rag on the RSC – but actually it kind of WAS dismissive of people who blog about beauty ragging on the RSC, wasn’t it. Hmmm. And did I say the lady didn’t know her blush from her foundation? No, I did not. When I begin giving Karen pointers on mascara, or whatever the hell it is she writes about, then you can let me have it. But not before. (And sorry I gave the inaccurate impression you blog about nails, Karen. Although your comment does make it sound like you kind of look down on people who blog about nails! I certainly hope that’s not the case, because I know many people who do terrific work blogging about nails, and anyone who thinks otherwise is asinine. And sexist. And elitist.)

  • Thomas Garvey

    You know, I’m still a little irritated by the beauty blogger, so I think I’ll dismantle her proposal, too. What Karen has suggested isn’t really a form of PR, or at least it’s not PR designed to reach the RSC’s audience; it’s instead designed to make New York feel better about itself by confronting (and subtly dissing) that audience. She could find a thread of an excuse, I suppose, for this professional error by insisting that the RSC audience isn’t familiar with New York’s Shakespeare offerings. But somehow I think that’s not the case. Vampire-Cowboys-like Shakespeare is precisely what the RSC audience thinks New York has to offer, and what it has rejected.

    If Karen wanted a real challenge, she might ponder ways to change New York’s cultural mindset in a way that nurtured truly great Shakespeare. Admittedly, that’s a tall order (all Charles Isherwood did was acknowledge the elephant in the room, and look what happened to him!). But is it any more likely that a single PR campaign could change the widespread perception that the Big Apple is not the place for great Shakespeare? I don’t think so. In a word, this is a product problem, not a marketing problem.

    • Except, with all due respect, that you’re wrong, Tom.

      First, your irritation with the beauty blogger is your issue; get over yourself.

      Second, at no point did Karen discuss intending to reach the RSC’s audience. Indeed, to suggest that the idea is to reach the RSC’s audience implies that the only audience for Shakespeare in New York City is the RSC’s audience, which is not only unproven but manifestly incorrect; all the other companies doing Shakespeare, or at least classical work, in New York City, are still getting grants, still getting attention and still getting audiences, and obviously there are enough people and enough grantors who like the work to sustain it to some degree. The issue is that it’s not enough. Moreover, perhaps Boston is monolithic in its theatrical tastes but Gotham is clearly not.

      Third, the idea is to reach all potential audiences. Karen’s idea, in fact, is classic guerrilla marketing as it might be applied to the most over-saturated guerilla-marketing market in the world; the problem is that the live-theater industry in New York rarely, if ever, takes advantage of it and, for the most part, has no clue how to do so — they’re much too afraid and self-absorbed with their “work.”

      Fourth, what evidence is there that the people at the RSC are going to see Vampire Cowboys productions and are saying to themselves, “Gee, this isn’t very good — hey, let’s do a six-week residency in New York!” The fact is, the RSC doesn’t know New York theater, doesn’t care about New York theater and therefore doesn’t have an opinion about what New York does or does not offer. And no one — not me, not Karen, not anyone I know — expects the RSC to care, either. For that is not their function, that is not their job and that is not relevant. I think if you actually spoke to someone at the RSC and shared Karen’s idea, they’d probably love it. And why not? It’s fundamentally more theatrical (more metatheatrical, really) than 99% of what is running anywhere. I think the RSC would respect the sheer gumption of local companies getting in their faces a little bit. If you have a quote from someone at the RSC to the contrary on this specific idea, bring it on.

      Fifth, Karen’s job as a publicist and marketer is not to change the cultural mindset of a city of eight million people with immensely diverse cultural interests, is it? Seriously, is it? Is that an assertion you can really make? To suggest that somehow one individual is to be vested in changing the entire notion of what constitutes “truly great Shakespeare” is like asking one individual to build the Great Wall of China in their spare time.

      Sixth, is it more likely that “a single PR campaign could change the widespread perception that the Big Apple is not the place for great Shakespeare”? Of course not. What is likely, however, is that a single PR campaign could bring attention to the subject — that the Big Apple has phenomenal theater, that Isherwood need not make a snot-nosed fetish of all things Anglo-American while sniffing at the exceptional work already being done stateside.

      If you knew the work here, Tom, as I do, you’d see that. So let’s have an agreement. I won’t pass judgment on Boston arts and you won’t pass judgment on arts in New York. I can’t speak about that which I do not know. Can you?

  • Stanley and Thomas, I don’t know you or what you do. Judging from your comments, I assume you are not part of the small theater community and struggled to get audience and press to see your work.

    This is not a slam on the RSC. Actually, this is not about the RSC at all, as much as some would like it to be.

    This is asking the small theater community in NY, who felt affronted by the New York Times essentially stating that there was no *real* Shakespeare to be had in the City, to get away from their computers and do something active about it. Letters to the editor and angry blog posts will not go far to help their cause. They want/need audience building and media attention.

    My actual post asks this community what they can do to turn the perceived slight into an opportunity. And offers a suggestion. And others have left fun ideas in the comments.

    The community felt the Times dismissed the countless Shakespeare productions that are created by local artists. This is their call to action. The RSC will be just fine. I am sure their show will be fantastic and it will by impossible to get a ticket.

    And Thomas, would love to see the nail blogs you follow. Could you point them out, please?

  • As someone who has been working in marketing for as long as I’ve been in business, and been in business online since 1996, I find Thomas’s dismissal amusing. I made more money selling online classes about sewing, fashion design and personal style than most people see in a lifetime.

    Calling Karen a “beauty blogger” as a denigrating label is like calling me a seamstress and Gary Vee a “wine blogger.”

    It simply shows a close-mindedness and insecurity.

    Now for something positive: I think Karen has it right. Too many small companies – actually make that too many companies, period – don’t look for the creative path, the road less taken, or the results-oriented marketing approach, instead often favoring such things as expensive promotions and advertising that brings little to no return that they can’t afford anyway.

    *shrugs*

    I’m OK with that. It leaves more room for those that do to shine, like Karen.

  • D Loehr

    It’s funny, the folks I know with the RSC would welcome just such a thing. They’d see it as a chance to celebrate Shakespeare and the elasticity of his text in its ability to serve many masters and many interpretations. They’d also see it as a chance to maybe discover an idea or a performer or a company that sparked their interest. They’re pretty open-minded. This is also why they’re able to produce work that some consider “groundbreaking.”

    Nobody is insulting the RSC here, and no one is suggesting that their work is anything less than excellent in general. And no one is saying that every production of Shakespeare in New York is brilliant, groundbreaking or kickass. On the other hand, Isherwood seems to imply that the RSC can do no wrong–which is not true–and that New York needs to see Shakespeare done right–also not true. If this isn’t what he meant, then I apologize in advance. I don’t want to many any assumptions, but that’s how his statement came off.

    More to the point, no one here is seeing the RSC’s residency as an insult or an invasion. The idea is that it’s an opportunity to have an open dialogue between different theatres, different aesthetics. It’s a chance to expose people to live theatre who maybe can’t afford to go to the RSC shows or might not have considered live theatre as an entertainment option at all. Who might benefit? The RSC, the theatre community in NYC, the new audiences, even the city itself. It’s an “all boats will rise” theory. How is this a bad thing?

    Why do we assume that all of these “guerrilla” productions would be bad? Well, some of us don’t, clearly. And it’s not a matter of making “New York feel better.” I’m not sure who “the RSC’s audience” is. If I’m not mistaken, they’re primarily in England. The majority of people who will go to the RSC while in NYC are also going to the Public Theatre, the Pearl and so on. They haven’t “rejected” other Shakespeare in NYC, and to assume that they have is faulty logic.

    Karen’s idea isn’t about changing the city’s mindset. If that were possible, surely others would have figured out a way to do it on topics more immediate to everyday life than productions of Shakespeare. But it is about making Shakespeare–and the local theatre community–more immediate and more vibrant in the everyday setting of the city. Like the best PR, it’s about awareness more than anything else.

    And if those theatre companies can’t do work good enough to sustain an audience or receive grants, then the market will out.

    As for the tenor of the conversation, it’s a shame that a free exchange of ideas devolved into name-calling. The insults don’t bolster your point, they just make you look petty. It’s easy to look down one’s nose and be dismissive. It’s a lot harder to leave the ego at the door and have a genuine conversation.

    If you’d like to have an open dialogue, feel free. We’ll be over here, trying to be constructive. If you want to regress to name-calling and sniping, well, thanks but no thanks. We’ll leave that to the “theatre bloggers.”

  • Thomas Garvey

    But what if you don’t want to have a “genuine conversation”? What if you just want to see great Shakespeare, which you can’t see in New York until the RSC gets here, and you’re tired of all the pissing and moaning from the people who are upset about their visit? And no, it’s not about the money, or the marketing, it’s about New York and its attitudes. I’ve been burned so many times at New York Shakespeare productions – always ones with good reviews – that I have to say that no amount of marketing could tempt me into dropping another dime on another such performance. So I disagree with you, Leonard, about the classical work being done stateside. (And to be honest, the Shakespeare in Boston isn’t really any better.) Of course maybe there are other people outside New York who think of it as a place to see good Shakespeare. But I don’t know of any. But I do know several who will visit the city to see the RSC.

  • Thom Wang

    No one’s forcing you to have a genuine conversation.

    And while I’ve seen plenty of bad Shakespeare in New York, some of the best I’ve seen has also been in New York. Even better, I didn’t spend a dime to see Patrick Stewart as Prospero. (That’s only one good New York production, but it’s the best Tempest I’ve ever seen.) Sure, he’s a member of the RSC, but it was a Public Theatre show from top to bottom. And, shock and horror, I’ve actually seen sub-standard RSC productions. Imagine that.

    Blanket statements are meaningless. The only absolute you can say is that you don’t like the classical work stateside. That’s your opinion and you’re welcome to it.

  • I must say, the only RSC show I’ve seen–a production of Macbeth in Stratford in the summer of 2007–was downright abysmal. (So many dead babies. And so many competing accents. And so LOUD.) So I don’t know that the RSC is necessarily the consistent gold standard people are imagining here. They’re as capable of clinkers as anyone else.

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  • Thomas Garvey

    Well, it’s nice to know the beautologist got another whole blog post out of this. And it’s interesting to know I’m on the “front lines” of sexism – I imagine a kind of Gaza-like zone in which political prisoners are subjected to painful Brazilian waxes by Lynn Cheney, while overhead tweezers and eyeliner cases are shot out of passing drones . . .

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