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The Bard & Marketing: 4 Lessons From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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A guest post by Mimi Sells of OFJCC.

Recently, we drove with friends to Ashland to see a couple of plays in the 2011 season of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Beyond a dazzling dunk into contemporary and Elizabethan drama, I was reminded of a few things relevant to all of us who market for a living.

The first night we saw "August: Osage County," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family. However, the play we thought we were seeing and the play we actually saw were two different things. We arrived to learn that the Bowmer Theatre had to close for structural repairs, and the play would be relocated to a smaller theater at Oregon State University. Only 300 seats vs. the 600 tickets sold were available, so it would be a first-come, first-served experience.

The festival staff compensated by offering all patrons the opportunity to get either a refund or a voucher for another play. And for the 300 who made it into the new theater, the performance would be free. We arrived early to wait in line and get our seats. The festival staff was on hand to direct us to the location of the unfamiliar theater and to delight us with free chocolates while we waited. We felt well-attended to.

Lesson #1: If you must tell a customer bad news, leaven it with care, consideration, options for satisfaction … and freebies.

Once inside, we faced a stage that was completely bare, save for about a dozen school chairs situated across the stage in twos, threes, and fours.

The director came on stage, apologizing for the lack of a set---which in its original staging was comprised of a three-story home, replete with sitting rooms, kitchen, and an attic bedroom. He walked us through the chair set-ups, naming each set as a particular locale in the home. He also advised us that there would be one violent scene that could not safely be performed on this stage. Instead, the stage manager would come out and tell us what was occurring, so that we could safely segue to the next scene.

Not knowing what to expect, we watched the play unfold. The acting was brilliant, the characters deftly drawn, the dialogue powerful and resonant. We forgot that there was no set. We were all deeply immersed in the drama. We could imagine the attic bedroom, the staircase, the kitchen---and all the pain, humor, and insight the author intended. We all stood for a thundering ovation, moved to tears by this powerful work.

Lesson #2: At the end of the day, marketing is about content. Great content moves people. You can wrap crap writing in a gorgeous red bow, fancy website, or colorful ad, but if you don’t provide information or writing that moves people, it’s still crap.

The next night we saw Shakespeare’s "Love's Labour's Lost" in the outdoor theater in the round. The director staged this comedy of love in the fifties with the entourage of the king dressed and cavorting as a college varsity team. The young queen and her coterie were dressed and behaved like spoiled sorority sisters, with their sweater sets, puffed skirts, and ponytails. It was clever costuming and clever staging, and we were initially smitten with the hijinks and collegiate repartee overlaid on Shakespeare’s poetry.

Lesson #3: Shakespeare has been around for centuries, but his works remain fresh because every director brings a new sensibility, nuance, or style to it. His “brand” doesn’t get old and stale because we renew it every time it’s staged.

We made it to intermission. However, two of the couples decided they’d had enough. They didn’t enjoy all the silly wordplay. We, however, stayed to the end as we rarely get to see Shakespeare’s plays. Our friends, however, didn’t miss much; the second act was more disappointing because instead of the typical joyful pairing of young lovers, they end up postponing their amour for a year.

Lesson #4: Even Shakespeare can write a stinker. We all try to be original, to produce great and lasting creative content. It’s good, however, to remember that even William wrote a clunker or two … and it hasn’t diminished his reputation. He just kept at it. And so should we all.

We marketers may not be producing great works of lasting literature … but Shakespeare, in his lifetime, wasn’t doing so either. Like us, he was making a living by his wits. And therein lies the tale.

Mimi Sells is the chief marketing officer of Oshman Family JCC.


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  • by Lauretta Phillips Fri Sep 9, 2011 via blog

    Mimi, I loved this look at marketing. As a professional storyteller and producer, I too see things in this type of light. It is our desire as marketers to bring the audience to the performance and as storytellers to do with words what your first play did with a few chairs. I would love to use this as an example in one of the classes I teach. Would you mind?

  • by john w Fri Sep 9, 2011 via blog

    Thanks for this. The August Osage County experience tells a lot about why Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been around and flourishing for so many years. They care about not only the plays and the productions, but most especially the AUDIENCE. As an aside, what you saw with August is like a new play workshop or reading of a play that is in development. With no set and actors who are holding scripts, the experience relies solely on the energy of the actors and the playwright's words. The experience puts in stark contrast the good well written play vs the not so good poorly constructed piece.

  • by Mimi Fri Sep 9, 2011 via blog

    Lauretta,

    I'd love for you to use this with your class! Thanks for asking.

    Mimi

  • by Aman Basanti | Age of Marketing Tue Sep 13, 2011 via blog

    "Even Shakespeare can write a stinker. We all try to be original, to produce great and lasting creative content. It’s good, however, to remember that even William wrote a clunker or two … and it hasn’t diminished his reputation. He just kept at it. And so should we all."

    I think that is great advice. Sometime we beat our selves up too much about getting it perfect. But as long as most of what you are doing is good, it doesn't all have to be superb.

    As Warren Buffett once said, ‘You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.’

  • by Mimi Fri Sep 30, 2011 via blog

    Thanks for the comment. Our professional goal is always to exceed expectations but we don't always succeed. I like the Warren Buffett comment. Amen to that.

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