Who was the most influential pundit in the D.C. theater ecosphere in 2010? Maybe it was you!
Twitter will hit its fifth birthday right around the time the cherry blossoms begin to bloom on the Tidal Basin next year. Having reached something like maturity as a form, Twitter has become an avenue D.C. theater companies—like peddlers of any experiential product—have had to think seriously about how to use to their advantage. While stats on Twitter participation aren’t great—at an April 2010 developers’ conference, Twitter numbered its registered user base at about 106 million—anecdotal observation suggests it’s more prevalent among the (generously defined) young. Which is exactly—OK, broadly—the demo theaters are struggling to reach.
Among area companies entrenched enough to have their own building, Woolly Mammoth is generally regarded as the most progressive, so it’s no surprise that it’s the one to have embraced social media in the most inventive ways, going beyond notices of rush ticket specials and links to favorable coverage. (Woolly is not the most-followed mammoth in town. As of this writing, that honor goes to Arena Stage, with a base north of 2,600. Signature is next, in the 2,200 ballpark, then Woolly, with about 1,400. Studio? Shakespeare Theatre Company? They’re late to the party, with 763 and 431 followers, respectively.)
Woolly tapped Alli Houseworth, who’d been working for the Theatre Development Fund in New York, to be its communications and new media manager last June. (She’s since been promoted, but she remains the troupe’s social-media guru.) In New York, she worked in the Times Square TKTS booth, where theatergoers get discounts on same-day performances, but have no way of knowing what’s available until they arrive. Houseworth, acting unofficially, would tweet the day’s available shows, along with “funny things I overheard, or that happened on the street.” That kind of thing, along with the work she’d done upping Jersey Boys producer Dodger Theatricals Limited’s social media profile, made her a fit for a new post that Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann had been conceiving. “They realized—I’m sorry, I hate saying this to journalists—print journalism is having a hard time,” Houseworth says. Woolly already had a Facebook page and was on Twitter, but dedicating a staff person to those duties (among more traditional P.R. chores) stepped it up.
Houseworth holds the keys to Woolly’s Twitter account, with authority to post what she wants. “They just trust me,” she says. The company’s tweet-print has swollen in the Houseworth era, driven in large part by Twitter-based discussions thematically tied to the theater’s current offerings. For instance, the tie-in with late summer’s run of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play—a piece largely about sexual and emotional repression—invited followers to tweet their “secret desires.” Naturally, the talk turned a little bit blue.
“A lot of people thought that was gross,” Houseworth says. “Some people were like. ‘I think that’s over the edge, I don’t know why you’re doing this.’ That’s great; that’s sort of why we were doing it.”
The play became the highest-grossing in-house production in Woolly’s 30-year history. Of course, it was also buoyed by enthusiastic dead-tree notices (including a one from Washington City Paper’s Trey Graham), with one big exception: The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, still the most powerful critic in the region, rendered a mixed-to-negative judgment, fretting that The Vibrator Play offered “only intermittent stimulation.” While Houseworth says that a skeptical Post notice may dampen crowds, it has a much harder time handicapping a production these days.
Arena, the region’s leader in followers, takes the view that “you ignore social media at your peril,” says communication director Chad Bauman. “Word-of-month is the most powerful marketing tool that we have,” he says. “Reviews are just as powerful as they’ve always been, but social media allows them to travel far more quickly. It’s also allows many more people to review your product than just the mainstream reviewers.”
Houseworth concurs. “A great review in the Post is still going to sell a lot of tickets for us,” she says. “I see it as audience segmentation: Maybe audience members over the age of 45 aren’t going to care what the Twitter buzz is as much as someone who’s 25.”
Another Houseworth innovation has been to invite prolific, locally based tweeters with lots of followers to Woolly’s press performances. She won’t say who, and the focus group changes for each show. “When you look at the mathematical equation, [the ideal candidate] ends up being Chad from Arena,” she laughs. “I kind of want to invite him to review one of our shows.”