Works by Women

Supporting creative work by women

Interview: Michelle Haines

Works by Women has interviewed many theatermakers — playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs over the past few months. Today, we shift our attention to another very important part of the equation — arts marketing.  No matter how fabulous a play or musical is, each needs an audience. Marketing is a crucial part  getting productions noticed and filling houses.

Michelle Haines, currently Sales and Marketing Manager at DreamWorks Theatricals, recently moved to New York City from Seattle, where she worked for Broadway Across America.  She also ran her own theatre company —Burnt Studio Productions — during her twelve years in the Emerald City.  Michelle is a graduate of Boise State University.

Works by Women caught up with Michelle.  She tells us about the Seattle theater scene, her best marketing advice and how she fell in love with theater.

1)  What inspired you to work in theater?
MH: For as long as I can remember I was always drawn to the performing arts.  As a child I was painfully shy and the arts became an outlet for expression, first with music and then with art.  But something really special happened when I got involved in theater.   I am inspired by the collective of artists that come together as a community, I love the demands on everyone to reach opening night whether you feel you are ready or not, and of course the dialogue that develops when you finally experience it with an audience.  As I mature, my relationship with theater continues to grow and evolve in tremendous ways that I could have never anticipated.  Whether I’m involved artistically or as an administrator, I still get the same thrill from taking part in this powerful and beautiful art form. 

2)  You’ve spent much of your career based in Seattle.  What was it like working in theater in the Emerald City?
MH: I arrived in Seattle right when the city was bursting with incredible theater.  Following college, a friend and I had the strong desire to develop and produce original works of theater.  Seattle seemed like the perfect place for a young company to experiment and produce theater relatively inexpensively.  We presented our first show, Progression, at the Seattle International Fringe Festival and after being awarded the Artistic Pick of the festival it became clear to us that we could continue to create this type of work and move forward on forming a non-profit organization, Burnt Studio Productions.  That decision would not have been possible without knowing what the city provided us in terms of support, talent, inspiration and the room to explore the full spectrum of our voice as a new company.   From there, I had the great opportunity to work with various organizations that contributed to everything I know about theater up to this point including some as diverse as the Empty Space Theatre, Theatre Puget Sound and Broadway at the Paramount.  I highly recommend Seattle to any young artist who is ready to jump in with both feet!  It will reward you.

3)  You are a director as well as a marketing expert.  How do these two disciplines inform each other?
MH: I really dive into both disciplines with a similar approach.  For me, it always comes down to finding the heart of the story and then determining how that will be shared with and received by an audience in a way that hopefully is transcends. 

With directing, you have that initial response to the material that draws you in a way that becomes borderline obsessive – it inspires you and haunts you to the point of no return.  Next, it’s about digging through the play to find as many facts about the characters, time, place, playwright etc. that can lead to really wonderful discoveries through diligent research.   I really try to be tedious with that part of the process so I then can bring those elemetns back to the play to help inform the overall concept, choices, rehearsal process and audience experience.  I truly enjoy what comes with the patience and persistence of such a hunt.  Once armed with all of that information, it frees me to approach directing from an honest place and really helps to bring to life that initial response I had to the play in a visceral and genuine way.  The final key to the puzzle is when you start to bring in your collaborators and what new perspective they bring to the process that fills the story with such incredible life in ways you couldn’t imagine. 

When I start to look at how I can market a property, play or season I really revert to the same creative approach.  I seek out the core of what gets me emotionally invested in the material and drives me to want our future audiences to feel that same pull when they interact with any of the marketing pieces.  As with directing, I dive into research to see how similar shows have been marketed as well as learning more about the property or organization itself.  Once done, you can create key art, campaigns and strategies that are really in line with the core of what you are representing and ultimately will be powerful enough for people to want to buy a ticket.  And of course, it is great to work with a talented marketing team brings more ideas to the table and executes them in ways you didn’t even dream. 

I think both are informed by not settling for what is on the surface and can easily be presented. Gimmicks in either discipline only get you so far and don’t help to serve the overall purpose of the presentation.  It really demands a deep knowledge, commitment and love of the material in order to expect any audience to feel the same way about it.  And of course, it should be fun!  It’s a creative process after all and you just have to be open to the possibility of what you may discover.

4)  What is one piece of marketing advice you would give to companies big and small out there – something that you live by?
MH: Be clean and clear with your messaging and overall concept.  Nothing drives me crazier than a busy, wordy, and/or visually assaulting ad that I can’t absorb in the blink of an eye and can’t decipher who they are talking to.  As I mentioned in the last answer, you tell a story through marketing and you need to be as specific and clear with your choices as you do when you are working on a play.  When starting on a campaign I try to remind myself that a great majority of people who will see the marketing don’t care about the thing I’m trying to promote so it really drives me to create something with information that is easy to digest and embodies an overall concept that resonates.  Marketing is more than just a tool to help inform people of the time, place and how to buy tickets (though that information is very important and again should be easy to access), but it has the power to affect them in a personal way that also provides a universal sense of what the story is about or the core values of an organization.  As with all things, this is easier said than done.  Sometimes you really hit the target and sometimes you miss, but usually I find less is more and that is advice companies big or small can access no matter what their budget or resources are.

5) You are a recent New York transplant.  What excites you about the Big Apple?
MH: Everything!  I’m in the midst of a major love affair with this city that is starting to become a serious commitment.  Walking through the park, taking in the opera at the Met, eating the amazing food, hearing too many languages to count as you walk down the street, working with a terrific company in the heart of it all – it is so incredible!  Of course, then you throw in the theater and it truly becomes the greatest city in the world.  I’m really excited to immerse myself into this amazing community as an artist and administrator.  I would love to be as deeply involved as I was back in Seattle.  Reaching out to my previous contacts, as well as meeting new ones in organizations like the League of Professional Women provides a good start.

6)  What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
MH: It is an interesting time for women in theater.  My generation has definitely benefited from the battles previous generations have fought in that I have never personally felt I’ve been held back from pursuing my passions and goals because I am a woman.  I know it is still out there and that women are not necessarily getting the same opportunities to tell their stories and lead our great institutions at the same rate as men, but I find that each year there seems to be more women in charge, more plays produced, directed and written by women, and more men that don’t adhere to the old mentality of what a women is or isn’t capable of.  Personally, I think the greatest hurdle is that too many times I get in my own way and allow doubts to plague my own sense of what I can and should accomplish in a way that I feel men just don’t when pursuing the same goals.

7)  What gives you hope for women in American theater?
MH: The good news is I’m surrounded by many accomplished women in the theater and we can continue to provide support for each other as we all seek balance and respect within this field across the country.  It continues to get better by the act of us just doing the work, doing it well, supporting the work of your sisters and letting our passion for theatre inspire us to leave a legacy that becomes undeniable.

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