'Muckle Man' started as a Webbed creature
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Not all the creativity happens on stage where you can see it.City Theatre drummed up early interest for "Muckle Man" on the Web back in November.
Click photo for larger image.
Backing up the playwright, director, actors and designers whose work you see are other theatrical pros who also have to exercise creative imagination. That even includes marketers, who try to get you to see what the more obvious creators have to offer.
Today's case in point is Jeremy Kraus, City Theatre director of marketing, who has to come up with campaigns for one of the toughest sells -- new plays about which no one knows anything in advance, such as City Theatre's focus this year, its New American Trio. And no one knew what to make of even the title of the first new play, "The Muckle Man."
Kraus has had his job only since an interim try-out after the previous incumbent, Lisa Remby, left last February. That was a perilous time, with City about to launch its annual subscription renewal campaign. Kraus obviously did well, since City chiefs Tracy Brigden and Greg Quinlan intended to do a national search when the frenzy died down but instead gave Kraus the job full-time last summer.
Kraus is a New Yorker who still roots for the Yankees. He went to the "Fame" high school, and after college at SUNY-Binghampton, he worked administratively for New York's Blue Light Theater and Manhattan Theater Club. In summer 2003, he came to Pittsburgh when his wife, Joyce Brown, started an internship at Allegheny General Hospital.
They feared they were moving to a cultural dead end but discovered otherwise. Kraus knew Brigden from when she had directed at Blue Light, and she gave him a job as City's director of operations and events. Maybe his rise hasn't been quite as meteoric as Mike Tomlin's, but Kraus isn't even that old.
You can see why he was promoted: Among City's notable AK (after Kraus) marketing successes have been "Honus and Me," "The Good Body" and "A Picasso," all pretty much sell-outs, and the different versions of "Late Nite Catechism," which will probably keep packing the theater into the next century.
On the other hand, notice what all these have in common: obvious, specific constituencies beyond the usual theater audience. Selling them took marketing, but the connections were there to exploit. For "Honus," it was sports and families, and Kraus helped engineer tie-ins with the Pirates, Pitt Panthers, Dick's Sporting Goods and the Sports Museum; for "Good Body," it was author Eve Ensler's V-Day movement and women's groups; for "Picasso," which had few tickets to sell, since it was in the Hamburg Studio, it was art galleries and museums; and for "Catechism," it's Catholics (and huge word of mouth).
But how and to whom do you sell "The Muckle Man"?
Of course City has its loyal subscription base of about 3,200, which is already committed to the company's predominant emphasis on new plays. It's the other audience the marketing director and staff, like communications director Margie Romero, need to attract, the single-ticket buyers who make the bottom-line difference between red ink and black.
Kraus started by reading the play, a theatrically unusual mystery-horror-sci-fi mix familiar on the big or small screens, where such genres have built-in audiences. The TV hit "Lost" came to mind, or anything by M. Night Shyamalan. And "Muckle Man's" author, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is a comic-book author.
"So how to attract the contemporary pop-cultural audience?" wondered Kraus. "Comic-book fans, video-game players, Web and TV junkies and movie fanatics -- what ties them together? The play itself is a mystery, let alone the title. How to create buzz?"
The best guess was the Internet, especially given the advent of blogs, YouTube and Face Book, which weren't even available a couple of years ago. The resulting project was what Kraus calls "a viral marketing campaign," with obvious indebtedness to the first campaign of its kind, "The Blair Witch Project" project.
City's campaign centered on a mysterious Web site, www.muckleman.com, promoted in ads on My Space and Face Book targeted at local college students and in a liberal infestation of enigmatic large posters and small cards through Pittsburgh: "the muckle man is coming ... 01.25.07."
The site was launched Nov. 6, without anything mentioning a play or City Theatre. On a grid of 50 squares, each week five more squares became live links to whatever might connect intriguingly with the subject, themes or atmosphere of the play -- an oddly menacing travelogue about Newfoundland found on YouTube, for example, or news of the elusive giant squid (it didn't hurt that one was just captured near Japan).
Interns and volunteers shared with Kraus the fun of finding material for the links. ("You'd just Google 'sea monster' and go from there," he says.) The Web site was designed on his own time by a tech-savvy volunteer, David Dulick, who works for Zoltun Design, and maintained by him and Kraus.
There was also a weekly mystery contest with prizes, which gathered entrants' ZIP codes and e-mail addresses and enticed them to return. And from the start one link led to a blog that Aguirre-Sacasa wrote in the character of Gilbert, a marine biologist in the play, which told, in something like real time, his back story. In fact, those who see the play may still want to read it as, in effect, a prequel.
There have been more usual marketing and promotional gambits, of course, leading to this Post-Gazette coverage, for example. And drawing on his previous City job as director of events, Kraus has also helped plan showcases for local comic-book vendors and various appearances by Aguirre-Sacasa.
As to the site, it has been fun for creators and visitors. And it didn't cost City more than staff time and some posters and ads out of the usual promotional budget.
But will it pay off? The site meter shows 6,600 visitors to date, although that includes repeat visits. Some 1,500 people have read Gilbert's blog. How many of these will turn into ticket-buyers? A healthy pre-sale (healthy for a new play) suggests it's paying off, but time will tell.
First Published January 25, 2007 12:00 am