Stage Struck: The hard sell

How does a theatre’s marketing affect the meaning of a play?


Somebody once described marketing as the science of suspending human intelligence just long enough to get money from it. I recently had some experience of that myself, when I read an offer so astonishing it twisted my troublesome combination skin into deep furrows of confusion.

Mercifully, it was offering me a makeover and a facial. “Keep it Shush Girls,” began the Abbey’s online offer for a combined theatre ticket/beauty session, advertised as “an evening of pampering”.

It’s the first time I can think of a theatre trying to attract audiences with the incentive of cosmetic enhancement. The Abbey quickly clarified that the offer was open to men, of course, but “Keep it Shush Girls” doesn’t sound especially gender neutral. Nor does the play, a story of five female friends who confide, gossip, bicker and support each other during a boozy improvised birthday party.

An early online campaign encouraged audience members to contribute phrases to what “Irish Women Say”. You might expect a compendium of stirring quotes from Nell McCafferty or Mary Robinson speeches, but the invitation (“Whether it’s a comment on the weather or passing on words of wisdom…”) resulted in a spool of homespun twee: “When company is coming, we need to help her ‘hypocrite up’ the house”; “A good run against the wind is what you need!”; “My mum is forever telling us to ‘whisht’”.

You could argue that this is either a monumentally patronising campaign or just savvy targeting – who doesn’t like to be told, “Go on, treat yourself”? But it compounds a few other issues. Shush has a more serious intent than “an evening of pampering” would suggest. Murphy’s central character, Breda, is chronically depressed and clearly at risk.

Shush is the first play by a female playwright on the Abbey stage in more than four years, and it makes Elaine Murphy only the third female playwright to be staged there in 25 years.

When the much smaller Peacock staged four plays in succession by female writers a couple of years ago, it suggested an urgent desire to restore some sense of gender balance and display women writers with a broad thematic range. Upstairs, though, the play limits its female characters to scenes of domestic disharmony: even the house is falling apart in sync with its occupant. Ah, whisht, now.

The work of a theatre’s marketing department doesn’t end with getting people in the door, it actively shapes a play’s meaning, something proven with the disastrous flop of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New York, famously advertised as “the laughter sensation of two continents”.

The way a show is packaged speaks volumes about the culture of its theatre, the way it regards its audience, and the attention it is paying to its art. Perhaps every campaign should avail of a special offer and give its message a little dermabrasion before it greets the public. Go on, now – treat yourself.

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