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Mistakes and Successes While Coordinating Publicity

By • Jan 9th, 2009 • Category: Cappies

It’s opening night and even though I’m due on stage in ten minutes, I’m less worried about getting up there and playing my part in my school’s fall production of the farce Noises Off than I am about the size of the crowd. It’s opening night, and this is a show that feeds off of audience reaction. We need that crowd, and it’s been my job to make sure it exists for tonight as well as the three performances following it. I’m Jake Beckhard, MAD Drama Publicity Head, and I’m finding it very hard to transform into Jake Beckhard, Actor. The dressing rooms, our only private quarters as a high school drama department, smell thickly of makeup and hairspray. This is where I reside; this is the tension and the pressure and the density of air and sense that I call home, and it reassures me. But the stakes are higher tonight than usual.

As I’m walking up the set shop ramp to the backstage area, I berate myself for the hundredth time about not having put enough emphasis on recognition. Flyers weren’t up until two weeks before the show, and the painted sign wasn’t up on Maple Ave. until one week before. This kills me. The sign is our biggest draw. In Vienna especially, there’s a whole circle of people that keeps an eye out for operations of the local high school. Our town is full of people whose children were once involved but now have grown up or are off at college and retirees who have nothing better to do. The sign is practically the only way they have of finding out our plays are happening and I thoroughly botched it. Our “biggest draw” featured a poorly stenciled shark swimming around text that was completely unreadable from a car going 30 mph. It was a stressful, frustrating embarrassment.

Then there were the flyers and Publicity Day. Traditionally, Publicity Day is our most important, and sometimes only, major effort to spread the word around about the upcoming show. My crew gathers around twenty volunteers to go to different complexes and strip malls posting flyers. Unfortunately, the set for the show, a much more important project, was falling far behind, so Publicity crew lost around fifteen volunteers to set construction. In addition, our flyers were ready only a day before and thus had not been edited to correct one significant flaw: They never once mentioned James Madison High School. Our biggest selling point, our youth, and we didn’t think to put it on the flyer design. Thus, we spent the morning distributing ineffective posters to people who probably wouldn’t bother posting them anyway. Another dazzling success for Jake Beckhard’s publicity crew.

The final week came. Our director came directly to me and gave me the news: We’ve sold a total of five tickets by presale online. Five. Five seats. Thirty dollars of tickets sold for a thousand dollar high school production, and I’m the one to blame. I lose my cool. I go into panic mode instantly. The next day, I’m scrambling for anything to boost attendance. I settle on an email to the English department of the high school asking them politely to publicize the show to their classes. Every student has an English class, I reasoned, so if I could get every teacher to say something, all two thousand would at the very least know there was a play going on.

A number of teachers enthusiastically agreed, and one even suggested that we take the opportunity on Thursday and Friday to hold a free ten-minute preview between the first two classes of the day. I spoke to my superiors about this idea, first to our director then to our principal, and both were happy to oblige. It turned out to be a surprising success. Both mornings got us a hundred to two hundred students, and we got big laughs on all the jokes for both of the previews. Unsurprisingly, high school students love free things.

I wasn’t convinced. Being a high schooler, I recognize that most of us, even if we’re intrigued with something, can still be lazy enough to not investigate it at all. I admit it: I really didn’t trust my peers to carry us. I needed to do something else for reassurance. This is where my mother stepped in to save the day. She suggested that we edit the flyers, print out some 450 black-and-white copies, and post energized, vivacious members of the drama department outside Giant supermarkets in the area with stacks of flyers to hand out to shoppers. We could do it on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday between 5 and 6, she said, and encourage shoppers to come see the show on impulse. It was a quick and easy way to get the word out, and if a quarter of the people who received flyers came, and a quarter of those people brought friends or family with them to the performance, it would be well worth it.

The process of getting volunteers, however, was a mess yet again. Wednesday was no problem; I got four people to help out easily, then got them their flyers and sent them on their ways. Thursday and Friday, however, were a different story. Since we opened on Thursday, a great deal of my reliable workforce was already committed to other preparations works. I called and messaged those who were left the night before, and got five to agree, but by 4:00 the next day all but one had called me back and explained to me that they were very sorry, that they’d make it up to me but that they couldn’t help out today. I threw my hands in the air, met with my one remaining volunteer, and left with him, frustrated and tired already. By the time I’m preparing for the performance, I’m ready to break.

Fidgeting with my costume in the set shop, I’m not sure how many were swayed by the previews, the emails, or the handouts while I’m still getting into place on Thursday night, and in those last few seconds before crossing the through threshold between set shop and backstage, there is a lump in my throat that I can’t choke down. I close my eyes tightly and take the last step.

My heart skips a beat as I am greeted in the tense darkness by the warm, familiar sound of the clamor of an audience, muffled by the thick velvet curtains between them and us. People came. People are here. Someone will see all the exhausting work and tireless hours my friends and I have spent honing this show. Somebody cares enough to come watch us make fools of ourselves on our stage and I am more elated than I’ve ever been before a play. I breathe one heavy sigh of relief, find my starting props, and get into position with the rest of the actors.

The next few days follow predictably. The audience grows with word of mouth as well as the convenience of the weekend. The matinée is sparse; I am not disappointed. The response has already far exceeded my expectations and I am now taking that last step into the backstage with pride and satisfaction. Saturday night is the most heartwarming. Surrounding the crew of student critics attending the show, we have a nearly-packed house that gives us a very visible and rather rallying standing ovation. The critics have no choice but to be impressed. All around them are satisfied cheers and applause. This feeling, standing at the edge of the stage with the rest of the cast, is all I could ever have hoped for.

Maybe “redemption” is too strong a word, but to me, it fits.

Jake Beckhard is a student at James Madison High School.

(Editor’s Note: Cappies critic Max Kosma’s review of James Madisons’ production of Noises Off was published on November 24, 2008.)

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One Response »

  1. What a heartfelt article about high school theater and what takes place behind the scenes. It’s so easy for the audience to show up, enjoy the show, then leave not knowing everything that was done leading up to opening night. Thank you parents, teachers, theater department, publicity, technical support, sets, musicians, and actors for giving your all to support high school theater.

    Keep up the good work, Jake, with your publicity, acting, and fine writing!

    Andy Mays, Cappies Program Manager