Sunday, November 6, 2011

Managing Expectations

In our last meeting, I wrote about old theatres and how they created expectations for the audience and, because I had a limited amount of time to devote to writing that day, I teased a follow-on piece on how performers can manage the expectations of their audiences.
Promotion plays a big part in framing the audience's expectations of a performer.

Today, with access to a tidal wave of information, audience members can seek out all kinds of information about magicians including clips of their performances, appearances on TV chat shows and a career's worth of interviews.  (A search on the terms "David Copperfield, magician" yielded 738,000 hits including information on his performances at the MGM resort in Las Vegas and clips of some of his signature effects such as making the Statue of Liberty Disappear.)

A few minutes online and any audience member can have a pretty good sense of what to expect from the performer.

This new world of audience awareness offers both challenges and opportunities to the performer.  the challenge for the performer is to keep innovating:  developing new material and new presentations; the opportunity is to subvert those expectations and show the audience things they did not expect and have not seen before.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Cardini and how his act was largely decimated by a single TV appearance.  He had an act that he developed over the course of a lifetime's work and he made it as perfect as anyone could.  Those 9 minutes were how he made his living and when they were gone, once they had been "burned" by a national TV appearance, there was nothing more.  He did not have a new act.

Before electronic media and central air conditioning ruled our lives, when magicians toured every year, it was possible to see more clearly how performers built and maintained their brand with their audiences.

Successful magicians used to tour a circuit of theatres each year.  Starting in the Fall and ending just as it would get too hot to keep an audience in doors in the late Spring, magicians could be expected to make annual appearances in communities in their territories.  In so-doing they were able to develop what would now be called a fanbase.  And by having a couple of months off the road each year, they could both repair their existing equipment and also develop new material.

Each visit would bring with it the promise of a mix of new material and old favorites.

In late summer, the performer's advance men would hit the road and talk-up the performer and their "new" show.  They would check out the theatres, arrange accommodations and hire bill posters to put up the boss' latest one two and three-sheets.  And, just as the train pulled into town carrying the show, the advance man, or "ad man," would be pulling out and headed for the next tour stop.

Posters played an important role in promoting the performer's brand and also in communicating to an audience that might not have been able to read, or who did not understand English.  And it is for that reason that the posters of this period were dramatic and very representative of the expectation that the performer was hoping to create.

Here is an image of a poster used by Charles Carter.  It is typical of posters used in the first quarter of the 20th century.  It carried the performer's name and a representation of a featured illusion for that particular tour.  In this case, it was an illusion called "Carter Beats the Devil."

From about the same period, here is a poster from Howard Thurston:

The ad is almost perfect.  "Thurston," the familiar name, is shown on a horse being hoisted aloft by four guys dressed like ushers.  Even if you can't read, you know right away that this is unusual and your curiosity is piqued.  What happens next?  Why is he wearing those clothes?

And, if as would most likely be the case, these posters were all over your community, it would be almost impossible to escape this image.  Just as it is difficult to escape many television commercials these days.

Satisfying your curiosity would cost maybe twenty-five cents for a seat in "the gods."  And that, as they say, was the name of the game.

You can see many of these same practices in use today.

Here, for example, is a poster created to promote David Blaine's "Frozen in Time" special where he was encased in a block of ice for three days:
And here is a poster for David Copperfield
What is noteworthy about this 2007 poster is that it is entirely about the personality of the performer.  It is an acknowledgement that his brand is more powerful than any individual effect in his repertoire.  The poster invites the audience to surrender their evening to the artist and, in exchange, he will amaze.

It's not unlike how they advertise movies with posters featuring featuring the face of the lead actor, or, from more than a century before, when "Buffalo Bill" Cody toured with his Wild West Show:

This poster dates from about 1900--about half-way through the 30-year run of Cody's 4-hour travelling extravaganza.  For a man whose show was already a household name and whose name was already a household name, what else did he have to say?  His audience had already been trained what to expect from these shows.

* * *

The rules have not really changed when it comes to generating interest in an upcoming show or event. 

Despite the changes in media, all marketing is social.  The goal is to get the potential audience pool curious, expectant and, above all, talking. 

"I can't believe he's going to be frozen in a block of ice."  "You have to see this guy, he actually flies on stage."  "My dad took me to see this guy when I was your age...."  "I wonder if he's still doing...."  "I hear he's doing all new stuff this year...."

These are the kinds of statements that the performer wants his audience making to themselves and, most importantly, to others.  They translate into ticket sales and, once they take their seats, they make the audience more receptive to the performance.  It's more nuanced than this, but a successful campaign is a way of pre-qualifying the audience:  if they are drawn in by the promotion, they will already have met the performer more than half-way.

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