Lonely Ghosts and Lukewarm Espresso
Any producer of commercial theater knows the dark night of the soul when a promising play founders at the box office: should he close the show and cut his losses, or stick it out in hopes of building an audience? Both The Woman in Black and Triple Espresso have experienced successful runs in other cities, and both opened earlier this fall with high hopes and decent notices, yet neither has drawn large crowds. The comedy revue Triple Espresso will drain its last cup on January 4, less than two months after it opened at the Mercury Theater. But Gitta Jacobs and Todd Schmidt, who produced The Woman in Black, are determined to hang on through the winter as they rework their marketing strategy and try to pull in new customers at the Theatre Building.
Last spring, when Jacobs and Schmidt decided to present the play, they thought it would appeal to a broad cross section of theatergoers. A story about the ghost of a woman who caused the death of a child, The Woman in Black had a nine-year track record in London, where it premiered and continues to run. And with a cast of only three, it could be a relatively inexpensive production. The two producers cut a deal to open the show in September at Peninsula Players in northern Wisconsin, where Schmidt is on staff, and then move it to the Theatre Building for a Halloween opening. That arrangement enabled them to hold their out-of-pocket production costs down to about $80,000, low for a commercial project. To conserve their marketing budget, they didn't start advertising until four weeks before the October 28 opening.
By opening night Jacobs and Schmidt had amassed a small advance ticket sale but nothing that would ensure a long run. Reviews were mixed to good, with a couple that verged on raves. The producers wasted no time putting the best review quotes into their ads. But on Thursday and Sunday nights they were lucky to fill a third of the theater's 150 seats, while on Friday and Saturday nights the show was playing to 80 or 85 percent of capacity. Flyers offering $10 discounts for Thursday and Sunday night performances were distributed in other theater lobbies and inserted into programs for other shows (including Triple Espresso), but the special discount hasn't helped appreciably. The flyers "are only accounting for about 5 percent of our total sales on those nights," says Jacobs.
Jacobs and Schmidt have listened carefully to all the feedback they're getting. The original display ad featured a close-up of actor Greg Vinkler's face contorted in agony; the producers finally conceded that this unpleasant image could have misled people who were unfamiliar with the genteel ghost story, and they dropped the close-up to emphasize the favorable blurbs. They've also hired a graphic artist to create a new icon for the show similar to the little waif used to market Les Miserables. Jacobs says the graphic should be visible in advertising within a fortnight.
Since it opened The Woman in Black has made a profit for two weeks, lost money for two more, and then broken even for another two weeks. This curve has convinced Jacobs and Schmidt that the show still has room to build, and they now plan to extend its run through early March. New marketing ploys could include radio spots and publicity stunts like having the woman in black make surprise appearances at radio stations. "I think we can get a lot of college students into the show once they come back to school after the holidays," says Schmidt.
On the other hand, no amount of caffeine will keep Triple Espresso going. A mild satire of lounge entertainers, the show came to Chicago directly from San Diego, where it had been warmly embraced and had sold out the last six weeks of a five-month run. Producer Dennis Babcock was confident that the show would find the same reception here, and like Jacobs and Schmidt he launched his first ads about a month ahead of time.
But right from the start Triple Espresso was difficult to market. It originated at a small Minneapolis theater (now defunct) rather than in New York, where media coverage might have filtered into Chicago and whetted the audience's appetite. As with The Woman in Black, the ads did little to clue people in on the show's content, except to suggest that it was fun and upbeat. But as Babcock has realized, plenty of current shows are making similar promises, including Blue Man Group and the musical Buddy...the Buddy Holly Story, which has already played Chicago on at least two previous occasions.
Triple Espresso opened November 9 at the Mercury, earning a strong review in the Tribune and kind words from other critics as well. Babcock and his marketing team tried to raise the show's visibility through a promotion with Starbucks Coffee. The show's publicist, hoping to engineer a word-of-mouth campaign, showered tickets on concierges, hairdressers, bank tellers, and synagogue groups. But nothing seemed to generate a buzz that would translate into ticket sales. Says Babcock, "We were doing 80 to 85 percent of capacity on the weekends, but midweek was killing us."
Babcock is the first to admit that he expected a longer run. But last week he looked at the numbers and decided they weren't building fast enough to justify an extension. Rather than spend more money to fight the competition and the icy winter weather, Babcock is taking Triple Espresso back to the west coast. "They were begging us to come back to San Diego," he says. "So that's what we'll do."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Todd Schmidt and Gitta Jacobs photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.