Yes, you can call it a cock and bull story.
At Studio Theatre, a play with a title so controversial that it could not be said on public radio airwaves went from attracting smallish crowds in its first week to selling out and extending its run.
“Cock” closes Sunday after what the theater can now call a successful 61 / 2-week showing. But back in early May, producing this sexually-charged dark comedy by a British playwright looked like a risky endeavor.
“With some shows, pre-sales are strong, and with some shows, pre-sales are not,” said David Muse, Studio’s artistic director. “This was one of the latter.”
Marketing the play hit a few snags. Studio bought radio spots on WAMU-FM, but the public radio station decided those promotions should “not include the title of the play as a matter of sensitivity to our audience,” a WAMU spokeswoman said. The ads promoted “Mike Bartlett’s play” and then summarized the plot: A guy thinks he’s met the girl he’s been waiting for, and then he has to go and tell his boyfriend about her.
Mike Bartlett’s first professional production was only in 2007, and in England he may be better known as a television writer. People who heard the WAMU ads had to go research his play on their own. And it appears they did. Studio’s staff tracked Internet metrics, and was able to see that many people who were visiting Studio’s “Cock” Web page were not actually buying tickets.
“I do think it was one of those plays where people needed some kind of reassurance that this was something they could go check out,” Muse said. “One factor won’t do it.”
“Cock” receive multiple rave reviews. But Muse theorizes this show required more than a critic’s recommendation.
“It’s a word-of-mouth play,” Muse said. “Word-of-mouth is the hardest thing to track of all.”
An identical slow-ticket-sale phenomenon afflicted a spring production of “Cock” by Toronto’s Studio 180 Theatre, even though in Canada, the marketing and media coverage was censorship-free. Studio 180 struggled to fill its 180-seat theater for about a week and a half. “But by the end of the run, it was selling out,” said John Karastamatis, communications director for Mirvish Productions, which promoted the show. He blames the name for the slow start.
“It sounded like the title of a Fringe show. You know, when there are 100 plays and you pick the one with the most outrageous title,” he said. But beyond Fringe, selling tickets to plays with profane names is much thornier, and both theaters avoided targeted marketing to the LGBT community because the relationships in the play are much more nuanced then its title suggests: “You didn’t want people coming to it like it was gay porn,” Karastamatis said.
It’s possible that Bartlett has learned that pragmatic titles are sometimes more beneficial to provocative ones. His newest play, which is expected to be a hit on London’s West End this fall, is a comedy in verse about what will happen to the British monarchy once Queen Elizabeth II passes.
“It’s called ‘Charles III,’ ” Karastamatis said. “Now that is a good title.”
Shakespeare Theatre Company is replacing 20th-century playwright Luigi Pirandello’s “Enrico IV” with David Greig’s “Dunsinane,” a contemporary sequel to “Macbeth,” presented by the National Theatre of Scotland. This will be the fourth visit from the Scottish troupe in as many years. In 2011 and 2012, the company brought its unparalleled Afghanistan war play “Black Watch” to Washington. Over the holidays in 2012, the theater returned with Greig’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a play performed at the Bier Baron Tavern in Dupont Circle.
In a press release, the theater said it chose to drop “Enrico IV,” which artistic director Michael Kahn planned to direct himself, because of the limited window of opportunity to host “Dunsinane.”
International tours have become increasingly vital to STC’s programming. This past season’s offerings included the inventive “Brief Encounter” from England’s Kneehigh Theatre and a searing production of “Mies Julie” brought to North America by South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre. Also on Monday, Shakespeare announced that its 2014-2015 season will include another South African troupe. The season will open in September with Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble performing two shows in repertory: an adaptation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” and Shakespeare’s epic love poem, “Venus and Adonis.”
More than 75 members of the Washington theater community gathered at Arena Stage Monday night to remember Jerry Manning, who died April 30 of complications from surgery to repair a congenital heart defect. Manning had served as artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre since 2010 and worked in other capacities at the theater since 2000. Earlier in his career, Manning spent 11 years at Arena Stage. As casting director, he helped launch the careers of many actors who are still working in the D.C. area, including Sarah Marshall and Jennifer Mendenhall, who attended the memorial, and Nancy Robinette, who spoke.
“There was something really extraordinary about the event,” said Gary Phillips, who organized the memorial. “Jerry has not lived in D.C. for 18 years. Yet so many people made it a point to attend and spoke so passionately about him.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.