Podcast Episode 66 Transcript – Adrian Bryan-Brown
Ken: Hey, everybody. Don’t forget – this Wednesday, a special webinar, “How to Sell Tickets With Social Media,” it can be done! And don’t forget, you can get this webinar for free when you join TheProducersPerspectivePro.com. Now, on with the podcast!
Ken: Hello, everyone. It’s time for another Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport. My guest today is one of those folks in the biz who usually arranges interviews instead of being interviewed. He’s one of the few, the proud, one of the most powerful press agents on Broadway. Welcome, press agent Adrian Bryan-Brown. Welcome, Adrian.
Adrian: Thank you, Ken.
Ken: Adrian, along with his partner Chris Boneau, runs Boneau/Bryan-Brown, and I won’t list off all their credits because we would be here until 2087. Just a few – this season’s Waitress, upcoming Paramour, my Spring Awakening, as well as Something Rotten, The Audience, Motown, Curious Incident and so on and so on. Go to PlaybillVault.com to check them all out. Last year Adrian won the Tony award for Excellence in Theatre, which was mind blowing to me because he’s probably going to work in the business for another 40 or 50 years. So, Adrian, let’s start with this – I want you to imagine you’re in North Dakota. Have you ever been to North Dakota?
Adrian: I have been to North Dakota. It is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Great theatre town.
Ken: I’ve played North Dakota – Grand Forks. You’re at a bar in North Dakota and you’re sitting next to someone who has never seen a Broadway show before and they say “Hey, you there with the accent, what do you do for a living?”
Adrian: “Have you ever heard of this thing called Hamilton?”
Ken: Ah, I get it now.
Adrian: That’s always a way in. We’re storytellers. I’m from a grand tradition of Broadway storytellers and you have the most magnificent stories being told on Broadway and I’ve been lucky enough to be someone who tells that story. So what is that story, what is this thing? Broadway is this unbelievable communal gathering of completely disparate people, hopefully, who have come together to do something as old as time – tell a story – and my role is to share that and to take that two hour, two and a half hour, show and tell the world about it, and so here in North Dakota you may not have heard about it but you’ve been to a movie and this is like that only much better, you’ve watched television, it’s like that, slightly better, because TV is so good, but that’s what I do. I go out and I bang the drum to tell people about this thing called Broadway.
Ken: So how did you get into this storytelling business of yours?
Adrian: How did I get into the storytelling business? Well I got a degree in biology, which I think was very important, from the University of London, in a college called Royal Holloway in Egham, Surrey. Egham is on the flight path over Heathrow and that’s one of the most distinguishing features of it.
Ken: One podcast listener just went “Whoo-hoo!”
Adrian: Yeah, “Egham! Egham!” So I’m very fortunate in that I’ve grown up in London and New York – my folks came over to New York when I was very young, so I was sent to school in England but came here, and I was kind of spoiled rotten. I was sent to a lot of theatre and took myself to a lot of theatre in both New York and London but I decided, or my folks decided, get a degree in something sensible before you have any idea of working in show business, and so of course I said, “I love biology, it’s the most artistic of the sciences,” he said pretentiously, and I then said, “Okay, I want to go to UCLA film school now and I want to make movies.” It was the summer of Star Wars and I thought “I am the next George Lucas.” I went there for a summer and I didn’t like LA. To all you people out there – I now love LA, I was very young, I didn’t get it. So I went to film school for a bit and then I came back to New York and I became an expert at making the Carvel Cookie Puss – Carvel ice cream, one of their great cakes was the Cookie Puss, I made a brilliant one, and after a couple of months of that I thought “There’s more to life than making ice cream sandwiches,” and I was introduced to a woman called Susan Block who was a press agent who had worked at Lincoln Center and I just went there part time to see what it was and after about three weeks I realized “This is really cool.” Again, this is storytelling. I call up a journalist or I send a press release to a journalist saying “This thing is happening, this event is happening, this show is happening,” and occasionally it appears in the paper. You think “Wow, I’ve now gone from this little story that was just me telling this journalist to several hundred thousand people who might actually see this story.” And so there was the gratification and the sort of ego reward, if you like, of “Oh, I can sell this,” and you’re selling an idea and you’re selling a happy idea, so that was very seductive. I also analyzed that point a little bit later that I had always been someone who watched how press and media works – as a kid I was obsessed with the space program and I used to clip newspapers – whenever I saw an article about the space program I would clip it. There were certain movies that I liked or movie directors that I liked, even as an early teenager, and I would clip those reviews and follow the path of careers. So I guess, looking back, I was destined to be someone who’s obsessive about that storytelling and gathering the information, the idea that other people should know about this too and I could be instrumental in helping them do that.
Ken: What do you think makes a great press agent? Is it contact to reviewers? What are the characteristics?
Adrian: The ones that I always admire are people who can see, in the most ordinary looking thing, something that is exciting that can connect with the zeitgeist – horrible word, but can connect with the current mood. It could be a Strindberg play but maybe there’s something about the way it’s designed, directed, acted that relates to Donald Trump’s campaign. What can you see in a project that may just look, there’s nothing like an ordinary play, but just like a traditional play that makes it resonate? Maybe it’s an extraordinary performance that’s truly not just hyperbole but really is a great performance. Maybe it is the design, maybe it is the way the director staged it, so who can find those stories and get them to the right people to amplify it. Also what I learned from Lee Salters, who is an all-time great, was that the story is never over – so you do a photo opportunity about the Ringling Barnum elephants coming to town and that’s great, you get pictures in the paper of the elephants coming to town, everyone loves that shot of them coming through the town, but then the good press agent also does a story about how the elephant poo is used in C. Z. Guest’s garden to grow roses and these are stunning, prize-winning roses that need the poop from the elephants that are coming through the tunnel, and then you complete the story by placing somewhere else that these roses are then used to decorate the opening night party. So it’s squeezing every possible opportunity, finding every area, and I think that’s what creative press agents do. You don’t fabricate it, you find what’s interesting, you distill it, and they cut through the noise we all face to point out the three reasons why this is interesting, and they help people do that. So you tell more story and that’s what my heroes’ do that do this business.
Ken: I’ll just tell everyone about how you did exactly that on Spring Awakening. I called you, I remember, saying, “Hey, I’m doing Deaf West’s Spring Awakening on Broadway and I want you to do it.” And it’s like you immediately clicked into the angle. I remember you saying, “Ken, this is the way of diversity on Broadway and this will fit right into this story.” It was just like you saw that angle very quickly. Is there something you do in your office, do you have a process, like “Okay, how are we going to figure out the angle on this Strindberg play?”
Adrian: We do, we meet a lot, but it’s also, because we set up teams in the office, you can right that sometimes you can get in a rut, you can find “We’ve really thought this out.” So we will have breakout where we’ll have the whole office talk about, I don’t want to say problem, “Here’s a challenge – we’ve hit a dead end with these story ideas, what can you think of?” I’m a firm believer, too, in that three things makes a trend, so if you can find three other shows or three other creative people who have the same story, can you package that, can you present it to someone? I think it’s very healthy, when we’re in an environment of about 15 people, to have that, especially if you’re fortunate enough to be working on long-running shows, you kind of want to be stimulated to help find those ideas and to keep it fresh. The news cycle now is minutes. In ye-olde days when I started you could place a story in a newspaper and you’d see a ripple effect for several days. Now an item runs online and I think you may see a blip in sales then but that item is old news in minutes. So we have to keep reinventing and retelling. You can’t coast on anything anymore. So if that extraordinary piece runs on 60 Minutes you know you’re going to sell a lot of tickets the next few days but you want that to have a longer impact so you repurpose it, you send it out through social media, you send it to people who, God forbid, were away when the show opened and don’t know about it. So a lot of the discussions we have are not only how do you get and find and sell different angles, but how do you amplify them? And it goes back to the elephant poop – the one story is great but who can do something with it? How can that be used to get another story or a follow up? So, yes, that’s how we work internally – we start as a small group, people working on a show, but there’s the resources of a whole load of people who may just say, “Oh, I hear so-and-so is doing a roundup on something,” and it needs that because otherwise you become very isolated.
Ken: You mentioned a couple of things that are new to the press world today – social media and news by the minute. What are some other examples of how press has changed since you began, for the better or for worse?
Adrian: To sound like a really old fart, it really was about, each Broadway opening, they got an advance feature in the New York Times and there were six local TV critics on opening night – at 11:15 you could be on the dial, going click, click, click, click, click, watching the different reviews run, sometimes over each other, but that was the medium. Print was all important and TV was this kind of useful place that no one was really sure about. Now clearly print has now become completely shattered and we’re in a world where we had to evaluate every opportunity in a different way because just getting a story now is kind of irrelevant, it’s what the story is and where it is and how it plays. So if Perez Hilton, who’s a pop commentator, goes crazy about something and that’s shared by a lot of people, that may have more influence than a rather stodgy review of a playwright in the New York Times, quite frankly, and we don’t know, because that changes daily, what is the most important thing? So I think how it’s changed is there is no formula anymore, we have to evaluate every opportunity and every time we go to EW.com or Elle.com we need to think about how many people it’s reaching, what the message will me, will it lift it, will it separate it from other shows in the street, because we are competitive, not just with all entertainment but with other shows, and I think that is the major change. I don’t know if there was ever a real formula but there’s no structure, you have to keep reinventing what the campaign is and it makes it way more interesting but it’s also way more unpredictable. I think we see, certainly with advertising, that we have no idea now what is effective advertising. We know we need to do it, we need to buy space in certain places, we do see direct response from certain direct mail, from email blasts – you categorize that in the advertising – but you can’t be certain of anything. So I think what we’re finding is we are being more efficient about reaching the right people but the messaging, we have to have more layers of it because the one ad in the Times is not going to do it, the one direct mail piece is not going to do it, and I think there was a time when you could certainly launch that way, you could say “We’ll take a Times ad, we’ll do a direct mail piece, there will be a certain amount of editorial but we’ll get a launch and we’ll see what we have.” You can’t do that anymore, you have to go on so many levels, and maybe as a result we have refined the audience too much, we’ve shut out a lot of “maybes” because we’re not bothering to address them because we can’t afford to, if that makes sense.
Ken: What do you think press will look like in ten to twenty years from now?
Adrian: I think the editorial is becoming greyer and greyer, by which I mean if you look at a lot of places that the fans go to, they are ticket brokers or they are ticket sellers directly. You could argue the New York Times has always been a ticket seller but what I mean is Broadway.com sells tickets, Playbill.com has a mailing list that sells tickets, so I think we’re going to see more of that, I think we’re going to see less traditional print interviews and the sites that represent those, so say TheNewYorkTimes.com is still going to carry the same content but it’s going to feel more sales-driven. I think eventually press will become indistinguishable from social media. I mean right now I think we still have the primary responsibility for coming up with those stories and then selling that and social media is an adjunct to that, in that it shares them, and the way I think the press agent’s role is going to change more is we are going to be seeing not just the people who are sharing and making the stories but also coaching everyone involved, because now everyone individual that is part of a Broadway show is a spokesperson, and in uncontrollable ways, so I think our role is going to become much more not just the cheerleader but also the coach and the positioning leader so that everyone is speaking not with one voice but with the right voice about the production and I think what’s really interesting is seeing how that has evolved to certain Broadway actors or other players who have huge followings on social networks and how their message can really help their show or hurt their show.
Ken: I’ve never thought about that before. Normally you have to give one actor, your star, or a couple some media training. Now you have to think about the entire cast, every single chorus boy, and make sure they’re all on point and on message and not saying anything that could be interpreted the wrong way.
Adrian: And some are great at social media, some really have great intuition about it and are fun with it and clever with it, and also what’s kind of nice is that a lot of them are champions for Broadway as a whole, so it’s not just prophesizing about your particular show, and that is a healthy reminder for us all. My job is to sell my show; it’s very secondary to sell Broadway, because that’s the job that pays me and, as much as I love all Broadway, that’s not the point. But I think that someone that’s in a show, it’s very healthy for them to say, “I just saw Mormon last night, I thought it was brilliant.” I think that’s a very good, synergistic, healthy thing to do.
Ken: I would do that.
Adrian: Well I will with Mormon but I’m not going to sell someone else’s show, particularly.
Ken: What about reviews? Do they matter as much today as they did yesterday?
Adrian: It’s interesting, if you look at this weeks’ grosses, the play with the smallest gross got a really nice review from Ben Brantley a couple of weeks ago. The musical with the lowest gross got a very nice review from Charles Isherwood last week. Now, you can also say that there are also shows like Beautiful, which I adore, which didn’t get a very good review from the Times but is in the top ten doing incredibly well. I think yes, they matter like crazy, because they are telling people the show is here, they’re like a trigger point, it’s fair game, they’re open, it’s no longer this thing in development, it’s born, but at the same time I think it’s becoming rarer and rarer that a review makes a hit. I think they help make a hit and I also think bad shows that get bad reviews will close. Good shows that get bad reviews might actually make it. You’ve got to remember it’s about taste. I think more and more it’s become politicized. I think the days of Frank Rich it was certainly quite political but it was also matching, very much, the zeitgeist of what was being produced at the time. He wrote with opinion and sometimes you felt like he was pushing an agenda but, at the same time, I don’t think he ever killed a really good show. He might have made it less successful. Anyway, so I’m often known to say I think critics will always matter because they are an important part of the conversations but I think the idea that it’s going to be a bloodbath because all the critics didn’t like it tends to happen to bad shows.
Ken: I agree. We focus on it so much. Even people like me – I’ve waited in the back room, pacing, and yet I know, I know, that Wicked didn’t get the strongest review, I know this stuff, but still, there’s just something about it.
Adrian: It’s personal, it’s very personal.
Ken: “Like me! Please, like me!”
Adrian: Yeah, it’s like “Come on, guys!” It’s just as hard to put on a bad show as it is to put on a good show. It’s like “Come on!”
Ken: Do you read the chat boards?
Adrian: I do but you know, anyone reading them, you know what a plant is, you know what a thing is. It’s funny, something happened this week with Broadway World which was very interesting, the idea that an actor says, “You know what, this is really wrong and unkind,” and expressed in a very eloquent and not whining way that “This is unnecessarily vicious,” and Broadway World accepted that, that, okay, the chat rooms should be put in a place where they are exactly that and not part of the news content and I think that’s great, but I also think that the age of the chat room is passed because everyone can comment. It used to be that Talking Broadway was a place where you went because you couldn’t read someone’s blog and I think certain people are very outspoken in a responsible way because they’re identified but I think people will express their opinions there and I think the chat room and hiding behind that is now seen for what it is, which is, again, just to manipulate some agenda.
Ken: For those of you who didn’t hear about the Broadway World scandal of last week – we’ll call it that just because it sounds sexy – but Broadway actress Patti Murin wrote a wonderful blog – she has a blog, go check it out – where she talks about the chat boards and just them getting a little nasty, unnecessarily so.
Adrian: It’s really bitchy and I’m afraid, because I do check them out too much, I totally negate the extremes. You figure “Okay, these are just people who are out for something.”
Ken: Olympic scoring on the chat boards.
Adrian: That’s right, totally!
Ken: The highest and the lowest go out. I look at them from time to time.
Adrian: From my point of view what is important is that all writers, reporters and critics read them too, so there is an expectation that, no matter how detached they say they are, to check something out. It taints the agenda.
Ken: Do you know how many shows you’ve worked on in your career? Do you know the number?
Adrian: I believe it’s more than two hundred.
Ken: More than two hundred. So you’ve worked with a lot of different producers during that time.
Adrian: I have worked with a lot of different producers.
Ken: Who’s your favorite?
Adrian: I couldn’t answer that question.
Adrian: They’re all my favorite. Ken, come on, it’s you.
Ken: Of course, that’s what I wanted.
Adrian: I had a brain fart, sorry. Ken, how could you ask me that?
Ken: Exactly. What characteristics make up some of your favorite producers? From your handful of favorites, what are they?
Adrian: The ones that get it when you say, “I’m sorry, we’re not going to do a story.” Those are my favorite. I have such love and admiration for the profession because you are slapped and pushed and beaten at every turn and I think there’s a necessary blind passion that has to happen in the producer. I like to work on projects because I like the producer. I can’t always like their taste or like their show, that’s the reality of it, and that’s not to say I will just work on anything, but if a producer is really passionate about it, has the money, wants to do it, wants to get it on, believes in it, has stuck with it for twenty years, or less, but is just committed, how can you not say “I want to help you in any way I can?” So I think it’s people who haven’t just bought a title or something but have really found it and say “I really want to spend the next five years of my life making this love.” That’s it, people that say “This matters so much. It’s not that I’m going to be a complete asshole and make everyone miserable but I am going to do anything I can to get an audience to come and see this,” and that’s that characteristic, that passion, that I, again, I admit, I can’t necessarily share with what they’re producing but I can share their enthusiasm.
Ken: What’s the biggest mistake that you think producers make when they think about press?
Adrian: This is hard. I think it’s, as we mentioned earlier, it’s very personal. When someone says something negative about your show it’s very personal and I think it’s not the biggest mistake but I think the biggest misunderstanding is how you’re doing the best you can, you are making a very important piece of work but that will not necessarily be respected by everyone and so someone may make a shitty, offhand comment and that hurts because they don’t have the background, they’re just being lazy, but to try not to let it get to you. Getting really wound up, like when Riedel writes a crappy column, it’s horrible and what’s normally hurtful is there’s probably a gem of truth in it, it’s just the way he’s written it is so destructive and you feel like shit, you just feel awful, and so what I would like to say, it’s not a mistake but what I’d like to impart to a producer is don’t take it personally. Please, write him a hate mail or phone him up and call him bad names, but don’t think you’ve done something wrong, you haven’t done anything wrong, this is just someone who’s trying to write some copy to sell a newspaper. We all love Michael, that’s what he does, but I think the biggest thing is, and it sounds so ridiculous, it’s very personal but don’t take it personally.
Ken: This is a business that has, in many of its professions, just a small group of people provide it. So advertising agencies – three of them handle pretty much all of Broadway. Press agents, same thing. Invariably you’re going to end up with conflicts, you’re going to end up representing shows that are competing for the same Tony award, perhaps, or two plays that may have a similar audience. This has happened to you, I assume.
Adrian: It has. It’s amazing, though, how rarely there’s ever been a moment of having to make Sophie’s Choice because they’re either on slightly different trajectories, they’re in different areas, one might be a musical revival, one might be a musical, but no two shows are the same and I think that’s part of what we do. If we’re doing it well, we exploit those areas that make it different, that make it special, that make it unique. I’m sure it’s been perceived as such but I’ve never had a moment where I’ve thought “Holy shit, I can’t do that because of this one.” It’s never really happened. Even if we have had, let’s say, two plays in the same category or whatever, it’s not like one has been short changed and I’d like to believe that we’ve done as good a job as someone who didn’t have that perceived conflict by selling a story.
Ken: Is there a piece of press in your career that you’re most proud of? One article or television appearance or something? What’s the one thing?
Adrian: Part of the survival technique is to try to eradicate the bad stuff. Unfortunately, what happens along the way is you forget a lot of the good stuff too. I just love the really silly things, like I’ll never forget when the Little Theatre was being renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre, because they had knocked down poor old Helen Hayes’ big theatre so the Little Theatre was being renamed and we organized an event where we were going to put her feet in cement outside like Grauman’s Chinese, so we had this block of cement and Helen Hayes came along and she trod in it and everything but it was separate so you could lift it off so that it would go dry and it was going to be put in the sidewalk later. So we do it, it’s really funny, she’s really sweet, saying, “I’ve been wanting to get rid of these shoes for years.” We had a great time. Anyway, we looked around afterwards and the cement block had disappeared. We thought “Oh my God, someone’s stolen it.” And then I thought, “Oh my God! Someone’s stolen it!” And we got stories in Time Magazine and News Week about how the block of cement with Helen Hayes’ feet in it had been stolen. Actually, one of the porters had put it downstairs somewhere and hidden it to make sure it dried okay without being interfered with but we didn’t realize that until later. So we got the news weeklies, we got big stories about “Who stole Helen Hayes’ feet?” Okay, that didn’t sell any tickets or anything but that was fun, that was one of the fun things you remember. So, yes, I’m sure there were certain Guys and Dolls stuff, like hour-long TV specials and things that just worked so beautifully on live television, if you can believe it, but it’s the fun stuff you remember.
Ken: If a producer came to you and said “Look, I’m doing a very small show, off-off-Broadway, I’ve got no stars, it’s a new play, I’ve got nothing, there’s really nothing I can give you to sell this show.”
Adrian: I’d say, “Can you pay $5,000 a week?”
Ken: “I can’t do that, I can’t even pay my rent.”
Adrian: Then why on Earth would I go near you?!
Ken: What kind of advice would you give to someone that needs to get some attention for their show but doesn’t have a lot of assets?
Adrian: Unfortunately it is so driven by what those assets are. If it is an unbelievably great new script with actors you haven’t heard of by a budding new director but it’s someone like me, I can call in favors and I say “Please give up 90 minutes of your life, you have to go see this,” but I would say to someone who doesn’t know anybody “It’s really impossible and let’s not pretend.” I think you need to get into a playwright festival, you need to be part of one of those festivals to at least be considered in that mix and then hopefully you can beg a couple of intelligent bloggers to come along and start the ball rolling that way, but I think there is no sort of silver bullet to say, “If you do this, you will get this.” The competition is just way too much. It’s like an actor that wants to work on Broadway – I think just get out there and audition. But not to be flip, I do think you can help yourself by doing what I say we do all the time, which is “What is your story?” Why should someone not stay home and watch Kevin Spacey on TV and come and see your thing? It might not change your life but why are they going to feel that they’ve invested their time? Because we’ve now determined that money is not the main thing, it’s people’s time that matters. Why should they give up their time? You can’t just use hyperbole, you have to connect in some way, you have to connect to what is happening now, how this relates to something that’s happening, how does it relate to Star Wars, how does it relate to Donald Trump? Why is it of the moment? Why should someone do this? So I think getting to be part of a festival is certainly, I’d say, a way to do it, because at least then you have a shot of having people who are looking for that.
Ken: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the festival circuit for emerging artists myself.
Adrian: Yeah, and, again, I don’t want to sound glib about it but I think finding enough money to just get it on off-Broadway, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Ken: Okay, Adrian, my last question – I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin appears and says to you, “I know you got a Tony award last year but I’m going to go one better for you and I’m going to grant you one wish.” What is the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you mad, that makes you so angry, that keeps you up at night, “Ugh, if I could only change this!” What’s the one thing that you’d have this genie change with the snap of a finger?
Adrian: It’s so complicated. It all comes down to I want more people to see the shows, so what can we do? Whether it’s ticketing, schedule, education, access – we haven’t talked about diversity, which is so important now, and rightfully – so how can we make this more audience friendly without patronizing the audience and without lying to the audience? What are the things we can do? I guess I’d like the genie to make everyone think “Wow, I really want to go and see a show because it makes me feel good and it also makes me think I spent my time wisely.” That’s a terribly evasive answer but there is no one thing. Ticketing is a ridiculous problem, real estate is a ridiculous problem, performance schedules are a ridiculous problem. There are many things. Challenge – sorry, not problem, challenge. But it ultimately comes down to how can I get as wide a number of people of different cultures, backgrounds and experience wanting to come to Broadway? And I want the genie to tell all that that’s all they want to do. That’s it.
Ken: All day long.
Adrian: All day long.
Ken: I want to thank you so much for doing this and for everything that you do for the theatre and for having the best accent on Broadway as well.
Adrian: Can you believe he’s lived here 50 years and he sounds like this?
Ken: It’s an act.
Adrian: It’s an act!
Ken: Big thanks to Adrian and to all of you for listening. Thanks so much. Bye, bye!
Ken: Don’t forget – Wednesday night, seven o’clock eastern time – How to Sell Tickets with Social Media. Check out the blog for more info or sign up for free at TheProducersPerspectivePro.com.