When New York theatre producer Ken Davenport decided to give virgins free tickets to the debut of his play My First Time, at New World Stages in New York, the promotion seemed logical. The play featured monologues adapted from real-life stories posted on the website MyFirstTime.com, which chronicles people's first sexual experiences. But Davenport needed a way to prove whether the audience members were virgins.
He hired "human lie detector" Sebastian Black, a certified hypnotherapist, to stand at the door and quiz attendees claiming to be virgins. Davenport tested Black's skills before setting him loose on theatregoers. Black evaluated body language, responses to questions, speech changes, and even the way theatregoers approached him. "We put about 30 [virgins] in that night [out of] the 50 people who showed up," Davenport said. "Amazing, huh?"
Not as amazing as the fact that Davenport's play -- starring Bill Dawes, Josh Heine, Kathy Searle, and Cydnee Welburn -- gained global recognition from one press release he sent to the New York Daily News, which published a story about the promotion and the play. The Associated Press picked up the story, and soon Davenport's show was featured on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC, and TMZ.com, among others. Davenport received requests to stage the show in Spain, Mexico, and Germany. "I'm shocked. I knew that there would be interest in virgins; I didn't think there would be this much," he said with a laugh.
Not His First Time
Davenport isn't the first producer to use an outrageous promotion to get butts in the seats. Broadway producer David Merrick built a career out of publicity stunts that often gained more recognition than his plays. While promoting Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), Merrick hired men who had the same names as critics that had panned the production and had the imposters give the show glowing reviews. For Look Back in Anger (1957), he employed a woman to pose as an audience member who climbed onstage and slapped one of the actors.
But in the age of television and the Internet, theatre has to find increasingly audacious ways to snag the public's attention. Los Angeles producer Lilly Thomassian's recent promotion for the Luna Playhouse production of Charles Busch's World War II spoof The Lady in Question drew controversy: Attendees who dressed as Nazis would receive $10 off the ticket price. No one came dressed thusly. Most attendees didn't know about the controversial promotion, and some who did found it offensive.
"The show, it's about Nazis and making fun of Nazis, so I didn't think it would be a controversy, actually. I thought people would understand that we're making fun of [Nazis]," Thomassian said. The show is moving to Theatre Asylum in West Hollywood, and Thomassian plans another promotion -- this time making fun of herself -- giving $10 discounts to attendees who remember what the controversy was about.
Thomassian's campaign wasn't successful like Davenport's was, but it was one of her first attempts at guerrilla marketing; Davenport is something of a veteran. When he promoted the Off-Broadway show Altar Boyz two years ago, he placed a full-page ad in Time Out magazine with a letter challenging the Backstreet Boys to a battle of the bands against the musical's cast members. "I sent them a rubber chicken when they didn't show up," Davenport said. He also had Altar Boyz endorse someone running for office -- New York gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, who ended up winning -- a first for a musical show.
With a decade of experience as a company manager and general manager for Broadway musicals such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Davenport realized early on that he needed to develop cheap, clever promotions to gain attention for his Off-Broadway shows. Without the $100,000 weekly advertising budget he had for his Broadway shows, Davenport had to be savvier in how he spent his advertising dollars.
While promoting The Awesome '80s Prom, he sent cast members -- such as Searle, who is also in First Time -- out in full character and costume, driving around New York in a limousine. For the promotion, Searle donned a taffeta gown, glasses, headgear, and pigtails and interacted in character with people on the street. "It caught people off-guard, and you want to do that," she said. "You kind of want people to go, 'Holy shit! What the fuck?' and then go, 'Oh my God, I want to be a part of it. I want to see it.' "
Aside from enabling actors like Searle to clock extra rehearsal time on the streets and participate in unexpected television interviews, guerrilla promotions can have another positive effect for cast members: When the promotion works, they get to perform to packed houses. So far, all the preview performances for My First Time have sold out at New World Stages. Additionally, successful productions can score actors roles in producers' future shows.
It also doesn't hurt to have a topic with universal appeal. "The whole mission statement of [My First Time] is to try and get people to be more comfortable about this moment in almost everyone's lives," Davenport said. "First sexual experiences are one of the few things that almost every single person on this planet has in common."
My First Time runs through Sept. 29 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., NYC. Performances are Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$99. For more information, visit www.myfirsttimetheplay.com.