This One Goes to Eleven: Ellie O’Day

Vancouver indie theatre, allow me to introduce you to Ellie O’Day, super-publicist. The reason you want to keep making money is so that you can one day hire her so you can work less and make lots ‘n lots more money. She began her career here in the ’70s as Western Canada’s first female rock and roll DJ, then started interviewing artists, then started writing for the Georgia Straight in the ’80s while also contributing to the CBC, then doing, like, a zillion other things in the arts industries here. O’Day Productions provides promotion, publicity, and consulting to the arts community, mainly in theatre, music and festivals. So until we can afford her, I thought I’d see if we can at least get some advice from her that we can use in the meanwhile. Or at least finally figure out what the difference is between marketing and publicity.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Hectic.

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

I spent 25 years working in the music industry, and in 1999 Norman Armour asked me to do publicity for Rumble Productions. “I don’t know anything about theatre publicity,” I protested to Norman. He said he knew I attended theatre, and that I’d figure it out. Norman has this way of pushing you just beyond your comfort zone.

Little did I know that I would fall in love with indie theatre, just the way I did with indie music. But what I liked even better was the team that was assembled for each production. I learned so much about theatre craft in production meetings, and met incredible people who are superb problem-solvers through creativity. So just as the music biz was going into a bit of a cyclical tail spin, I fell for theatre.

What excites me about the indie theatre scene is that each company has a “personality” and I had come into the scene at a time when many key theatre grads, instead of waiting for the phone to ring, had started their own companies. So there was amazing enthusiasm as much as there were tremendous challenges. It reminded me of the D.I.Y. scene that revived rock music in the late 70s, and I was indie-born-again!

However, the indie scene – whether you’re talking about music or theatre – really only becomes a scene when there is cooperation and collaboration. So See Seven helped to market many indie companies who didn’t have the capacity to produce a full season. And last year’s HIVE showed how indie companies could collaborate on a great project that incorporated Vancouver’s well-known site-specific theatre, while each company created a small piece of theatre. No two experiences over that weekend in November were alike. And the central “cafe” allowed patrons and participants to talk about it. Buzz buzz buzz.

3.) Why is theatre a necessary component of our culture?

As a live experience, theatre allows us to explore the human condition. But like music arrangers, directors can adapt a piece of proven theatre in a new context giving it new or refreshed meaning. It’s important for the audience to experience live performance, which grabs your attention in a different way than a recorded one. But I can also see now what the theatre process means to those who create it. The immediacy of reaction is also something that you don’t get in a recorded performance.

4.) For the neophyte companies around town, describe the role of the publicist.

All independent companies have limited budget for advertising. So publicity is the way to get notices and editorial without buying it. You are paying for someone who has relationships with the media to try to get preview articles, and to get reviewers out to the show. However, a publicist cannot ensure that seats are filled. That is a combination of marketing (which includes paid ads, posters, postcard and media sponsors), the publicity, and the success of the piece of theatre and its performance. Today, a publicist is also working with radio, TV and all kinds of electronic postings.

5.) Can you reconcile the adversarial image of the critic to theatre artists?

I once was a music critic, so I understand the critic’s role. Like many of our local theatre writers, I also considered myself to be helpful with constructive criticism. Many actors do not read their reviews, which I never encountered in the music business, but I’m quite sure all the directors and Artistic Directors do. With all the blogging and web sites today, we are seeing exposure for writers who do know theatre, but aren’t employed by mainstream media, but it also opens the door to wannabe critics. As publicist, when I assemble media reports, I try to sift through and find those with genuine comments.

6.) Any words of wisdom for zero-budget theatre crews to help get bums in their seats?

Get noticed. Use the internet. Pitch good stories to the mainstream media. Get to know the media so that you know which writer or producer would find your piece appealing.

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7.) What would you like to see more of on Vancouver stages?

In one respect, Blackbird Theatre has done it, as well as some productions by United Players at Jericho. As much as I like original work (and I have a particular fondness for staged readings of new works), I feel like a young student, still, in learning the great works that preceded us. So I’d like to see more great works on stage so that I, too, can experience them. You didn’t ask, but what I’d like to see less of is sit-com style theatre. I don’t like it on TV either.

8.) How useful is the internet becoming as an publicity tool?

It’s great, but it’s still lots of work finding the legitimate web sites. I just finished Boca Del Lupo‘s Quasimodo, and even found it mentioned in people’s personal blogs.

When I started in 1999 people would ask for big media kits and 8 x 10 glossies. I talked them into jpegs. I hardly print a thing anymore – it’s all emailed, or a link to a web site.

9.) What kind of impact will Magnetic North have on Vancouver as a theatre town?

Magnetic North will be exciting. It was already exciting that the 2006 edition was dominated by Vancouver pieces. Maybe after next June the word will finally be out across the country (and particularly in Ontario) that there IS a theatre scene in Vancouver, and it’s HOT!

10.) Can you recommend any good reading for the aspiring theatre artist?

I didn’t really study theatre, so all my theatre education has been experiential.

11.) What’s next?

Look out for the first professional production of Bent in Vancouver in 26 years. In 1981 it set records in a 4 month run here. I was so excited when Meta.for Theatre called me to work on this one, opening Oct 31. Then in November I’ll be working on Tideline, a tale of war, exile and individual discovery by Governor General’s Award winner Wajdi Mouawad, a co-production between neworld theatre and Touchstone Theatre. In December, I’ll be working on Carousel Theatre‘s month-long run of Seussical!, and then right into the PuSh Festival.

But before all that, I’m Media Director for the Vancouver International Film Festival, Sept 27 – Oct 12.

3 thoughts on “This One Goes to Eleven: Ellie O’Day

  1. “All independent companies have limited budget for advertising. So publicity is the way to get notices and editorial without buying it. You are paying for someone who has relationships with the media to try to get preview articles, and to get reviewers out to the show. However, a publicist cannot ensure that seats are filled. That is a combination of marketing (which includes paid ads, posters, postcard and media sponsors), the publicity, and the success of the piece of theatre and its performance. Today, a publicist is also working with radio, TV and all kinds of electronic postings.”

    Is there someway we can beam this set of words through the air and have it land in the heads of every working artist on earth. I think it would be a big help.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi Ellie,

    I spoke with you this morning. I just wanted to make
    sure that you had Deborah’s correct website address.
    Thank you for your time.
    Cheers,
    Colleen

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