How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Indeed, how do you solve the problem of selling Maria and Broadway musicals from the 1950s and ’60s, not to mention 400-year-old plays that may or may not have been written by William Shakespeare to an audience that’s not yet throwing down shots of Metamucil with its morning Cheerios?
How do you attract the lower-alphabet generations who have grown up on interactive entertainment revolving around stealing cars, mayhem and carnage with a sweet, charming show that can offer only the simplistic evil of Nazi Germany and World War II?
I guess the hills need to be alive with the sounds of squealing tires and automatic weapons, not just music anymore, like in the boffo box office hit, “The Sound of Music,” wherein Maria continues to drive the nuns nuts and delight audiences.
That show and The Great White Way hooked me at the tender age of 16, back when I was still playing football and wearing lots of Brut cologne (like Joe Namath), and defying all expectations of who should and who should not be smitten with the roar of greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
And you don’t have to know the difference between a heel turn, open turn or U-turn to appreciate the great energy and excitement of a high-octane, effervescent chorus line, kicking up dust in front of footlights and sending shivers of exhilaration down your spine. Like I get every summer at my favorite local theaters.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and Muhlenberg Summer Music Theater are staples of my summer regimen of leisure and escapism. They are charmed places where I can lose myself in a world of hope and promise: the hope of all the young and not-so-young-anymore aspiring actors, and the promise of a delightful journey through the spectacle and pageantry of an enchanted evening.
Additionally, I always get a wonderfully secure feeling of my own eternal youthfulness, being surrounded by audiences that voted for Dewey to upset that progressive rascal from Missouri (Truman, for those of you historically challenged). In other words, old people (which is defined as anybody older than me).
And that’s the challenge these organizations, and numerous more across the country, face every year: How do you sell timeless, grand performances to a more youthful, active demographic?
I recently attended a Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of “Oklahoma,” and after the show, the cast came back onstage in street clothes and sat around the set answering questions from the audience.
Not only was it fun to see and hear the actors out of character, it also put the entire experience on a much more personal level (and in our world of Honey Boo Boo, where reality is only a prefabbed set-up away, we on the younger, hipper side of the great mandala, do like our spontaneity).
The experience was enjoyable and effective, and I’m sure it will help attract audiences who have been conditioned to react positively to total self-involvement.
After all, we are “Where the Action Is” aren’t we? (And if you remember that TV gem, you are definitely summer stock material.)
That got me thinking about how we’re systematically removing that positive experience of individual contact from the world of sales. As we progress down the digital lane of supreme alienation, we move further and further away from the human touch that nurtures and supports us through the rough ride toward laxative-enriched breakfasts, and leaves us out there alone, blowing in the wind, nurtureless and support-deprived.
Imagine how our customers feel, relegated to faxes, emails, texts and contacts through various social and business sites.
I know some clients may prefer it that way, but, still, the message they get is that they are not very important to us.
They’re cast in the position of buyer and driver of the process, as you relinquish your role as seller and become an order taker, a redundant component to an electronic persona where they can just as easily (maybe even more easily) place the order.
I can’t blame all this on technology.
Years ago, I was working for a large media company on Madison Avenue in New York City. Our company was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and we had one advertising buying agency that produced about 10 percent of those billings – they were our biggest customer, by far.
A problem arose, and the CEO and senior vice president of sales decided to call on them. The execs rode the elevator down from our 35th floor offices and hailed a cab, climbed into the back seat and sat there staring at each other. Neither of them knew the client’s downtown address.
Two of the highest-ranking officers in the company didn’t know the address of our largest client, a client spending tens of millions of dollars.
Oh, brother. Talk about ivory tower management!
Then there was the great United Airlines commercial from 1990, where the CEO calls a meeting to tell his staff that they just lost their oldest customer because the customer felt like the company had lost touch with him; nobody had been out to see him in a long time.
The CEO says, “We used to do business with a handshake, face to face. Now it’s a phone call and a fax.”
And the net result is lost opportunities, lost sales. Customers want to feel like they’re important to you, and that’s hard, nearly impossible to do over the phone or through cyberspace.
Like the impromptu session with the cast of “Oklahoma” where I felt important and included, treat your customers like they’re precious and valuable, and they’ll return the favor in more tangible expressions.
Like I will for my favorite theaters and Maria, with whom I have much in common. As they sing, “She’s always late for everything except for every meal.”
And, of course, we’re both “A flibbertigibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!”