Editor's Note: This is the first in a series TheaterJones is planning on interviews with women in the local theater scene: directors, actors, designers and others. For our first one, on the first day of Women's History Month, we chat with Bren Rapp of Fun House Theatre and Film about her secrets to successfully marketing the story of a theater company. Rapp, who has a history in sports marketing, is also director of marketing and sales for TheaterJones.
Dallas — In the conversation about women in theater who are not necessarily at the forefront, industry insiders have known for years about the impact Bren Rapp was having behind the scenes of North Texas theater. While much of the arts public may know her name and the name of her theater company, Fun House Theatre and Film, very little discussion has been had about her or her expertise—by her own design.
Prior to her work in the arts here in Dallas, Bren Rapp was an entertainment and high revenue sports marketing specialist. She has more than a decade and a half of experience creating, developing and marketing entertainment ventures including work on major motion pictures, national television, direct-to-DVD and pay-per-view events as well as work representing some of the biggest brands in the NFL and NBA, league wide work and most notably work with high profile athletes on projects for sports marketing pioneer and heavy hitter J.B. Bernstein, the creator and subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm.
Since 2011, she has received critical acclaim and awards for her work as an executive producer and producer of Fun House’s productions, and for her collaborative original works created with Jeff Swearingen. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from, and studied theater at, the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. She has studied the Stanislavsky System and American Method Acting extensively at many institutions. In her youth and throughout her early 20s, Rapp performed in several theatrical productions, appeared in national series television, local and national commercials and worked as a professional print model.
It’s no wonder that we brought her on as part of the TheaterJones team to be our director of marketing and advertising sales.
We asked a few people in the theater and journalism worlds who have worked with Rapp about her skills. A few samples:
“Bren has the ability to find the angle immediately. You can be discussing a potential creative project in its infancy with her, or a production that is underway and she will automatically have it packaged up marketing wise, decipher instantly what the sales angle is and also be able to suggest what production values fit into that vision as a producer. It is just how she views things.”
— Andy Baldwin, a former local actor and director now based in New York, and Vice President of Production and Development for Fun House Theatre and Film
"When I got a story pitch from Bren, I knew that she knew what kind of stories I liked to write. So I wrote about Fun House a lot for the Dallas Observer. It's so rare for someone in theater marketing to actually know and understand what individual journalists do. Bren always does.”
— Elaine Liner, former Dallas Observer theater critic
"Bren Rapp is a force of nature. It is impressive how many plates Bren can keep spinning at once. The mark of a true multi-tasker and an on-point producer. However, beyond the nuts and bolts of producing, Bren also has a wonderful artistic aesthetic that lends itself to a thoughtful and insightful collaboration with the artistic end of the process.”
— Susan Sargeant, producing artistic director of WingSpan Theatre Company
On the brink of Rapp’s 46th birthday—a fact she is not shy about admitting—and Fun House's sixth year, I caught up with Rapp to talk about defying more than just age, but convention, as well as success and what is possible, especially when it comes to marketing the arts—which can benefit us all.
TheaterJones: It is fairly well known that Jeff Swearingen was resistant when you first proposed starting Fun House and that you convinced him. You also convinced Plano Children’s Theatre at the time to give you a permanent home, and recently Dallas Children’s Theater’s Academy to partner with you. What is your approach to a making a deal?
Bren Rapp: I have one philosophy I abide by always and that is the worst someone can do is say “no,” so why not ask? On top of that, I learned from my time with J.B. Bernstein that if the answer is “no,” it really is “not yet.” You haven’t told your story well enough yet. I think the key to telling that story well, in a way to get the answer you want, is to be able to figure out why it is relevant to the person you are telling it to. Once you figure that out, the conversation quickly goes from “if” to “how."
Why do you think you are so highly regarded when it comes to your work in marketing theater?
I think coming out of the gate, my approach was different than what most people in the industry were used to in that it was complete. There was really nothing haphazard in building Fun House’s brand. It was a well-thought-out approach that went beyond a particular offering. I don’t know if many small theater companies do much but bounce from pushing one show to the next and I think that’s a mistake. My goal and my plan from day one was to sell our story. Even in the course of filling seats to shows. That raised eyebrows and got attention. Selling your story, not your product, is what creates true brand affinity.
My approach is also a bit more aggressive, for lack of a better word, or maybe more confident. Having come primarily from the sports world, nothing is subjective like it is in the arts. You win or you lose, period. If you lose, you still have to get up the next day and keep your business going and the revenue flowing. You have to know how to do that. If you win you have to realize the opportunities to cash in on it and do it while the window to do so is there.
Having come from outside the arts community, what are your thoughts on how others are marketing their offerings?
I think a lot of artists operate under the misconception that being able to effectively “sell” what they are dong runs counter to artistic integrity. That makes no sense to me. The whole point is to have someone see it, right? I think bigger companies are somewhat trapped in their old models of doing things. I think they spend their budgets as they always have, not really thinking about how the needs of their organization change, even from season to season.
There are companies who sell their story very well in our landscape. Ironically, they aren’t necessarily the ones with huge budgets. They just get it. Great examples are PrismCo., The Drama Club, Open Classical, Shakespeare in the Bar and Bruce Wood Dance Project. They have gone beyond the concept of selling their offerings as one offs to selling their story, their brand.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing arts organizations today regarding their marketing?
I think what is going on with journalism is more of a threat to small to midsize companies than they realize. Coverage is crucial for these companies to etch out a space in the landscape. Fewer outlets and less coverage means the competition to get your story out there is difficult. So many journalists have no choice now but to be all about what is getting “clicks” in the digital age. Just the fact that you are doing something is not enough. The trick is to get the clicks for them. Get them something that benefits them by covering it and make them see that. That’s the way to get them to continue covering you.
Bigger companies are going to begin to face the crisis that their season subscribers are aging out or frankly dying off. Reaching new audiences, younger audiences and growing them as avid arts-goers is a real challenge. Outside of their programming, a lot of that relates to how they are spending their advertising dollars. Where and on what. Having eyeballs view a single ad for a single show isn’t going to do much to solve the problem. Developing solid ad strategies and finding real activation opportunities is key. Find ways to reach potential audience, tap into what they are passionate about and communicate that your organization is passionate about that too. Advertisers in the sports world have done this for decades. Teams and leagues as well.
You have produced all of Fun House’s shows for six years to great critical success. You’ve created the concepts for the company’s biggest hits and you run the company, investing a lot of your own capital. Although there has been a great deal of press coverage, little of it is focused on you. Why?
When I first met Jeff Swearingen, it became very clear to me that he was his “own brand” but he had no idea of it. The quickest way to success for Fun House was to make it and him absolutely synonymous because of the reputation he already had. Starting out, Jeff Swearingen’s name was all we had. Not only did we have to build a business model and attract the kids, we literally had to create an audience for what we were trying to do. It didn’t exist. Adults did not go see kids act unless they were related to them. It was critical to the success of our concept to change that.
Facing that kind of challenge, there was no other way to get the job done but play to our strength and our strength in the beginning was Jeff’s prowess as an actor. A couple of years into it, seeing how hard some of our standout young actors were working and how good they were becoming, I decided the rest had to be all about them. (A gutsy move as no one to this day in youth theater does this). There are some of our young actors with better name recognition in this town than ones who have been in the business for longer than these kids have been alive.
It has been six years and Fun House has recently left its home in Plano. What is on the horizon for the company?
I’m very interested in seeing us collaborate with other artists now that we have the freedom to. Other companies, other directors and writers. It has always been such a great experience for our kids and I believe the artists, when we have done this in the past. I also hope that will help us reach a wider range of kids. We are renewing our focus on our curriculum through more classes and workshops and I am excited that we are able to offer scholarship opportunities for these again, to help us reach kids we couldn’t being in Plano and under some restrictions from our partner. Our first original show at Dallas Children’s Theater, Get a Life (All Sales Final), runs May 19-27.
Our first subsidiary company launched this month, The Basement, and mentoring them to success is an exciting proposition. Their first production, of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, runs March 23-25 at the Stone Cottage in Addison.
Also, bringing Andy Baldwin on board as our Vice President of Production and Development has really helped me in focusing in on some new goals including seeing some of our original works done by other professional companies and expanding our reach on a limited basis to New York. Look for news coming about that.
» To talk to Rapp about advertising on TheaterJones, email firstname.lastname@example.org