Dallas — We closed our Murder Ballad nine days ago. On Sunday, May 13, we pulled down the lights, boxed up the speakers, dismantled the set, and cleaned out the Margo Jones Theater, returning it to the blank space it was only five weeks ago. As we stacked the remaining scenic materials into our tiny storage unit, we were all struck with the knowledge that another show had closed. This one was the most challenging so far, and I think we’d all agree, by far the most impactful on each of us as producers and creators.
This project was sort of a baby of ours. We loved the piece but more than that we loved what it represented for us and our mission as a company. It was new, it was rock ’n’ roll, it was immersive, and it was honest and unapologetic in its storytelling—all things we desperately wanted to be when we founded the company three years ago. The year-long wait from securing the rights to producing it felt like forever and then the production period flew by.
The emotional rollercoaster that comes with creating theater is intense, and this one hit us all pretty hard when it closed. It was like a dream. A long, challenging, and ultimately super-rewarding dream.
When we chose Murder Ballad for our first musical, we knew it was going to present some unique challenges. It was relatively unknown, it was fully immersive, and it was incredibly demanding. We loved it—but we knew our work was cut out for us. Let’s dive into some of those challenges…
A huge part of our mission is producing lesser-known (or underproduced) works and styles of work. When we stumbled across Murder Ballad, it checked that box in a big way. That it was intended to be a fully immersive production excited us even more.
A significant challenge we ran into in the months and weeks leading up to opening was fighting an uphill battle of trying to share with our potential audiences just how electric this show really was. With our first full production, Glengarry Glen Ross, we were able to rely a little more on the material to help sell the show. People know and adore that script. With a regional premiere that never saw Broadway, it was a tougher sell.
Around the beginning of the production period, we made the decision to start a Marketing Committee for IMPRINT. It’s our first sub-committee from the full team and it turned out to be a great decision for the group. The committee started meeting monthly and really diving into how to market this piece and continue to engage our audiences.
We put a significant amount of energy into creating videos, ad campaigns, and graphics, hoping to make a strong enough splash to entice audience members, calendaring it down to the platform and the day, and dividing and conquering. A large portion of our energy was poured into marketing in the weeks before opening.
We worked hard and thankfully, that work paid off—but not right off the bat. People became engaged with the production and telling us how excited they were on social media and whenever we saw them, but when it came to preview night, we were a little unsettled by just how small our crowd was.
As a new company, we still don’t have our loyal audience members, and that was a big lesson to learn. The scariest thing I’ve run into so far as a producer is just that: will we sell the tickets? It proved tricky and frankly a bit exhausting getting actual butts in seats for our first few performances.
Thankfully, through the passion of all involved and our very enthusiastic audiences, word of mouth very quickly spread and our numbers picked up in a huge way. Halfway through opening weekend, we knew we were going to be OK—and ultimately we had full, wonderful audiences.
However, that first weekend served as a really good reminder for us: audiences aren’t guaranteed, and we have to be super-aggressive in getting word out about our shows.
We knew from the moment we chose Murder Ballad that we wanted to go for complete immersion and truly build the bar experience. To achieve that you have to be a little fearless—which is easier said than done. What was too far? What wasn’t far enough? We wanted our environment to be real, but not cheesy or pulling the focus from the show.
We had many meetings strategizing how to create a fully fleshed out bar experience and how to blur the lines between theater and reality. We did a lot of research over the months leading up to the production. What kind of bar was it? How would we execute it? What were the necessary steps to keep it legal? (Fun fact: The entire cast, our stage manager, and the IMPRINT team got TABC certification so we could serve before, during, and after the show). After months of planning, we moved into the space the week before opening and dove right into building our very own short-term Bar. And work we did. Our concept proved to be a huge undertaking. Many nights were spent in Fair Park working until the wee hours of the morning. We were rehearsing until 11 p.m., staining drink stands at midnight, and cueing lights at 2 a.m.. But we were all so passionate about this idea and making it happen, even with our limited resources and shoestring budget. Everyone committed to carrying this show on their backs—together. It could not and would not have happened without every person involved.
It was such a cool experience. The cast, band, crew, designers, all uniting to build this other world - and the coolest part was watching it really explode when the audiences came in and existed within it. That was the piece that brought it all together: the audiences. They played pool, got drinks, and made the theater feel like a real neighborhood bar each night. There was a communal feeling during the performances, each night unique.
This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or pint of beer?) though. Not all audience members were completely comfortable with the full immersion, and that’s going to happen. Some patrons moved during the show because they felt “too close.” Others couldn’t stop talking about how cool being so close to the action was.
We are really proud of what happened with this production. It was truly a magical experience. We all poured our hearts and souls into it—and not just the IMPRINT team, but everyone involved. It became a true passion project and one that each of us will remember fondly for a very long time.
A moment that stands out vividly in my mind when thinking of Murder Ballad dates back to our Season Announcement Party last August. We were singing through one of the featured songs from the show with what would eventually become our official cast. At the end of the song, all four cast members lowered their binders and we all sort-of turned and looked at each other and everyone’s faces held the same expressions. This was going to be powerful. And it really was.
It’s strange being here. A year ago we were furiously planning and dreaming, wondering how it would all come to fruition, and suddenly here we are, halfway through our first season.
There are a lot of emotions tied to producing a season. We all put so much of ourselves into these shows and then, in a matter of weeks, the spaces are blank again, waiting for the next project. But isn’t that why we all love theatre?
A week ago we closed up the storage unit and left an empty Margo Jones, and next day it was to auditions for Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists.
What a ride.
» Ashley H. White and Joe Messina are co-artistic directors of IMPRINT theatreworks
» Square One runs on the second Monday of the month (although due to an editor's error, it's on the third Monday for May 2018).
PREVIOUSLY IN SQUARE ONE
- Septempber: Should We Start a Theater?
- October: Taking the Next Steps
- November: Planning the Season
- December: Finding the Right Space, Part 1