Falling Headlong – and how we can make theatre trailers work
Headlong recently released the trailer for their upcoming season; a glitzy, sharp looking affair which is in many people’s eyes a piece of art in itself. However, within all the fanfare regarding its high production values has been a sense that the trailer has been embraced as some type of cause celebré as far as theatre’s relationship with social media is concerned. Is this fair on Headlong, and does this undermine what they are trying to achieve?
Published on YouTube, Headlong’s trailer runs at a little under five minutes and aims to give us a sense of each upcoming production in their new season; from the sharp-suited self-harmer representing American Psycho: The Musical to the recreation of the Tiananmen Square protests with a model tank for Chimerica, we are given brief glimpses of what to expect each production whilst not giving too much away – tantalising us with the desire to know more. As with the best movie trailers, we are left wanting to know more about the production(s) without feeling like we’ve seen the ‘best bits’.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, theatre trailers are not something new; they’ve been in existence for some time, in various different forms. As everyday use of social media has provided a greater sense of connectivity, theatre companies and venues have tried to embrace this and have produced trailers at various scales, and in various forms. The vast majority of West End and Broadway shows have some form of electronic press kit (EPK) available online, including a glitzy YouTube trailer featuring extracts from the production and – if the show has already opened – talking heads of audience members saying how much they enjoyed the show; even Fringe productions with a small marketing budget can put together a trailer quickly and easily which can be uploaded to YouTube to help increase the reach of their production. Beyond the content, there is also a need to deliver the trailer in a way which allows people to learn more about your work; Chris Unitt has posted a great blog on how Headlong have failed to do this, which is well worth a read.
However, part of the reason their trailer stands apart from others is that it can be viewed as a piece of art in its own right, which in itself is not a new concept for theatre trailers but is an area where Headlong have been able to progress the form further; the production values and the obvious time, money and expertise which have gone into the trailer help set it apart from its contemporaries within the subsidised world. The production values seem almost equal to those of the EPKs for commercial productions, whilst retaining the apparent artistic integrity which many feel that world lacks; the level of thought and detail which has gone into the trailer should protect the company from any accusations of ‘selling-out’. Crucially, audiences will tend to associate the quality of the trailer with the quality of the final product – hence the strong positive reactions to Headlong’s trailer.
Theatrical trailers should, in reality, be subject to the same considerations we make of movie trailers; they have the same modus operandi of trying to sell something to an audience, and equally they should serve to tease the audience into wanting to see the final product rather than giving too much away. One accusation levelled at trailers for big-budget films is that, all-too-frequently, the ‘best bits’ and big set-plays are revealed in the trailers – the trailer for The Cabin in the Woods was recently accused of revealing a key plot twist, making it a ‘spoiler’ for the film itself and potentially putting people off seeing the full film. Should a theatrical trailer reveal too much about the show’s content, then that may also serve to put people off – not only because they may feel like they have seen enough already, but also because theatre has a tendency to be poorly represented when filmed. As theatre relies less on overloading the senses than cinema does, the audio/visual aspects of a production will undoubtedly translate less well to film – and without being in the context of the space a show is performed in, the design will most likely have much less of an impact on an audience.
As can be seen above, to suggest Headlong are venturing into uncharted territory by creating a trailer and promoting it through social media is a fool’s errand; where they have stepped away from the pack is in the production values. In terms of the ‘message’ of the trailer, how we measure its success and failure is reaching an audience is a far more pertinent question.
With Headlong Artistic Director Rupert Goold taking lead on the trailer, it also ensures that considered artistic decisions are made regarding its content which pay full respect to the individual works of each writer involved with the productions; as the person who oversees the whole creative vision of the company, Goold has an understanding of what their work is trying to achieve and ensures this is a motivating factor in a trailer – rather than falling into the trap of finding the most controversial, provocative or safe ideas across the whole spectrum of work which boils things down to an oversimplified idea. Although for the technical aspects it may be understandable for a theatre company to look to work with a director specialising in film, having someone with a key dramaturgical understanding of the work is crucial to accurately representing the work. Audiences who see a trailer which doesn’t reflect the final product will feel defrauded, and alienating audiences in this way serves only to undermine the importance of a trailer – prioritising short-term audience ‘capture’ over long-term development.
The biggest concern with regards to the reaction to this trailer is the insinuation that Headlong are obsessed with trying to reach ‘the Facebook generation’. Without having said anything of the sort themselves, the company have in effect been accused of being obsessed with the demographic both largely representative of social media users and which theatres wish to bring through their doors – those aged 18-25 with disposable income and who will hopefully form long-term relationships with theatre. For various reasons, subsidised theatre seems to have failed to truly connect with that generation in a way which ensures continued engagement and attendance, and the pressure from various quarters to succeed seems only to undermine any attempts to do so – see the fall-out from the abandoning of A Night Less Ordinary scheme as evidence of this; in the meantime, commercial theatre seems to have enjoyed much greater success, with the likes of Wicked amassing huge numbers of Facebook fans through clever use of online content. It may well be that Headlong’s high production values in their trailer helps them to connect with this audience, but it would be unfair to put pressure on them to succeed which they haven’t invited; as with a company’s theatrical work, they should be allowed to be innovative without being burdened with unrealistically high expectations or the pressures of an expectant industry.
Whether or not Headlong’s trailer reaches large numbers of people through social media remains to be seen; however, it is not the be-all and end-all with regards to what they are trying to achieve. Being realistic about the potential of a theatrical trailer in reaching an audience is vital to both improving the form and understanding how best to reach even further, but without necessarily having to rely on one company to lead the way.