Monday, 23 January 2012

What can make the difference?

Photo taken from
War Horse is a production of the National Theatre in London which premiered in October 2007. In 2009 it moved to the West End. In 2011 it crossed the Atlantic to be presented in Broadway. In 2012 it will tour the US. It is a multi-award-winning production, adored by the public and theatre critics alike, and a huge commercial success. The annual profit of 3 million pounds from the West End presentations made the cuts in the Arts Council England´s grant insignificant for the National Theatre (read article here).

In May 2010, the Guardian published the article Theatre trailers: missing an opportunity. The journalist was encouraging theatres to become a bit more ambitious in the promotion of their productions, citing as good examples the National Theatre and Sadler´s Wells. It was in that article that I found the link for this trailer:

It was the first time I had seen a piece of this kind, reminding of film publicity, for the promotion of a theatre play. I remember to have felt delighted: the whole trailer edition (the rhythm, the choice of scenes, the music) made me wish to see the play, to get to know the story, to find out what happens in the end. Could this trailer be War Horse´s secret of success? Probably not. The secret – which is not a secret at all – is that those people who had seen the play loved it and told many-many more people about it. Could this trailer have made the difference in the decision process of those who saw the play in the opening? I don´t have concrete data, of course, but it is quite probable that it influenced them, a lot even, given that, among so much competition, among so many other options in London´s theatre offer, and not only, this approach marked a difference, generated emotions, fed word-of.mouth, created the need not to miss this play (in a much more tangible and effective way than the statement “Not to be missed!”, which many producers, especially in the music field, insist on using on every possible promotional material, from press releases to posters).

This issue of trailers for theatre plays came up once again recently in an article in the New York Times, Trailers to tempt the theatergoer. A more technical text, that presents some examples and makes available information regarding the producers, means and techniques, costs and, above all, the objectives set to achieve through the use of this medium: from presenting the aesthetics of a company to clarifying possible prejudices regarding the content of a play and, of course, reinforcing in people´s mind the strengths of a production, the reasons why one shouldn´t miss it.

These trailers made me think once again of the challenges Communication professionals keep facing when constantly looking for new ways and new means of reaching the audiences. The environment in which we operate is constantly and quickly changing: the offer is bigger; the purchasing power, at this moment, smaller; the technological means at our disposal (and that of the public) are deeply affecting the relationship between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’. What can make the difference in the minds and hearts of people? What is needed in order to draw their attention, arouse interest, generate enthusiasm, convince them to come all the way to our theatre, museum, gallery, auditorium?

I am certain of onw thing: no more publicity is needed. ‘Publicity’ in the format of a newspaper ad with information regarding what, where, when. I believe that this medium is still useful, although it is not the main one anymore, in order to keep informed those people who normally follow the city´s cultural offer, who attend performances, who visit exhibitions and who bring along or recommend a specific activity to other people; and it is also useful, mainly useful, in order to reinforce a cultural institution´s image, to ‘mark territory’. The newspaper ad – as well as the TV spot, I could add here – is today a means for institutional marketing and not programmatic marketing. Actually, was it ever, given the not so inspired use we have given it?

What can make the difference, then? Imagination. Innovation. Simplicity. The intention to demystify, to make accessible. The wish to touch, marvel, inspire people. To make them think. And also to make them forget.

How can this be done? It can be a trailer like the one of War Horse; it can be a campaign like “Do you want to see in 3D? Come to the theatre”, promoted two years ago by the D.Maria II National Theatre - Lisbon (a bright exception, in my opinion, in what is normally understood as “publicity campaign” by portuguese cultural institutions);

it can be a video like this one of the series Le Louvre Invisible, which shares brief moments of our institutions´ day-to-day life; it can be a programming director who makes a point of explaining to the employees at the box office what are the strengths of each project, why the public cannot miss each of the proposals, in a way they, the employees, and, through them, the audience may feel more clear and informed, curious and interested, and maybe even more prone to take a risk with something new (I am referring here to João Godinho´s practice when he was responsible for programming music at the Belem Cultural Centre, Lisbon); it can be the simple emails more and more artists, museum directors, curators, programming directors send to their, more or less extensive, circle of friends and acquaintances, personally presenting their work and inviting to attend/visit, in a much more direct, personal, accessible and enthusiastic way – inevitably turning that same circle of people into messengers; it can be an initiative as simple, funny and involving as It´s Time we Met of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now in its fourth edition;  it can be a special way of wishing “Happy New Year”:

Disconnected examples of things I have read and seen recently. What is common in all of them is the wish to reach people, to extend the invitation, to make a connection, to demonstrate relevance, to create involvement and complicity.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Wishing the journey is a long one

It all started six months ago, in a museum: the National Museum of African Art in Washington. No, it wasn´t an object. It was a film. A screen in a small corner showing a film about senagalese sculptor Ousmane Sow and his impressive and powerful figures. I had never heard of him before. I stood behind other people trying to watch. I got completely absorbed, seeing him while he was working, listening to his voice and his beautiful french. I went back the following week just for the film. Fewer people this time, but still no place to sit, so I sat on the floor and watched it again. Twice.

Ousmane Sow (Photo taken from
So, no wonder, when I started thinking of my next destination, Senegal was first on the list. I bought the guidebook and started reading and searching on the internet. It´s always exciting preparing a trip, but this time I realised I was preparing to go to a country I knew absolutely nothing about, apart from having a vague idea about its strong musical tradition. I knew nothing about its political history nor about its peoples, its cultures and arts.

Until recently, Africa below the Sahara didn´t exist in my mind (and in my readings) before the 15th-16th century. I was confined to the arab north, which always fascinated me (only to be confronted recently with a statement in the blog Africa is a Country that “‘arab’ is an imperial and ahistorical term that creates a false distinction between ‘North’ and ‘Sub-Saharan’ Africa”. Point quickly taken...). Little by little, I delved into the world of emperors and warriors and preachers who made history in the west african region before the arrival of the europeans and whose deeds are sung by the griots (praise singers, guardians of oral history).

More on Volker Goetze´s documentary here.

And, despite thinking initially that this was a men´s world, I´ve come across the griottes and, among them, a very special senegalese lady, Yandé Codou Sène, who passed away in 2010 and who was proud of her art (it´s worth seeing the video below; once she overcomes her anger, she actually sings – in minute 5), respected and cherished by her people (see here).

From oral history, I moved on to the written word and one of the first figures to come up was Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal´s first elected president, but also a thinker and a poet (among his most known poems, Femme noire and Poème à mon frère blanc), the first african to enter the French Academy. Some of his speeches on négritude (a concept he firmly imposed on the political dialogue of his time, that places the emphasis on black african ideas and culture as opposed to the french colonial policies of assimilation) may be heard here. Regarding other writers, I was initially limited to the ‘classics’ presented in my guidebook and I got particularly interested in two ladies, whose books I rushed to buy. Mariama Bâ, a feminist who was profoundly concerned with the fate of african women (their right to get educated, their place in a patriarchal and polygamistic society), wrote in 1981 a short story called So Long a Letter. Aminata Sow Fall, a critic of senegalese society – its inequalities, the power of the political elites –, is the author of four novels, the most famous one being The beggars´ strike. My search then took me to the younger generation, whom I look forward to ‘meeting’ in Dakar´s Athena bookshop: Sokhna Benga, Fama Diagne Sène, Woré Ndiaye Kandji, to mention a few. And, to mention also a man, Boubacar Boris Diop, author of Murambi, the book of bones, and a writer who, a few years ago, decided to write again in wolof, one of the languages spoken in Senegal (read article here).

Music is what really marks senegalese culture. It´s undoubtedly the biggest chapter in my guidebook. Once we start searching, there are so many names, so many different genres. What particularly caught my attention, though, in the middle of so much information, is the involvement of the the music world in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled to take place next month. Apart from the country´s most famous singer worldwide, Youssou Ndour, being a candidate, there is a movement of young rappers, called Y´ en a Marre, challenging the actual President, Abdoulaye Wade, who tried to change the Constitution in order to be able to run for a third mandate (read the article in Le Monde here). The movement can be found on Facebook.

Senegalese cinema was another art I knew absolutely nothing about. I was so excited to find Ousmane Sembène´s (Senegal´s most known cinematographer; 1923-2007) Moolaadé fully available on You Tube, only to find out it had no subtitles in a language I could understand (those who understand bambara can find it here; the rest of us can get a feeling of it from the trailer).

And just as Sembène deals in his movie with female genital mutilation, Joseph Gaï Ramaka (1952 - ) is breaking other taboos in Karmen Gei, approaching sensuality and lesbian love.

There is very little one can find on the internet regarding Senegal´s big reference in photography, Mama Casset (1908 – 1992), namely photos. But my search took me also to the younger references. I particularly liked the work of Boubacar Touré Mandémory, especially, among his albums available on Flickr, the one entitled Émigration Clandestine.

Photo: Mama Casset
Among the various senegalese fashion designers who are leaving their mark in their industry internationally, I was very-very impressed with Oumou Sy and her particular way of mixing tradition with contemporary design (video of one of her fashion shows here).

Design: Oumou Sy
Another reference, in what concerns senegalese textiles, is Aissa Dione, here in a very interesting interview for CulturaDakar (a cultural initiative of the Spanish Embassy in Dakar):

It was dance/performance that brought me back to the man who inspired this trip: Danielle Gabou´s Hommage à Ousmane Sow (see here), which I found deeply touching. Moving on from there to contemporary senegalese dance, I was amazed at the performance of Assane Thiam Contemporary Sabar Dance Group in the streets of Dakar.

So, these are some of the references I came across while preparing for my trip to Senegal. Soon I´ll be on a plane to Dakar and I can´t wait to discover for myself everything one cannot find in a guidebook: the smells, the tastes, the noise, the silence, the mood and wisdom of people. The feeling of spending the night under the sky of the Lompoul Desert.

Photo taken from
Note: The diary from the journey to Senegal is published here.