The 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival featured 167 productions, all crammed into a maddeningly packed two-week schedule. I was referred through a family friend to the production team of a play titled Knit One/Purl The Other, who wanted to put something on the Fringe’s trailer page to help them stand out from the crowd.
I read a synopsis of the script, and knew I was in for a challenge. How do you make a lightly dramatic play about the difficulties of choice (and knitting) appeal to potential audiences that have literally dozens and dozens of full-bore comedies, musicals, and dramas to choose from?
I read through the play twice – it moved effectively between comedy and drama without either genre dominating, and culminated with the main character meeting herself. There was a lot of high-concept themes at work, and I wasn’t sure how well we could boil the show down to its essence for a short trailer.
So, in the interest of highlighting the different aspects of the play, I pitched the idea of producing two trailers instead of one. This would give us an opportunity to play with the themes and moods in the play, as well as automatically give the viewers the impression that Knit One was a big deal – what other shows had two trailers?
I prepared five different concepts to pitch. The first thing I laid out was the plan to use a skeleton crew and lots of run-and-gun filming so that we could shoot two promos in a single day. The director and the playwright immediately were on board, and as it turned out, our Saturday shoot wrapped in about five hours.
The first concept, which became the “Two Avivas” spot, was a logical take on the play. We’d show one of the actresses playing the lead character (Aviva) exploring St. Paul, and in alternating shots she’d be wearing slightly different clothing. The final shot would be a composite where she ‘met’ herself, and underneath it we’d use some of the dialog from the play hinting at the plot and the final reveal. It clicked with the director and playwright – they’d had the same idea.
To put this together, we took our GH2, a tripod, and a light bounce out around downtown St. Paul* with Natalie, who played one of the Avivas. There’s a lot of different landmarks within a few blocks, so we just walked from one to the next, making sure that the direction Natalie was walking corresponded with the top she was wearing, the style of her hair, and what color yarn strand she was following. The final shot was a simple setup – we put the camera on a tripod and pointed it at a wall, placing marks on the ground. We let the camera roll as Natalie came in from one side, went through the action, then walked behind the camera, changed her outfit, and did the action on the other side of the frame. We combined the shots in After Effects with a generous feathering along the ‘seam’ of the images so it looked natural.
For the second spot, though, the question wasn’t how we could merely boil the play to its essence. How could we wow our audience? One of the ideas I had was to use various knitting tools to make noises that could be assembled into a hodgepodge music video, like this VW Golf spot from DDB London. It ultimately proved too much to organize, but I liked the idea because it had fun with the whole concept of knitting – the teaser would be a giant wink to the potential audience, saying “we know a play about knitters doesn’t sound especially dynamic, but trust us – if we can have this much fun with the teaser, you know the play won’t be a drag.”
To this end, I suggested the concept I would personally have the most fun creating and would, in the biggest way I could conjure, make this wink at the audience. It was risky, but since we had a less risky idea that we could fall back on, the director and playwright took a leap of faith with me.
I suggested we create a fake horror movie trailer.
And that’s what we did.
To have the most efficient shooting schedule possible, I came up with a few visual staples of the genre we could shoot in five different locations, so that we could feature all the cast, as well as keep the spot visually interesting. A majority of the dialog in the spot is from the play, so it gave the audience a fleeting sense of the story.
The cast were all fantastic sports, and we had a lot of fun over three hours (and a lot of outtakes). The trailer struck a nerve, too – it was featured in a post on MPR’s State of the Arts blog as a Fringe play with an intriguing trailer, and the video quickly approached 1,000 total views.
The Fringe came and went, and when the final tallies were in, Knit One/Purl The Other had sold the 10th most tickets out of all 167 Fringe shows.
There’s a few reasons the spots worked for the play. First, they were displayed on a singular page that was already a destination for those planning on attending a Fringe show. We didn’t need to find potential consumers, we just had to put something in front of them. Second, we put in a little extra time to make sure the spots would stand out visually from the rest – lots of angles and rich colors, no stationary video footage. Last, and most importantly, the creative team behind the play were willing to take a risk on the horror movie concept. They saw the potential benefit of not taking themselves too seriously in front of an audience that would appreciate the irony. It intrigued enough people to buy tickets, and after the first show generated positive word-of-mouth, people kept coming.
Know your audience, and when it’s appropriate, don’t be afraid to have a little fun. Your potential customers will love you for it.
The 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival starts tonight and runs through August 12th.
*This was amusing to us all because the play took place in Minneapolis, and it was also presented in Minneapolis. They rehearsed in St. Paul, though.