In recent weeks, a baffling teaser ad that has been running in print and on the sides of Metro buses around town has been provoking "Wtf!?" bewilderment from readers of the Los Angeles Times and traffic-mired drivers alike.
In a variation recently spotted on the front page of the Sunday LAT's Art's & Book section, a boldface banner headline in a sky-blue box announces that "THIS IS HERE FOR A REASON. ARE YOU?"
At first glance, the slogan appears to be something devised by the ad agency J.P. Sartre & Associates on behalf of the Church of Scientology. Under closer examination, however, the fine print turns up clues such as a familiar soap bubble logo, the name "Freud" and a URL for the Broad Stage, a theater in Santa Monica, that together suggests the mystifying message has more to do with Thespis than Dianetics.
To unravel the rationale behind the koan-like campaign, the LA Weekly played a hunch, picked up the phone and intrepidly tracked down the ad's perpetrator, Broad Stage's director of marketing & communications, Natasha Shrieves.
Shrieves quickly cops to the ad copy and explains that the campaign is designed to prime interest and conversation about the Broad's upcoming West Coast premiere of the Mark St. Germain play, Freud's Last Session. "When I'm working on a campaign," she explains, "I always ask myself, 'What's the feeling? What's the conversation in the lobby going to be like? What's the buzz going to be for my audience?'" In this case, she adds, "the show tackles issues of faith and the existence of God -- you know, some of the core mysteries of life.
The play speculates on what might have transpired during a legendary but never-substantiated meeting in London between the atheist psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the critic and Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis two weeks before Freud's death. The New York production was the surprise Off-Broadway hit of the 2010 season and only closed this past July after a full two-year run, an impressive feat for a non-musical. (The Broad version retains original director Tyler Marchant but has been recast with Judd Hirsch as Freud and Tom Cavanagh as Lewis.)
What makes the show's success all the more remarkable is that it was not what one might call "warmly received" by critics, who tended to praise the performances while panning St. Germain's text. Audiences, however, disagreed -- in droves. They not only applauded but sent their friends and neighbors, racking up an estimated 80 percent of ticket sales by word-of-mouth alone. Producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland fanned those flames with a group-sales outreach to Synagogues, church groups and even psychoanalysts. She also created a series of ads highlighting celebrity attendees, like Woody Allen, as having "scheduled a session" with Freud.
It is that hoped-for end run around possible critical indifference, Shrieves agrees, that was part of the inspiration for the Broad's provocative marketing approach. "It did kind of start from hearing about what a huge success the word of mouth was," she says, "and that the show has a kind of buzzy engagement that lends itself to this kind of campaign that is a lot more fun than, you know, just saying "Freud's Last Session. ...'"
So she and Copeland put their heads together and began riffing on the "Here for a Reason" line. "And it's not formulaic," Shrieves enthuses. "And we just kinda kept playing with it. And we thought how fun would it be if you're following a bus and [you read], 'This bus is going somewhere. Are you?' You know, if you could just kind of mimic some of the ideas expressed in the [play]. And then on a deeper level, it kind of expresses the core questions of why we go to the theater to begin with."
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The Broad's gamble on a show like Freud's Last Session may in fact prove to be a fairly safe bet. At the same time that the show was striking a chord with Manhattan's Jewish Upper West Side, here in Los Angeles, Rogue Machine was packing them into see their own epistemological drama about faith and the existence of God -- the two-hour, intermissionless Cormac McCarthy slog of a hit, The Sunset Limited.
If the early returns are any indicator, the "Here for a Reason" ads seem to be having their intended impact. "We're just kind of launching," Shrieves says, "but the mailer just went out and, yes, the phones are ringing and there is definitely a big pickup from it. We got people's attention. And I've got a lot of fun phone calls and voicemails -- 'Oh, I'm following the bus!'
Freud's Last Session opens at the Broad Stage on January 11.