copyright © 2012, 2017 by Leigh Witchel. Please do not print or reproduce without permission.
This advice is not one-size-fits-all. My distrust of academic jargon doesn’t mean the next writer won’t feel perfectly comfortable with it. But it’s based on common sense.
A release is a utility document: A press release exists to advise the media of a performance – who’s doing it and what it’s about.
A release is used to request the following types of media coverage:
- Calendar Listings
- Advance pieces
Be aware of your readers and why they are reading. At The Log, we concentrate on reviews, and a reviewer isn’t looking for the same information as someone who does calendar listings or advance features.
We’re reading to find out about your upcoming show. Make it easy on us and put the hard facts up at the top before the body of the release: the piece, the dates, the venue, the times, contact information.
A Release Template:
Here’s one simple format – others will work. Your release shouldn’t be more than two pages long.
Send this as an email and don’t forget an informative subject line: “Your Dance Company performs Title at This Theater on Date at Time.” If the time changes from performance to performance, use the date and time of the opening.
For Immediate Release
Contact phone #
PRESENTING ORGANIZATION Presents
(Only include if it is sending the release.)
TITLE OF SHOW
DATES at TIME
TICKET CONTACT INFORMATION (Box Office Phone #, URL)
Dateline (Place, date):
BODY OF RELEASE – a few paragraphs about your show.
End this section with information about the performance (gala opening night, any pre-talks or associated events, box office hours, theater location).
- Presenting organization.
(One paragraph per person/organization is all that’s needed. Keep the narrative to nuts and bolts.)
A RELEASE IS NOT AN ARTIST’S STATEMENT
I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t talk about what you want to do. Talk about what you do.
It’s only useful for writers to know about your artistic process as it relates directly to what’s onstage. Did you spend 14 months learning how to fly fighter planes in order to make this dance? That’s unusual and relevant. Do you intend to examine the fragile nature of relationships? Not so much. Talk about what’s on the stage, not your intentions.
An example: This example was taken from the body of a release from an actual show with identifying details changed or removed. It was a good piece, with a not-so-good release.
Landfall (2000/2012) is a personal look at the body (alternately medical, eroticized and/or aestheticized). Described as “philosophically poetic and exploratory,” the work invites audiences to examine contemporary notions of how we experience the body as both owners and spectators. With choreography and visual design by “Bessie” Award-winner X, the original premiered in 2000 with X and performers A, B and C. The revisited and expanded version features performers D, E, F and G. In returning to this work, X has questioned how his approach to the material has shifted over time, how original intentions could be manifest with increased potency, and how changes that have occurred within his own body affect his frame of reference, understanding, and desires for expression within the work. The central goal of reigniting a certain tough freshness of the original gesture of the work has guided the process, which X has described as an unabashed utopian desire for a community of difference in togetherness that exists in a space beyond shame.
That is useless as PR, as there are no actual facts about what was onstage – which included two men who were naked the whole time. Something as notable as that has to be mentioned, not for morality’s sake, but because it’s the one of the most relevant aspects of the performance.
Here’s a start to an alternative release. It gives an idea of what information a listings editor or reviewer is looking for.
Landfall is about the body and how we perceive it – covered or exposed. Two women in simple dresses share the stage with two naked men for over an hour. Trading roles, dancing together and apart, sometimes with transparent inflatable cushions, the result is an enigmatic dance that becomes witty, spare or erotic as it molds itself to the viewer.
The text of your release should answer two questions:
- Who are you?
- What are you doing?
WHO ARE YOU?
The sense of cold introduction could be what makes a release so stressful for a new artist. It’s hell to get people to pay attention to you when you’re not established. And since fewer and fewer reviewers are paid, seeing performances is something they have to shoehorn in on their own time.
When I get a release, the first thing I do is look at who’s involved. All releases get placed in a calendar of upcoming events that I use for the The Log. If I don’t see a name I recognize or a hook, it won’t get much more attention until about two weeks prior, when I am deciding what to see. Keeping up with who’s currently out there already threatens to fill my available time. Let me know who is working on this project, and boldface the names.
If a release catches my interest I’ll make a mental note to see it. If I’m familiar with the artists and admire their work, I’ll make a note to consider doing a “Radar” – our short beginning-of-the-week previews for The Log.
If I see no names I recognize but the work is an area of interest to me, I may very well go, especially if the company is from out of town.
Figure out your calling card in a nutshell. If you’re new, tell me who you’ve worked with: “Former Bill T. Jones company member X.” The awful truth: this only works if your credentials are reasonably solid. Skip this if they’re weak. If so, consider hiring performers and collaborators with strong credentials.
It doesn’t need to lead but it is important to name everyone involved with the production and their affiliations in brief. I’m looking for a reason to see – or miss – your show, and “Oh, she worked with X” might just get me there.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Try and describe what you’re doing accurately and briefly: It’s tempting to want to explain your work as well as describe it. I wrote my own early press releases in the form of an interview. It took nerve and may have helped get me a review or two, but what I said also could have precipitated a few bad ones.
Don’t use your grantwriting materials to fashion a release: Grantmakers are trying to use their money to do charitable work; this makes them interested in the intentions and goals of your work in a completely different way than a dance writer. Nothing will set off my bullshit detector faster than a release declaring that your work seeks to explore the otherness forced upon dancers by society’s distorted views of body imagery. Once again, a press release is not an artist’s statement. Don’t use your booking materials either. A dance writer is not a potential presenter.
Use visual language: Try and get a picture in the readers’ minds. If there’s a striking image you know will be in the dance – describe it. “Five women in rags inch their way down a blinding tunnel of light.”
Avoid jargon: Performative. Otherness. Queering. Unpack. Academic jargon that is more concept than content. Tell me what you’re doing, not what you’re thinking, and use plain English.
Don’t claim what you can’t deliver: Reviewers judge you on a press release. I am impressed if what I see onstage is exactly what an artist said she was going to do. It means she is in control of her medium.
Don’t include throwaway copy because it sounds sexy: You could get crucified. If you call your company “boldly innovative” you better do something never seen before on stage. The first downtown dance show I saw featured someone pulling an Evel Knievel doll out of his ass; are you going to douse yourself with gasoline and light it ablaze?
FOR GOD’S SAKE – PROOFREAD: Check the grammar. Check the format – are the indents consistent? Are there extra spaces? Have you checked the spelling? Have you triple-checked the spelling of EVERY name? If you’re bad at this, get someone to do it for you. If this sounds anal-retentive, remember that these words, not your dancing, are our first impression of you. They matter, and a careless release suggests that you are careless as well.
Reviewers come in all shapes and sizes: “Boldly innovative” works that aren’t and academic doublespeak may get my goat but another reviewer might loathe anything that smells even faintly of classical training. It’s a crap shoot. Describe your work clearly enough so that people know what you’re doing, but not enough so they can hang you with it. “An edgy quintet inspired by the dada writings of Tristan Tzara, to a commissioned score.” Descriptive, to the point and fair enough – but it had better be edgy. Most critics recognize that you can be inspired by anything and it doesn’t have to show up on stage, but even so, we want to sense the inspiration.
One size doesn’t need to fit all: Since most releases no longer need to be printed, you can customize them. This is labor-intensive, but not that expensive. Unlike reviewers, listings people need exciting copy and especially exciting photos. Releases that go to people in charge of the calendar and listings sections, or for features writers, could be crafted more like sound bites. The pre-press this could generate is as valuable as any review. If you’re going toot your horn, this is where you do it.
Does a short personal note help? Yes, if it’s honest. If it’s boilerplate it probably won’t have an effect either way. If I can tell that you’ve actually never read me and you’re trying to bullshit me, it will harm you.
I haven’t made the work yet! I recognize how difficult this is if you’re writing about a work that has not yet been made. If any of it has been done, concentrate on the major themes and moments you are certain will be in the finished piece and use those. If it’s still unmade, say what you do know, i.e. “a new all-female quartet to music by Perotin inspired by the writing of St. Theresa of Avila.”
PITCHING A FEATURE
Getting a publication to write an advance piece on your show is an art in itself. [Note: Don’t pitch features to us at The Log, unless we know your work. We rarely do features and only on work we’ve already seen.]
A pitch is a tailored, labor-intensive proposal. To do it, you need:
- a strong understanding of the publication you’re targeting
- a hook
- great visuals
A generic release with an invitation for feature coverage is like a message in a bottle, and has about the same chance of getting you pre-press. You need to start by knowing all the publications, and targeting the ones that seem likely or that you admire. Do you understand what each one covers and doesn’t cover, and the style of each publication? Great, go on to step two.
Recognize a hook and lead with it. What’s a hook? A genuinely offbeat human interest story. An unusual locale. A major revival. A prominent guest artist. An unusual subject matter. They’re particular to every writer and publication. The New York Post loved offbeat stories and locations; Time Out/NY was more interested in profiling rising artists. Don’t reach – a weak hook will make you seem desperate. And for heaven’s sake, don’t let hooks drive your creative process. But if you’ve got one, sell it!
Your contact will be correspondence, but the best pitches half-write the story. I recall a pitch that Helene Davis sent to The Post that was genius, an email to me of two or three paragraphs written in our style and structure. My editor greenlighted it faster than anything I had ever encountered. “She’s already done half the work for us!”
Chances are, you will need to provide photos. A good photo can give your work legitimacy. Photos don’t have to be performance shots, but should convey the mood of what you’re going to show. The more professional your promotional material is, the more professional you look. Have a choice of photos ready, including some in vertical layout and others in horizontal. (That matters more to print than to online, but it’s good to do).
A final note: Many dance writers, including me, went into the field because we love it. I did what you’re doing and went through all this myself, including getting scolded by a listings editor for asking a question she found ignorant. Even so, we all dream of seeing great work and want to see you succeed. By giving us in a clear and organized manner the information that we need to do our jobs, you put your best foot forward.
The Log’s handy-dandy primer on dance press – what it is, how to get it and how to cope with it.
Part 2: Pitching to us or sending us PR.
Part 3: Press at your show