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Legendary Theatrical Press Agent
Episode 46

Legendary Theatrical Press Agent

CI to Eye with Chris Boneau

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Chris talk about his experience doing press for notable Broadway productions like Angels in America with director George C. Wolfe. They also discuss the challenges of pitching institutional stories, what it’s like to work with A-list celebrities, and how theater criticism has evolved.

Erik Gensler: Chris, I’m so happy to have you here.

Chris Boneau: It’s great to be here.

Erik Gensler: So, Boneau/Bryan-Brown, if I got this right, has represented 400 productions on and off Broadway, on national tour, and in Europe. The shows you’ve worked on have collectively won 222 Tony Awards, eleven Pulitzer Prizes, 219 Drama Desk awards, 155 Outer Critic Circle Awards. That’s super impressive. So my question is …

Chris Boneau: I’m exhausted.

Erik Gensler: Aren’t you tired?

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: Sorry to cut off your joke. Yes, I’m exhausted. I need to take a nap now, thank you. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: what is your first memory of theater having an impact on you?

Chris Boneau: I was 8 years old and my family took me to see a little theater production of Cactus Flower in Port Arthur, Texas, and then I begged them to let me audition for a show called Three Men and a Horse, which did not have a role for a nine-year-old or a ten-year-old. It had a role for a- (laughs) a person of color, much older, but the director thought it would be a novelty to have the elevator boy be a nine-year-old boy. And the defining moment for me during that whole thing was the lead actor went up on his lines in the first act taking him into the third act, and the director came running backstage to me and she goes, “Chris! You have to go on. If you go on and say your lines, maybe he’ll get back on track.” And I’m like, “What I … ” I- so, with all the confidence of, you know, a nine year old with a lot of chutzpah, I went running onstage and said the line and got us back on track and afterwards there was cake.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: (laughs) that was my first moment of … theater can be exciting.

Erik Gensler: And you were like, “This is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”

Chris Boneau: I remember not sleeping that night, because I was so excited that I had done something cool.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Chris Boneau: Because it hit me when I got home, like, “Oh, this is great.”.

Erik Gensler: So let’s start back in the early days. How did you get into this business?

Chris Boneau: I kinda stumbled into it. I mean, it goes back to college. I’ll make this short, but I was an actor and I was working on my graduate thesis in acting, and my professors pulled me aside and said … oh and they’d given me the chance to be the PR director of the theater, to be my, you know, the job you have while you’re in school. And you know, sadly for me at the time, I mean, devastating at the time, they said, “We don’t think your heart is in it to be an actor, but what we see in you is a spark when you’re promoting the shows.” I literally would be on stage and look at the house going how many more bodies we should have tonight. And I had met someone who worked in television and PR and I thought, “I’ll just work in television!” I don’t know what I even thought I was doing, because I don’t know a thing about television except I watch it. And I went on a couple of interviews, and I ended up back interviewing in a couple of PR offices. I interviewed for three PR offices in one day and got offers from all three.

Erik Gensler: In New York?

Chris Boneau: Yeah. Yeah. That’s after working for a singing birthday clown-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: -and working on an album for a country artist upstairs in a lumber yard. He was laundering money, actually and my W-2 for that year said that I got paid $117.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Chris Boneau: Because I got paid under the table, so don’t tell anyone. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: Don’t tell anyone!

Erik Gensler: I think the statute of limitations on that has passed.

Chris Boneau: I do, too.

Erik Gensler: So, we’re okay. So, which PR job did you take?

Chris Boneau: I ended up working for a man named Josh Ellis. I liked what his office did. It was also the home for Adrian Bryan-Brown and Jackie Green. I thought Adrian was a woman and Jackie was a man, and then when I finally got to meet them I was like, “Oh, you guys are great. And, as it turns out, Adrian and I are partners to this day, and that’s been almost 30 years.

Erik Gensler: Wow. So what was the first Broadway show you represented?

Chris Boneau: (laughs) It was … I could tell you which one it was, but the one I want to say it was is far more interesting. It was the second one. It was called Checkmates, and it starred Denzel Washington and Ruby Dee. And Denzel was about to hit it big on St. Elsewhere, and the man financing the show was in jail.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: It was all drug money. We found out later. And the show was terrible, but, you know, got to work with Denzel for what was the beginning of many times. The true first show was a show called His Honor, which was about La Guardia and played by Tony Lo Bianco, and opening night, he was supposed to slide down a fire pole and when he did, he hit the ground so hard he cracked his ankle, and you hear him go, “What a fire ahhh!” It’s fantastic.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) that was opening night?

Chris Boneau: That was opening night, yeah.

Erik Gensler: Oh, my god. And then how did that lead to working on Angels in America?

Chris Boneau: Angels, to this day, is not just the moment that defined who I was going to be as a press rep, but I’ll never forget the day itself. We were already beginning to work on and-

Erik Gensler: How far into this was when you came to New York?

Chris Boneau: I was in New York in ’85. And ’91, ’92 were Guys and Dolls and Angels. And Adrian and I were just sharing office space, and sharing employees. We hadn’t even created a business yet. In fact, I was his apprentice while I was working to get my ATPAM status. And Adrian buzzed my and he said, “Chris, I have Rocco Landesman on the phone for you.” And Rocco said, “So, I understand, you know, you guys are the new guys on the block, and we’re hearing such good things about what you’re doing and you’re doing a great job for us in Guys and Dolls. Would you like to work on Angels in America?” And I remember standing up from my chair, and not sitting down the rest of the day, because I literally had to crash a press release, because the Public was going to do it. Instead we were going to open directly on Broadway. There was a lot to figure out. It was the old days, it was so before we were all using computers. It was all typewriters. It was, phones and trying to make sure that we’ve got it right, and also because this was my first real big thing. And I knew how big it was, because I had read Angels in America on a stairmaster at the gym, and I knew how beautiful the play was. But to think that I was going to be handling it was just amazingly overwhelming.

Erik Gensler: Mhm.

Chris Boneau: And I remember … I don’t know if we can check this out, probably can’t, but in the old days I think it was either Travel and Leisure or Vogue or Vanity Fair, one of the three, had your horoscope for the month. And I remember going back and looking at my horoscope and it said on the, whatever, 23rd of March, something’s going to happen to change your life. And I swear to God, it was. It was the change-your-life moment.

Erik Gensler: Wow. So, let’s take Angels in America as an example. What did it mean to be the press agent at Angels in America? What were your responsibilities? And when you got that, what was going through your mind of like, “Okay these are the things I need to do”?

Chris Boneau: I believe in creating strategy first, and you stick with a strategy, everything else will follow. And I remember pulling together a team very quickly in the office and mapping out a strategy. We had two plays to sell. It was called the gay fantasia on American themes. It was not going to be easy. It was a play about Mormons, and you know, it was a play about Jews, it was a play about angels, and there were so many things about it that made it so not press-worthy. And yet, not only did the press start calling, when we called them, there were immediate yeses. Tony Kushner wasn’t famous yet. He had written a couple plays that had, you know, been okay. We didn’t really have a starring cast, although they’ve all gone on to different versions of stardom. But what we did is, we sat down at that first meeting and mapped out things that we wanted to talk to the producers about. Like, we need to embrace what this is. We need to figure out the unique things that we can say. This was going to be the first … I don’t know if it was the first two-part play in Broadway history, but it was certainly going to be an interesting sell that the second play wasn’t even going to come along for another year, and with the same cast, who would be rehearsing it while they were doing a play at night. And there were so many things that were like, “Oh well I give up. This isn’t going to work.” (laughs) We, there were some great things that happened. I mean a defining moment for me on that show was the production photo call. George Wolfe, who was really … Not running out of time … In his mind he was … before the show opened, and we had shot a few photographs from the back of the house, but nothing really usable because it was still different designing things. The angel kept changing her look. You know, she kept trying on new wigs.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: So, he gave us what was going to be four hours on a Saturday of a rehearsal for a photo call. And he shows up about an hour in and he goes, “I need this space to get back to work!” And I’m like, “Wait, George, we’ve got to get some photographs. We have nothing.” He goes, “You have 30 minutes!” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” And I was scratching off the list of things I need. And, you know, he wasn’t being off or rude. He was just being nervous, and … as he can be. I said, “George, I have to get my last shot.” And he goes, “Well, what is it?” I said, “Well, it’s the angel coming down. He goes, “We can’t rig her. There’s no time to do that. And I’m not giving it away.” I said, “George, the name of the play is Angels in America so I need a picture of an angel doing something.” So, we literally propped her up on a headboard with stage hands behind her holding her. Stephen Spinella is in the bed, that famous picture of him reaching up to her, almost coiling, but also reaching towards her. And as soon as we snapped, like, four frames, he said, “Done. You’re done. We have to get back to work.” And there were so many photos that we had to get later, but, to me, that … I still believe that is probably one of the best theatrical photographs of all time. And, you know, Joan Marcus took the photograph and it’s in every theater history book and I was there for that moment, and I still pinch myself thinking, “Oh my god. How did we do that?”

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. And do you remember when the reviews came out for that?

Chris Boneau: Yeah. I mean, you know, the … (laughs) this is another crazy story. In those days, The New York Times at 10 o’clock would come down the elevator with a cart of New York Times, of copies of the Times for the next day.

Erik Gensler: In the Times building on 41st Street?

Chris Boneau: In the Times building on 43rd.

Erik Gensler: The old one. 43rd?

Chris Boneau: Yeah. And I find out later that people were down there waiting for crossword puzzle or they were waiting for results of horse races or looking for food recipes or whatever. And it wasn’t just theater people like me in the lobby. And so, I go at 10 o’clock and, I tear out the review, like from several copies and stuff them in various copies of my suit and go running over to the Kerr. Well, the show’s still had an hour to go. I mean, the show’s still playing. So, I gathered the producers and I said, “I need to read you this review,” because it was amazing. Frank Rich … in fact, just jumping ahead for a quick, second … Frank Rich called me and said … later, and said, “Will you tell me when Perestroika is going to open, because I want that to be my final review,” before he quick being a theater critic, which was great.

Erik Gensler: Mm.

Chris Boneau: But … so, we quietly went up to the men’s room on the second floor, threw a few people out, who were surprised these men and women were coming in, and we had to- I had to whisper the review to them, and to this day I have the tradition of always reading the reviews to people. Not always in bathrooms-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Chris Boneau: -although I did it the same year on an off-Broadway show. I said to the producer, you know, “You want to follow me to the bathroom?” And he- and I pull out a review that’s in my pocket. It was a terrible review. And he goes … I said, “What are you doing?” and he goes, “Uh, I’m going to read you the review,” and he goes, “Oh, thank god. I thought something else was going to happen.” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: (laughs) So how does that work with bad reviews? You still read them?

Chris Boneau: You have to read them. I mean what you can do is say, “Look, the review’s terrible. Uh, I can, you know, I can read a few things, or you can just go out to your party, poker faces … this is your moment to have a poker face. Have a party, because the moment your investors or, God forbid, the cast, find out that it’s bad, nobody is happy.” But you have to connect with the producer the night with reviews. If you don’t, they’re going to be wondering why you’re not talking to them. as much I love this business, opening nights are not fun for me. It’s either delivering ecstatic reviews and then having to go work, or bad reviews and trying to sneak out before anybody sees you. I rarely have a drink. I rarely get food. I rarely connect with anybody that I knew was going to be there, because I’m the last person you want to see.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, so you’ve probably gone to 400 opening night parties.

Chris Boneau: At least. Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, but you’re working there.

Chris Boneau: Yeah. We now have what we call “war rooms” to work with the ad agencies to pull together quotes that we can use for banner ads or putting together a radio ad for the next morning, or something. And when they’re bad, you have to figure out what you’re going to do. I mean, it’s … again, it all goes back to strategy.

Erik Gensler: I’m curious talking about reviews … do you think theatrical reviews hold as much power as they used to?

Chris Boneau: You know, a good review plus great word of mouth means… you should be solid. A good review of a show that people aren’t liking, it’s not going to help. And a bad review, of course, with bad word of mouth is, you’ve got to go. I think reviews matter, because people still find them. They want to know. But that- that’s a generation that’s still paying attention to a theater review. I think they are far more inclined to listen to what someone told them. Word of mouth is by far the number-one thing.

Erik Gensler: 100 percent, yeah.

Chris Boneau: And a review can help somebody who’s on the fence. But we- we put less stock in it. Also, the fact is, there are fewer reviewers.

Erik Gensler: What is your relationship like with the critics, especially,, like the major critics, like the New York Times or New York Magazine or the New Yorker?

Chris Boneau: Honest. Like, early on, if I believe that Ben should see something, I’ll shoot him a note, and he’s very cordial and will write back and say, ‘Thanks, it’s on my radar. I do want to see it,” or, “Thanks so much.” They appreciate honesty. I learned a long time ago when I was doing, you know, showcase productions, off- off- off- off- off-Broadway, that I-

Erik Gensler: In Queens.

Chris Boneau: Yes, exactly. I would not beg a first-string critic to see a show that was not good, that was just going to be a waste of their time and they would hold that against me. So I’ve always tried, I have been completely honest when I talk to them. And there are sometimes things that they just don’t want to hear from you. I mean, they don’t want you to beg. They don’t want you to say it’s the best show you’ve seen all year, unless it truly is. Honesty is the most important thing. And the thing I tell my office and I tell my class that I teach at Columbia is, they don’t really want to talk to you. They want to know how long the show is. Do you have a script that you emailed to them or gave to them? Anything they need to know, and that’s pretty much it. And once that critic has seen the show, there is no communicating with them before the review comes out, unless something they need to know … you might have noticed that in the second act, there was a light flicker, there was a, there was an outage backstage, but it shouldn’t have affected … just FYI. Not apologizing, just information.

Erik Gensler: Mhm.

Chris Boneau: And never, “Oh, please come back. It was an off night.” Never! So it’s pretty- it’s pretty by the book. I know probably other people do it differently, but it’s not for me.

Erik Gensler: Did you learn that lesson the hard way?

Chris Boneau: Frank Rich was somebody who, in some ways, was almost like a mentor for me, and I remember maybe saying to him something, and he goes, “You know, I don’t need to know that.” And so it was … as I was growing up and learning this business, people were kind and he was one of them. This was before Ben came along.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, reviews are obviously a big part of press. How about getting feature stories leading up to opening… could you talk a bit about that?

Chris Boneau: To be honest, it’s getting harder. There are fewer people who actually do them. And unless it’s a really intriguing idea, or a major star, you’re not going to be guaranteed at getting something and-

Erik Gensler: Not one thing?

Chris Boneau: Well no, you’ll get some things. I mean, you will get some things.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. But not like it used to be.

Chris Boneau: It’s not like it used to be where there were just hundreds of things would show up, or not hundreds, but 50s of things would show up, but the main thing is to find an interesting angle that the playwright, the director, the producer agrees to. If it’s an interview with the star of the show, they have to be willing to do it. There are no guarantees that it’s going to be fluff. I’ve seen many pieces go kind of south because someone wasn’t being honest or the questions were a little bit shocking and not fair, but you can’t, like, write a contract and saying this is what you’re going to ask and this is what they’re going to say. There’s a thing that just happened recently where Bradley Cooper did an interview for The New York Times, and he so didn’t want to do that interview, but obviously it was important in the making of the press strategy for A Star is Born, but he’s very private, and it comes across in this interview that he did not want to talk about himself, to the point where it gets uncomfortable. You know, and with the advent of so many personal press reps dealing with you on the show, you need to have an honest conversation with them, which is, “Look, we’ve got tickets to sell. This is a Broadway show.” The producers are expecting your star to do press. So let’s agree on three major things, and add on if we have to. And if we’re talking about Tony Awards, there’s going to have to be more. So it’s all about, again, being honest, and being the voice of reason, and knowing that you’re not going to promise something on the press rep’s behalf without checking with them.

Erik Gensler: So if I read a feature piece in The New York Times that is “Three Weddings on Broadway,” or “Dogs in Broadway Shows,” or …, is that a clever publicist behind that?

Chris Boneau: Yes and no. Sometimes, it’s the Times being clever on their own. Other times, a great idea starts with the publicist who decides to pitch it. We just did a replacement story on Mean Girls for “Arts and Leisure.” And we gave the reporter and the photographer access for a week, for Jenny Simard to get ready to make her debut. And that was an idea that they loved, they hadn’t thought of, and it was one of our employees who’s really smart and came up with the idea and saw it all the way through, and I love that. I love when somebody in the office takes an idea, runs with it, and makes it happen.

Erik Gensler: So do you feel like a big part of your job now is mentorship?

Chris Boneau: Strategy and mentorship. I love letting someone handle something like, not just a press release, but handle pitching something or taking an idea and seeing where they can go with it. We work on teams in the office, and it’s a great chance for someone to grow. I can’t do everything. And I don’t want to. I used to say, you know, “I can write a press release,” but I haven’t in a while, because I’m a great editor. I would much rather take out my red pen and edit your press release, literally on paper, give it back to you and make it slightly better. But without criticism, just saying this could be better if we flipped these two paragraphs. So, I have mentored so many people that many of them have gone on to start their own offices, which makes me feel good and other days I feel like, “Oh, really?” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: (laughs) So how does that work on … with ATPAM? So for the people who don’t know, what is ATPAM? How does Boneau/Bryan-Brown, who is a collection of publicists who are all part of a union … can you just explain that structure?

Chris Boneau: ATPAM is the union for press agents and managers. you earn your way into ATPAM. A contract usually has two people on it, for show. A lead person and an associate, depending on how busy the office is, someone new gets brought into ATPAM and, hopefully once they get in, they don’t leave. It depends on how many contracts you have. Like for example I can’t hold every single contract. It just I guess against ERISA laws. So, when somebody gets the chance to be an ATPAM associate, we normally promote them within as a Vice President, but you have to have an ATPAM contract for most shows. A lot of off-Broadway you don’t. It’s a big deal. you can talk pro and con about unions, but the great thing about my union is I have an annuity and a pension, and the ATPAM rate for a Broadway show stays exactly the same, week after week. It doesn’t matter if the show’s having a profitable week or not. Our money that gets paid to us, or … from ATPAM is exactly the same.

Erik Gensler: So a lot of your work is based on your strong relationships with Broadway producers. Is that what you’d attribute a lot of your success to and the ability to keep bringing on new shows? Do you feel like you have to go out and pitch? I’m just curious how does that process work when a producer says, “We’re going to do a show. We have to find a publicist.”

Chris Boneau: Right. Well, most of it, I would say probably more than 75 percent, is loyalty from producers we’ve worked with for years. Just recently I was part of, I guess, four or five different offices pitching a new show, the Tina Turner musical, and I got the show. And it was curious because when I went over to London, I didn’t even get to see the star, I saw, not even her standby, I saw her understudy. But it actually gave me a unique perspective, because I could talk about the show itself, and not about the star.

Chris Boneau: And so that’s a new relationship that’s developing, and you always hope that it will lead to another show. I mean you can’t take for granted that there will be another show from them. You have to just sort of do your best job on that one and not make them have second thoughts. Sometimes during the pitching process, we have determined that it’s not a good fit for us, that it’s better to say, “We’re actually too busy, thank you for considering us.” Because no matter what we say, they’re not listening, and it just feels wrong. To me, one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned as a business owner is, it’s really okay to walk away, just for the good of everybody, you know. I got an email from a friend who is producing a show that I’ve been talking to about it for a while, and the star he was going to bring in … Oh my god. I mean, train wreck. I mean just a train wreck. And so I, over the weekend I wrote him an email and I said, “I’m so sorry to write this email to you, but I don’t think she will sell tickets. I think she’s difficult.” And he wrote back to me and he said, “That’s why you’re my friend. Thank you so much for telling me that. I needed to hear it.” And whether or not he goes forward with this person in this project is going to be anybody’s guess. It means I’m not doing it though.

Erik Gensler: You spent a lot of timing working with or around major celebrities and, I mean, if you look through all the shows you’ve done, names like Sarah Jessica Parker, Tina Fey, Steven Sondheim. Do you get intimidated when you’re in a room with someone like that?

Chris Boneau: You know, strangely, I’m not, only because I’m there to work. I’m not there to fan-girl. I’m not there to get all … I mean, look, you know, you meet Steven Sondheim, you meet, you know, Hugh Jackman, who is the nicest man alive … When you have a conversation, you need to have something to say to them, not just, you know, “Hey, how’s it going? Loved your last-“

Erik Gensler: “Loved Wolverine!

Chris Boneau: Yeah, “I loved Wolverine!” they have to see you as the professional you’re supposed to be. The fact that they don’t mind a bit of flattery within that conversation … But someone like Tina Fey’s a perfect example. Tina does not need anybody else to tell her how funny she is. She doesn’t. She’s there to work on her show. However, one of my favorite moments during Mean Girls in D.C. was when a new joke went in, I was right behind her. And she turned around and looked at me and I was like, “Oh my god. This is great!” And she was like, “Yes, I think so.” Because the audience just went crazy. And so, those moments when you actually get someone just kind of stripped down, and they’re not a celebrity. Now, there are other people who are so not approachable. They are so surrounded by people and they don’t really care what you have (laughs) to say. And you have to go through their handlers, which is kind of sad, because you want to present the idea that you’re putting forth, but that’s pretty rare. I mean, look, in a rehearsal situation, in a preview situation, most artists are being their true selves. They are working as hard as they possibly can. They want feedback. They want to hear what you’re hearing. But getting to the point where you’re actually annoying them, you know, it’s something we talk about in the office too, which is, we don’t need fans there. We need people who are working. And do your job.

Erik Gensler: I mean, that must be hard for a young publicist to go from not doing this work to all of a sudden being in the room with these A-list celebrities.

Chris Boneau: Yeah, some people have taken it too far. And we actually had an employee early on, who managed to have an affair with every leading man on every show she worked on. And you’re like, “Okay, well, good for you. Not good for us. Let’s hope it doesn’t mess up, you know, our relationship on the show. (laughs) Let’s not tell the producers this.”

Erik Gensler: (laughs) You do a lot of media training.

Chris Boneau: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Can you talk about that?

Chris Boneau: I think media training is essential. We do it not just with cast and creative team, but we also do it with executives or producers, and to me, going back to, what’s important about the show, getting the show’s message across, part of it is them hearing from us what that message is that should be conveyed. Hearing, what we say, what we don’t say. What are the hot-button issues we stick away from? What’s going to be a spoiler about the show? And then we give them tips. Things that they … a lot of it’s common sense, but they don’t really … sometimes they’ve heard it before. I remember doing media training with the cast of Nice Work if You Can Get It and Kelly O’Hara heard me say something and she said, “Oh my god, I do that all the time. I can’t believe you just said that, and now I need to fix this!” And then- then we do one on one training, where we actually put people through scenarios, where they get asked easy questions. Then they go into a series of kind of middle, tricky, maybe a couple of “gotcha” questions, which are built-in, how do you handle that? And then we do a hard ball one. And believe it or not, most people do best in the hard ball issue, because by then they’ve been through an hour of prep and 20 minutes of the interviews. They’re ready. And they’ve kind of nailed it. I actually love doing media training, because I can see the difference in what happens with people. I’ve actually done it around the country and I like- I like the different scenarios you get presented with: students, professors, faculty at universities, artistic directors. I did this artistic director recently and when she said, “I’m really terrible at public speaking and getting my message across,” I said, “Well then give me an hour and 15 minutes and we’ll fix it.” And she got back to her office and called me and said, “That was amazing. I feel better. I feel like I know what I’m doing,” and, you know, what I always say to people is, “Always have, and update it all the time, not just your mission statement, but your ten talking points that you always have to answer.”

Erik Gensler: What is one of your proudest moments as a publicist?

Chris Boneau: There are many, but they mostly are within the office itself, meaning watching someone do something extraordinary or seeing someone that you didn’t expect had it in them to pull something off or what we as an office can accomplish when we’re all talking and thinking things through. we’ve had success with shows. We’ve had success with a great event. A great junket. but the great thing about our office is that I have people who really care about making things better. I think the proudest moment for me, goes back to the beginning, joining up with Adrian, a person I still today think of as my friend/mentor, knowing that we work totally differently, but that together we’ve created something special and that we are now finishing a school for press agents. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: So not only do you work with Broadway shows, but I know, and you’ve invited me to some of the Broadways movies you’ve worked on, and you work with a number of the not-for-profit arts organizations. How is your press strategy different when working with a show versus an institution? If at all?

Chris Boneau: It starts with a show. It doesn’t matter where it is. it starts with a campaign, with strategy. It starts with conversations with the actor’s reps. I would say the biggest difference is, the coverage is probably less.

Erik Gensler: Hmm.

Chris Boneau: There are … We actually have an off-Broadway critics list, which is smaller. I mean you think about it, they’re not-for-profit. You don’t want to give away that many tickets. They’re not going to win every single award. So, you have that conversation at the beginning: “Are we going to send nominators and voters? That’s a lot of tickets if you want to do that, or do you want to make money?” And remember, they’re in a different situation. They need to sell tickets to keep their subscriber base up, and but at the same time they need visibility and awareness. it’s not the same conversation at every show, but it’s the one you have to touch base with a lot. What’s the goal here? Obviously to get a critic, and it’s not always going to be a first string critic. It can’t be. They can’t see everything. I know that one of the bigger ones that I work with has struggled over the last couple of years on programming hasn’t been what it should be or could be and that’s resulted in the kind of coverage that’s just it’s lessened. It’s not what we all want. The not-for-profits that I don’t work on, or sometimes do work on, when there are stars trotting through there all the time, they have less of a problem. But if you don’t have a star or someone who’s known, or who happens to be promoting a TV show or a movie at the same time, and therefore doing press, it’s really hard. It’s really hard.

Erik Gensler: Do you find that you get the occasion to pitch institutional stories? Are writers receptive to that?

Chris Boneau: You know, it’s like an educational story. If they, you know … anniversaries of theaters mean nothing. They just … they don’t care. I was advising with the- on the Guthrie several years ago, and they were having a 50th. They were one of the first regional theaters in America. And a 50th anniversary, nobody cared. And I think they got a local story and one New York story. But there was no reason to celebrate an anniversary because they weren’t doing anything that special., if they had devoted an entire season to premiering new works by, back to Tony Kushner or someone like that, and you had a reason to write about the theater as opposed to the fact, “Hey we’re 50″… We always tell them if you’re going to try for an institutional story, give us something that’s besides that you’re 50 or that you know, “We do great stuff and we’ve been around for a long time.” No. No, no, no. What is it that you’re doing that makes this the perfect moment to write about you? And that’s hard for them. They don’t want to hear it.

Erik Gensler: It’s hard for you.

Chris Boneau: And it’s hard for us. Because we’ll sit around brainstorming and then, you know, you’ll send it back to the- the not-for-profits and they’re like, “Oh, no. We don’t want to do that story,” or “Oh, it’s not for us. We’re not doing it.” And we’re like, “Oh, come on. You know, you’re killing me here.” But I love … I mean, I started in not- not- not- not-for-profit, and Atlantic, which is a client, was my first client working out of my living room. I had the entire company, Mary McKeon and Felicity Huffman, and … I think Bill Macey came and they were stuffing press releases out of my living room, and that’s a memory I’m never going to forget.

Erik Gensler: So you’ve come to your final question, and we call this your CI to Eye moment. And if you could broadcast to the executive director’s, leadership team, staff, and board of 1,000 arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Chris Boneau: I keep coming back to the word “honesty,”… but also part of my media training sessions involves this one sentence: the truth is your friend. And the more you stick with that, the better. You need to be truthful with yourself. am I a good speaker? Can I get better? Am I a good communicator? And that then goes into your relationships with the press. “The press is not your friend” because if they want a story and you don’t want to participate, they’re going to go after you. So you just have to stick to the tenets of honesty, truth, clarity, thinking on your feet, and being prepared for just about anything.

Erik Gensler: Well, this was really fun. Thank you so much.

Chris Boneau: Thank you!

About Our Guests
Chris Boneau
Chris Boneau
Co-Founder, Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Chris Boneau is the co-founder of Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Since founding his theatrical press agency with partner Adrian Bryan-Brown in 1991, Boneau/Bryan-Brown has represented over 400 plays and musicals, which have won 222 Tony Awards and 11 Pulitzer Prizes.

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