The Spidey Project’s LA Invasion: How an Underground Musical Sought Out Comics Fans and New Audiences
Guest columnist Cindy Marie Jenkins explores the unexpected yet increasingly frequent relationship between theater and comic books, two art forms that must be innovative in attracting audiences.
Most likely if you’re reading this site, you heard of the record-breaking, bone-breaking Broadway debacle turned box office success called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark last year. Going over budget was not such a big deal (often happens with such a huge project), even pushing the opening back months wouldn’t have been such a big deal. What really put the PR nail in the Spider-Man musical spectacular coffin were injuries performers sustained during rehearsals and previews.
Of course, even a year and two lawsuits later, we’re still learning everything that went into the rise of the hype, the fall of the actors (sorry, I had to) and ultimately the writer/director Julie Taymor’s exit. From most accounts, the show is a spectacular good time if you don’t mind a thin story and extravaganza for extravaganza’s sake. As pure entertainment, it seems to do a non-offensive job. I’m curious to know what Spider-Man fans think about it, if you’ve seen it or followed the story at all.
One of the more positive things to arise from all of this craziness is The Spidey Project. Creator Justin Moran released this video last February challenging himself – and anyone game enough to jump along with him – to write, score, cast, rehearse, costume, tech… you get the point… in 30 days and open his zero budget show before the $65 million dollar musical. The big payoff is that Moran didn’t just want to get the new musical open before the mega-musical, he wanted to prove you don’t need $65 million dollars to write a good story. For anyone remotely involved in the theatrical hierarchy and being told to write smaller cast plays so theaters who pay actors can actually consider producing them, Moran’s challenge hit home. Are theaters as a whole putting their money in the wrong places?
It is incredibly telling that their second video begins with a small print disclaimer making it clear, in case you were confused, that Moran in no way has the rights to do anything that he’s doing with The Spidey Project. In fact, that was Moran’s response to Gregory Crafts, Managing Director of Theatre Unleashed in Los Angeles who asked for the rights as soon as he saw the challenge video. His thought was that his theater could produce the West Coast premiere in solidarity with Moran in New York City: “We’ll see if we get sued first.”
Crafts was impressed with Moran’s results: “Well, they didn’t get sued. The show was a complete success. I finally got to see it when he posted it on YouTube. We kept in touch and late last year, we struck a deal for Theatre Unleashed to premiere it out west. It’s been our most successful show to date.”
He wasn’t just interested in the show for the marketing appeal, though; Crafts details how big a role comics have played in his life. “The first comic book I ever read was Web of Spider-Man #12. I’ve been collecting and reading them off and on for twenty-five years now. It’s kind of crazy. Books like Spider-Man, X-Men and The Avengers influenced me a lot growing up, and played a big role in defining who I am today. We’re talking they’ve shaped my life to the point where, for my day job, I do marketing for a company that makes high-end collectables based on Marvel characters (as well as Star Wars and other major geek intellectual properties). So, it’s not hyperbole when I say comic books and characters like Spider-Man are a huge part of my life.”
Truth be told, one of my personal beefs with theatrical productions that have such a great cross-genre appeal is that they do very little to no realistic attempts at reaching that potential audience. They usually send a few emails inviting comic stores to their show and call it a day. So I was highly impressed at the extensive outreach that Theatre Unleashed accomplished in their short rehearsal period. Although they’ve had a few months to prepare, T.U. still delivers the same kind of guerrilla quality love for their premiere of The Spidey Project while attempting to reach a new audience with many different tactics. In no particular order:
1. Because it’s an unlicensed parody musical, they faced quite a few marketing challenges in order to stay under the “Fair Use” rules. Says Crafts: “We were really gun shy about using the #Marvel or #SpiderMan hashtags, but we still tweeted a lot about the show, about Spider-Man himself.”
2. They also integrated an extensive social media campaign Crafts called “the 50 Days of Spider-Man, where we shared the top 10 stories, top 10 villains, etc. in honor of Spidey’s 50th anniversary this year. So, for us it was about raising awareness and sharing our appreciation of the character with our patrons, theatre-goers and comic book fans alike.” A recent Facebook post featured David Letterman’s Top Ten Changes to the Spider-Man Musical also paid homage to this project’s birth.
3. “We were also very active in the real world.” says Crafts. “We did put up posters around town, especially in comic shops.”
4. Meltdown Comics hosted a one-night teaser where the audience heard some songs along with other entertainment acts.
5. Offering steep discounts through Goldstar’s Deal of the Day was probably the most important step for both ticket sales and word-of-mouth. “We sold over 300 tickets in one twelve-hour period, and word of the show spread like wildfire from there,” remembers Crafts.
6. They went a step further and opened their lobby to other sorts of art, creating a gallery of “Spidey-themed art by fans, for fans. More like a “tribute” gallery.” Crafts added, “This was pretty awesome, because we put out the call to artists everywhere and did get submissions from across the country. We also had a whole bunch of submissions come in from a grade school class. It’s kind of cool to see Spidey interpreted through the eyes of a child.For those who haven’t been to the show, we’ll be posting pictures of everything on our website soon.”
7. Something Crafts did not mention and which I know thanks to their social media campaign is that they also created guerrilla, effective process videos from Day 1. You definitely want to watch the time lapse of the set being painted, especially for the video bombs near the end. More photos of the rehearsal process are also on their Facebook page.
8. With all of the successful efforts listed above, Crafts sees their partnership with Children’s Hospital LA being the more important part of their campaign. Crafts explains that Theatre Unleashed is running a book drive for the hospital’s Literally Healing program. Crafts explains, “This is an innovative program that gifts books to children in long-term care and their families. This one hit close to home for me, as I’ve got a cousin whose life was saved by Children’s Hospital Boston, so when we came up with the idea to run a book drive in conjunction with the comic book musical, CHLA was the first place I researched. We’ve been offering patrons that bring a new children’s book to donate to CHLA the ability to name their own ticket price to see the show. A nice incentive, I think. Taking things one step further, we actually had members of the cast visit the Hospital last week in costume and in character. We hosted story time and gifted books from the hospital’s Book Moobile (a book cart that looks like a cow). It was a great experience and the kids were absolutely thrilled to get to meet Spidey in real life. The folks at CHLA were absolutely fantastic to work with and we’re looking forward to partnering with them more in the future.”
Up until the last week, T.U.’s message to their audience prevails: Come experience this show with us. The final push in an otherwise sold-out run had them running a contest to win two tickets to their closing night, typically also a party night in the theatre world. How can one lucky fan win free tickets to closing night? That is one more inventive idea that proves Gregory Crafts and Theatre Unleashed are looking for long-term relationships with their community and their audiences.
Cindy Marie Jenkins admits her childhood playmates were Gilbert & Sullivan. She works as a Storyteller and Freelance Consultant. Current writing found at the Blue Dragon Scribe Shoppe and MYTHistories. @CindyMarieJ. She is a big fan of beer. CindyMarieJenkins.com.
Posted on April 13, 2012, in Columns and tagged Book Moobile, Children's Hospital, Children's Hospital LA, comic books, comics, Goldstar, Greg Crafts, Hollywood Fringe Festival, Julie Taymor, Justin Moran, Literally Healing, Marvel Comics, Meltdown Comics, musical, process videos, Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, The Spidey Project, theater, Theatre Unleashed, Web of Spider-Man. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.