The Great Chicago Fire struck twice. Once in 1871 and once again last night. The first time Chicago (and it’s brand) needed to be repaired. Now, I’m afraid it’s a small business who’s reputation needs to be saved. Both incidents had the potential to be devastating, just in different ways. Chicago rose like a phoenix from the flames in 1871 (I’m so sorry. I just had to say it. I couldn’t help myself.). So will one of my favorite little theaters, RedMoon.
The Little Engine That Could
Redmoon is essentially a public art/performance art theatre company, founded in 1990. It’s mission, per it’s website is to “Transform the experience of our urban landscape through ephemeral events that disrupt everyday life and provide opportunities for public engagement, community building and recognition of the possibility of change.” Together with their small staff, producing artistic directors Frank Maugeri and Jim Lasko bring new meaning to the concept of “small business, big product.” Last night was to be it’s biggest triumph.
My Possibly Feeble Attempt at Spin: In Defense of an Idea
Raging from October 8th to October 10th 1871, the Great Chicago fire killed 300ish people, destroyed 3.3 square miles, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. It was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, and decimated most of the city’s central business district. Last night, the wonderful, risk-taking RedMoon theatre attempted to “simulate” the event and celebrate the strength of this great city in the first annual “Chicago Fire Festival.” They did it amazingly well…just not in the manner expected. No matter what they tried, they could not get the Water Tower sets floating on the river to ignite as planned….proving definitively that Chicago is not just strong…it’s indestructible!!!
On my FB page, I wrote, “I loved freezing my tail off with thousands of other lively Chicagoans, supporting this great city and one of the best little theaters in Chicago. You go, Red Moon! Next year it’ll be a great blaze.”
Not everyone agreed. Actually, apparently, no one agreed.
This event was over a year in the making. Last evening was to be a water show on the Chicago River, with the “stage” covering the area beneath three bridges in close proximity. The “stars” of the show were three floating platforms anchored near each bridge, carrying a structure that looked like a large Victorian House circa 1871. The free show was to include flaming buoys, caldrons lowered from the bridge, performances by Redmoon and the Chicago Children’s Choir and the finale, the torching of the “houses” to symbolize the original fire. Inside each “house” was stored the big reveal: fireproof symbolic sculptures to rise from the flames (I won’t mention the phoenix again. I promise.). Other elements of the show included constructed steamboats intended to deliver the fire to ignite the houses, and a fireworks display, with music, to conclude. There was also a pres-how bazaar offering crafts and food from 30 kiosks representing Redmoon’s neighborhood partners.
Last night’s event was the culmination of a year of collaboration with Chicago neighborhoods, including a photo booth in which about 7,000 people have posed. For each individual posing, the photos represent challenges overcome and new opportunities to celebrate. Hundreds of the resulting photos lined the area surrounding the river and were flashed from screens on 75 kayaks in the show’s final moments.
Major undertaking. Get the picture?
Reviews weren’t kind, with headlines like Chicago Tribune’s “Some feel burned by Great Chicago Fire Festival,” “Chicago Fire Festival Fizzles After Technical Problems” (WGN), and “The Great Chicago Fire Festival Was a Total Bust” (www.chicagoist.com). All very clever, as the media likes to be. Audience members were equally dismayed. It was, after all, unseasonably cool for a 2-hour outdoor hangout with no finale.
And yet…the nature of performance art is that it simply isn’t predictable. Painters don’t share their work until there’s a finished project. Not so, with this type of production. Technical difficulties occurred that were apparently weather-related. The universe did not comply.
My friends, all this is to say how critical it is to manage customer expectations. It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver and this was an example of the opposite.
Prior to the show, I commented, “What a marketing coup this is!!! 30,000+ in attendance will leave knowing and applauding this little company that was unknown to probably 90% of the viewers prior to the show. Not to mention the impact of the media coverage expected.” Yes, this certainly would put Redmoon on the map in a very public way.
After the show, I commented, “I sure hope this wonderful theatre survives the abuse that’s about to be thrust upon them.” I’m certain they will endure but, apparently, in infamy.
Are there other marketing lessons to be learned? Well, I’m hoping that the old cliche, “Any publicity is good publicity” holds, but of course that one has backfired for a lot of companies lately. “Bendgate” was funny/fun for many, but Apple’s stock took a significant hit due to (if Apple’s to be believed) a mere 9 Iphone 6+ defects.
To err is human, especially in a production this mammoth, and I hope my fellow Chicagoans can accept that this is all part and parcel of the pioneer spirit for which we’re known. Meanwhile, if you’re about to take a giant leap with your small business, think about setting expectations that you’re certain you can meet. Under-promise and over-deliver and you can’t go wrong.