'Gentleman's Guide To Love Murder'

The state office of tourism in association with its five Tony Award-winning theaters (plus the historic Westport Country Playhouse) have joined forces to put a big marketing spotlight on theater in Connecticut -- and offering some ticket, restaurant and hotel deals to consumers along the way. "A Gentleman's Guide To Love and Murder," originated at Hartford Stage and won several Tonys, including for for best musical. (Joan Marcus / October 21, 2013)

Call it "A Gentleman's Guide To Theater and Tourism."

After all, it's just a pilot program, the scope is modest and you won't find any parades, celebrities or fireworks associated with this new project.

But for Connecticut theater, this is a big deal.

The state office of tourism in association with its five Tony Award-winning theaters (plus the historic Westport Country Playhouse) have joined forces to put a big marketing spotlight on theater in Connecticut — and offering some ticket, restaurant and hotel deals to consumers along the way.

Specifically, the marketing campaign is highlighting work that is being done by the state's "flagship producing theaters" over a fall weekend next month. Starting Monday, Sept. 8,  theater-lovers within the state — and hopefully beyond — can go to the "Play! In Connecticut: Fall Theatre Festival" at www.playinct.org and check out the weekend performances, events — and bargains — happening Oct. 23 to 26. Tickets purchased before Sept. 21 receive a 20 percent discount. There are plenty of other restaurant and lodging deals, too.

The fact that the office of tourism sees the arts as a key component — along with the natural splendors of the state — is significant. For decades, the arts have been tokens at best in unfocused campaigns in promoting the state.

The shows being promoted for this "festival" are William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" at Hartford Stage, Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" at the Yale Repertory Theatre; Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at Long Wharf Theatre; the Eugene O'Neill Celebration at O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford; the new musical "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn" at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam; a new musical "Circus in Winter" at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester; and Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" at the Westport Playhouse. There are also special events happening that weekend associated with these shows, such as wine tastings, tours, talk-backs and a symposium.

Are these the only shows being presented in Connecticut? Of course not. Hartford TheaterWorks, Ivoryton Playhouse, UConn's Connecticut Rep, West Hartford's Playhouse on Park, the Yale Cabaret and many other theaters around the state do fine stuff, too — some on that very weekend.

But for this first year of promoting a "theater weekend," the tourism office's focus is narrow and sharp, says Fritz Jellinghaus, chairman of the arts council at the Department of Economic and Community Development . The spotlight is on theaters known for creating shows from scratch that have then moved on to fill stages across the country.

But it all begins in Connecticut.

And what about the Bushnell?

Well, these six theaters are different than "presenting" houses that book shows that can be seen in Anystate, USA, like Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, New Haven's Shubert Theater, New London's Garde Theatre, Torrington's Warner Theater and Waterbury's Palace (which, by the way, is beginning the tour of "Newsies" during the festival weekend. The Bushnell has "Evil Dead: The Musical.")

It's the difference between a homemade and store-bought cake.

No, what makes the state special are Connecticut theaters that create works that are so good, so special, so popular that they often go elsewhere, and like "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" — which was developed and premiered at Hartford Stage and then went on to Broadway where it won the Tony Award as the best musical of the season. As Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said: "If they give an award for the state where the most exciting theater originated, it would have to be Connecticut. Connecticut is all about theater."

Now that's a marquee quote.

So why not promote what many here already know? Well, not everyone knows what we have here. It's the first time in my memory that the state tourism department has made a concentrated effort to market specifically Connecticut theater in a comprehensive way. While still far from the powerhouse arts-tourism campaigns that Boston, London, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Louisville undertake, it's a good start.

The cost of this theater initiative is difficult to determine, says Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, deputy commissioner at the Department of Economic and Community Development. That's because the money is part of the already existing fall tourism budget, but Bergstrom says that the "Play! In Connecticut" campaign could be roughly estimated around $175,000, including TV, digital and print advertising buys, promotion and in-kind services.

The timing is right for the theaters, too. Artistic leaders and management are less isolated from each other and are more willing to cooperate and collaborate. Indeed, much of the work for "Play In Connecticut" is being done by the marketing departments of the theaters.

The tourism campaign perfectly dovetails with Bergstrom's effort to brand the state for both its Nature and Cultural treasures.

The campaign will also help further identify the state for its innovation — here demonstrated in the arts, not just as a curator of stuff or a presenter for other people's art but as a dynamic place where creativity is valued, experimentation is understood, and the new, the fresh and the fun are nurtured.

The pilot program, says Jellinghaus, has the potential to expand and grow to other times of the year if the indicators are positive.

So will this tourism campaign make thousands from New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and beyond flock to Connecticut for a weekend next month? Hard to say, though Bergstrom says they will be tracking where tickets are being bought for that weekend as well as using other metrics, polling and indicators.

It will certainly be helpful to the theater fan who wants to binge with benefits. Harder to gauge is if the campaign acts as a tipping point — encouraging more travel here. Think of it as Fall Foliage-Plus, or Apple Picking-Plus, or Hiking-In-Connecticut-Plus. Yes, you can go elsewhere for those activities, but can you see the next Broadway hit, too? Be moved to tears in a first-class production of that American classic "Our Town?" See the next exciting "Hamlet?"

To go or not to go Connecticut, that is the question. This campaign gives you that extra reason. And the answer.