Box office success Noreen Heron

Noreen Heron "It's really hard to sell theater," Heron says. "In Chicago, we consider ourselves a theater town—there are 170 theaters, but only a limited number of true theatergoers." (Photo by Callie Lipkin)
Publicist Noreen Heron’s efforts behind the scenes generate the buzz that gets people into the seats of Chicago-area theaters.

Before you pick up a ticket, before you’re anywhere near your seat, the first person you’re likely to encounter on opening night at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., is Noreen Heron ’86 LAS. She stands just inside the main door by the lobby press table, the show’s unofficial greeter, its striking blonde maître-d’, the woman whose talent for marketing and promotion may well determine the success of the show. Tonight, it’s The King and I, the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that’s been booked for a two-month run with a knockout cast.

But nothing’s a sure thing. To create buzz, to pump up the excitement, Heron’s done everything but jump onstage and waltz away with Siam’s headstrong monarch to the swells of Shall We Dance? In her email blast to 50,000 theater fans, she touted Nick Bowling, the show’s director and TimeLine Theater standout who’s making his debut at the Marriott and who put in hours of research with the Thai Cultural and Fine Arts Institute. She hyped the engaging Heidi Kettenring, who’ll be playing Anna and whom Heron helped place in a feature article in the Chicago Sun-Times. She landed a Daily Herald story on two cast members—“the Sugar Grove brothers,” Matthew and Zachary Usarraga, ages 9 and 11—who are part of the royal children troupe and whose favorite song, of course, is Getting to Know You. She and her staff worked numerous barter programs, trading tickets for display advertising. And she stayed in touch with many of the 75 critics invited to the Marriott opening—not that she can control what they’ll say.

“Producers don’t always understand that we can’t make a reviewer say what they want,” she says cheerfully, spotting Chris Jones, the influential theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, as he arrives through the lobby doors. He promptly greets Heron, and they chat amiably about an upcoming musical at the Mercury Theater, the abrupt executive shifts at Steppenwolf (which surprised many), the tragic death of a well-liked actor. Heron knows all about Chicago theater.

She ought to. She’s been part of the scene for quite some time. Her public relations agency, Noreen Heron & Associates, was formed just nine years ago, but Heron herself has been involved in Chicago theater since she lied about her age—she was 14—and landed a job as an usher at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, Ill., to help pay for her high school education.

“I saw my first show, and it was magical,” Heron recalls. “That’s when I developed this huge passion for musical theater.”

Heron stayed at Candlelight for 16 years, getting promoted to house manager, going on to handle subscriptions and then heading up public relations. She loved Candlelight, she loved the work, but it was exhausting. She stitched together two jobs for an 80-hour week and still didn’t have health insurance. So, heartbroken, she left Candlelight and took a job as public relations director at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Wacker Drive, where she had a hand in everything—from advertising to crisis management to event planning (a bridal show for 3,000, an even bigger New Year’s Eve bash and a giant Super Bowl party).

Public relations for Hyatt, Heron is quick to explain, is very different than the challenges involved in promoting theater. With hotels, you’ve got one goal—sell the room rate and hotel name, whether it’s Westin, Hilton or Hyatt. Theater can be a lot trickier.

“It’s really hard to sell theater,” Heron says. “In Chicago, we consider ourselves a theater town—there are 170 theaters, but only a limited number of true theatergoers. What does that mean? You go to a wedding, and someone asks, ‘What do you do?’ You say, ‘Public relations for theater,’ and they say, ‘Oh, I love theater,’ and you ask what they’ve seen, and they say, ‘I saw Wicked this year and Jersey Boys last year.’ That’s what we struggle with. For most people, it’s a once-a-year event for dad’s birthday or mom’s anniversary.”

By Heron’s count, there are about 150,000 theatergoers in the Chicago area. Her goal is to get those enthusiasts to attend plays or musicals anywhere from eight to 12 times a year. Good reviews help, but as Heron points out, “I don’t feel good about my job if I’m only trying to reach the theater press.” She taps schools, if it’s a family-friendly show; arranges marketing partnerships with the likes of American Express and WTTW magazine; and cooks up unique promotions based on demographics. In New York City, there’s a sharp trajectory—word gets around quickly about a hot ticket, and everyone jumps at the chance to see previews or get seats the week after opening. Chicago is more of a slow boil—what Heron calls a couch-potato town. “My job is to create excitement and critical buzz to the point where people feel they have to get their credit card out.”

Noreen Heron

Noreen Heron’s first theater job was as an usher at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, Ill. Today, her public relations firm, Noreen Heron & Associates, promotes such destinations as the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Ill., and the Drury Lane Theater in Oak Brook, Ill. (Photo by Callie Lipkin)

A girl from a small Catholic school
Heron herself is a major asset when it comes to winning trust and grabbing attention.

“She embraces the emotionalism of her business,” Jones says. “To represent artists, you have to understand their personalities. Noreen is exuberantly sympathetic to the arts. She understands the hopes, dreams and neuroses of her clients. She’s highly empathic, but she’s also glamorous. She presents a glamorous personality in the lobby.”

Heron got into public relations by chance, a happy accident for which she credits UIC. A native of Chicago’s Southwest Side, she’d picked UIC because it allowed her to work while attending school. “Both my parents,” Heron says, “had a strong work ethic and imparted in me early a sense of responsibility.” Although she was thrilled from the first day of classes—“I remember the first day walking around campus and falling in love”—switching from a small, all-girl Catholic school, Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont, Ill., took some adjustment. “UIC was so incredibly different than the environment I’d experienced,” Heron says. “The course [content] was just as shocking, especially for a girl from a small Catholic school taking her first class in philosophy. I still remember thinking, ‘There might not be a God!’”

Aside from some “amazing” professors, what Heron remembers most fondly was the internship program where she spent two semesters working for Inside Publications, a local newspaper chain. She did everything: layout, reporting, sales. “What it also taught me was that I didn’t want to be a newspaper reporter,” Heron says with a smile. “Publicists would call the newspaper and pitch me, and I thought, ‘How creative, what a clever promotion. I think I’d rather be on that side.’” She also took several public relations courses at a time when public relations was not widely taught. She then did an internship at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and planned its 25th anniversary party.

Candlelight was a huge part of Heron’s professional life, which is immediately apparent to anyone who visits her street-accessible Chicago office on West Fullerton Avenue. Over her desk hangs a blown-up photograph of the Candlelight production of A Chorus Line, a treasure that Heron rescued from its deteriorating fate in storage. Other memorabilia—banners from the theater—hang on the front walls, where an all-female staff of eight are busy working phones and computers.

“I truly, truly have the best team,” Heron exclaims in a voice that manages to be both public relations gushy and sincere. “We always talk about how we couldn’t do without each other. We’ve got great working relationships, we respect each other, we commiserate. There’s not a lot of girl drama—which helps, because there are a lot of big egos in theater. People say there’s more drama behind the scenes than whatever’s on stage, and you’re always managing that, keeping the press drama away from the client. It takes a strong sense of self because you’re always putting out fires, and you’re not always treated that well.”

Heron’s office specializes in theater, especially big commercial musicals, but she also handles hotel properties. After her stint at Hyatt, she left with a consulting gig for 42 Hyatt hotels in the central and southern U.S., and then, after a corporate restructuring at Hyatt, responsibility for additional Hyatts throughout the country. She also does public relations for the Fairmont Chicago Hotel, Broughton Hotels and Chicago-area Le Meridien hotels. Other clients include Massage Envy Spa and several restaurants.

Noreen Heron

“For me, being able to represent theater, which I love so much, to do that everyday is like a gift,” Heron says. “I’m just incredibly lucky.” (Photo by Callie Lipkin)

Chicago does have a few other major firms that specialize in theater—notably Cathy Taylor Public Relations and Margie Korshak—and Heron calls them all “friendly competitors.” “There’s so much theater in Chicago none of us could do it all,” Heron notes. But she’s quick to mention all the bells and whistles that make her services unique. She’s always looking to grow the agency and be more profitable, but prioritizes higher salaries over additional staff. This is not to say Heron accepts every client who walks in the door. Budget issues can determine her willingness to take on new business. “If a producer decides to open a show and pay bills with just ticket revenue, that’s a red flag,” she says. “It means they think their show is so fabulous that everyone’s going to come see it. But no capitalization is a recipe for disaster.”

By most any standards, Heron’s efforts on behalf of Marriott paid off. When the opening-night show ended, everyone jumped to their feet for a standing ovation, even the critics, which Heron took as a good sign. Indeed, within 48 hours, both Jones at the Tribune and Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times had given the production rave reviews. Heron, meanwhile, was already hard at work promoting another big musical, Camelot, which opened two weeks after The King and I at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oak Brook, Ill. It, too, was a revival with a difference—a totally re-imagined staging of the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical that was a big hit with President John F. Kennedy, featuring a stripped-down score and a younger, sexed-up Arthur and Guinevere.

“We wanted to be respectful of the past, but also shed new light on Camelot,” says Kyle DeSantis, Drury Lane’s executive producer, who entrusted Heron to sell the right message. “What’s unique about Noreen is that she’s grown up with great exposure to theater, and she’s got a great relationship with the acting and artistic communities. Her experience is a real asset.”

That experience paid off with the pre-opening press, as it had with The King and I. Heron could claim a lengthy article published by Sun Times Media on Camelot director Alan Souza—“known for taking potentially fusty musicals, and breathing new urgency and relevance into them,” went the story, which also included an interview with New York import Christy Altomare, who reflected on her character, Guinevere, and the fabled three-way love story. Placing such interviews isn’t always a piece of cake, says Heron, who occasionally has had to sweet-talk clients who wanted to save their singer’s voice or, on one memorable occasion, refused to let a star appear in a Thanksgiving Day parade because snow was forecasted.

Camelot, like The King and I, drew rave reviews from Jones and Weiss.

There have been times, naturally, when critics don’t share the anticipatory hype emanating from the office of Noreen Heron & Associates. Not every show gets a four-star rating. It’s tricky for Heron, who must balance her loyalty to the client with a professional responsibility to the press, and then weigh all that against her personal views. “I can’t take it totally on the chin when a critic says a show was awful and I thought it was fabulous. Because I worked at Candlelight for 16 years, I feel comfortable expressing my own opinion, though I always do it respectfully. But as Hedy [Weiss] once reminded me, ‘That’s fine, but I have the pen.’”

What Heron has, a paramount asset, is a genuine passion for her work. “For me, being able to represent theater, which I love so much, to do that every day is like a gift,” she says. “I always say to myself, ‘You’re so privileged to represent the quality of artists and theaters.’ I’m just incredibly lucky.”