NEW YORK TIMES: ‘Monkey’ Missionaries Find Their Flocks
May 28, 2014
‘Monkey’ Missionaries Find Their Flocks
Lincoln Center Seeks a New Audience for ‘Monkey’
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: July 7, 2013
The New World Mall in Flushing, Queens, is a busy place. Customers pass through its chrome and glass doors in a steady stream that can swell to a torrent, then shop its dozens of boutiques or cruise the aisles at J-Mart, a huge supermarket that, like the businesses around it, caters primarily to Chinese-Americans from Flushing, Elmhurst and Long Island.
“This is a good place for us — lots of people,” said Zoe Zhang, a vice president of China Express Agency, a marketing company that has promoted numerous Chinese cultural events in the United States. She was standing near the mall’s escalators on a recent Saturday afternoon and directing a team of Mandarin speakers recruited from local universities as they pushed Lincoln Center Festival’s centerpiece production, “Monkey: Journey to the West.”
Meanwhile, in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Cornerstone, a music marketing and branding company, was busy pushing “Monkey” fliers on a completely different population: indie music enthusiasts.
Both companies were hired by the Lincoln Center Festival in an unusual multipronged campaign for “Monkey,” a production based on a classic Chinese tale with music and visuals by the creators of the virtual band Gorillaz. Its 27 performances run the entire length of the festival, through July 28, at the David H. Koch Theater.
The campaign is a departure for Lincoln Center, whose promotional efforts tend toward the tried and true, but “Monkey” offers unusual opportunities. It takes as its source material a traditional story as familiar to the Chinese as “The Odyssey” is to Western audiences, but the director, Chen Shi-Zheng, has modernized it with a vengeance.
Working with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the creators of Gorillaz, he has wrought a Chinese rock opera in Mandarin with mythic themes and a razzle-dazzle staging that incorporates animated sequences, kung-fu fighters, acrobats and contortionists. It has a little something for everybody, in other words, and the festival is selling it that way.
Ticket prices, for one thing, have a big spread, starting at a modest $25 and topping out at $250. At the moment, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Center said, ticket sales are “on track to make our goal.” She declined to explain what the goal was, but expectations are high, since the show was a big hit in Paris and in England (London and Manchester) and at the 2008 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.
To reach the Chinese media, here and abroad, Lincoln Center hired Wei Zhou, a publicist in Basking Ridge, N.J., to work local Chinese newspapers, television and radio, and the main television networks and news agencies in China. In similar fashion, Cornerstone was hired to reach a younger, culturally adventurous audience, starting with the Gorillaz fan base, for whom this show is not necessarily an easy sell. “Musically it’s totally different,” said Jon Cohen, a partner with Rob Stone, the company’s founder. “It takes place in a venue and a neighborhood that core fans do not know. They will have to have a reason to go to Lincoln Center.”
At the mall, Ms. Zhang’s team passed out “Monkey” fliers and cardboard fans, talked up the show and directed traffic to an information and ticketing table at the bottom of the down escalator. The canvassing was relentless. Before long, even babies in strollers were clutching promotional materials. Some shoppers, after quizzing the workers at the ticketing table, reached for their credit cards.
Lily Chow, buying tickets for her husband and two sons, said that she had seen many productions of “Journey to the West,” starting with a famous television series that Chinese Central Television broadcast in the 1970s. “I expect this one to be more like a Broadway musical,” she said.
Lapwah Yan, a Flushing resident, picked up a pair of tickets that she had reserved though the China Express Web site. “This combination of Western music and the Chinese story,” she said. “I think that’s interesting.”
Ms. Zhang, a native of Shanghai who now lives in Elmhurst, has also brought the “Monkey” message far beyond the mall. She has given presentations at community centers, Chinese-owned businesses and dance schools. Since the martial-art style known as monkey kung fu, or monkey fist, takes its inspiration from the hero of “Journey to the West,” Ms. Zhang has made appearances at kung-fu studios and plans to attend summer enrichment classes for Chinese students.
Ms. Zhou, the publicist, said: “Chinese parents would like their children to go. They want to encourage them to practice the language. Like my daughter. She doesn’t speak to me in Chinese. Also for the grandparents, who do not speak English — finally they can relax and enjoy the whole thing.”
While Ms. Zhang and her team were working the mall, Cornerstone’s field workers were spreading out across neighborhoods identified as “retail and lifestyle sites.” Earlier, they had hit Great GoogaMooga, the food and music festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and AnimeNext, an annual festival in Somerset, N.J.
YouTube, Twitter and Tumbler loom large in Cornerstone’s strategy, as well as clued-in lifestyle blogs like Flavorpill, Bullett and Brooklyn Vegan. To rope in the indie-music crowd, they have worked with Web sites like Oh My Rockness and Consequence of Sound, as well as The Fader, the indie-music and culture magazine started by Mr. Stone and Mr. Cohen.
On a sticky night in late June, a team from Cornerstone emerged from the subway at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue. The assignment: work the line waiting to get into a Comedy Central show, part of SummerStage in Central Park.
Unexpectedly, a swarm of high school students in caps and gowns began gathering for a graduation ceremony at Hunter College. Taking advantage of this bonanza, the team worked the crowd for a while, then headed to the park. The comedy audience, wilting in the heat, eagerly accepted “Monkey” fans and, with plenty of time on their hands, studied the fliers.
“Gorillaz?” said one young woman. “Sweet!”
A man reading over her shoulder said, “I would totally see that.”
The woman looked more closely at the flyer. “It’s, like, where the philharmonic is,” she said. “It’s legit.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 9, 2013
An article on Monday about the marketing of “Monkey: Journey to the West,” the centerpiece of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, misstated the name of the work’s director. He is Chen Shi-Zheng, not Cheng Shi Zheng.