Post image for The Cohort Club

(Editor’s note: This is an adapted version of a post that originally appeared on the Geva Theatre blog. We’re sharing it here in order to further advance this exciting audience engagement model as part of our Audience (R)Evolution program and the upcoming Audience Engagement arc at our 2013 National Conference. Want to share your own model? Email Gus Schulenburg.)

I’ve loved reading about other engagement experiments, and wanted to share an update about ours: The Cohort Club. I think what makes our effort unique, is that it was artistically driven (an effort to deepen our patrons understanding of the work we do, NOT just to attract new patrons), and the fact that it cost us nothing but staff time. Which is valuable, but by reorganizing a few things internally, suddenly we were able to make this happen in almost time.

I started with four ideas:
1) Education breeds excitement.
2) People wanna see how the sausage is made.
3) If you want people to come see your shows, you need to speak their language, or teach them yours.
4) “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”—Chinese proverb.

The Plan: to identify a group of twenty Rochesterians from varied ages, races, and socio-economic standings and give them unprecedented access to the creative process. And we did just that: we made it look like Rochester. We tested this plan on THE BOOK CLUB PLAY by Karen Zacarias, directed by me.

Participants were welcome at all rehearsals, technical rehearsals, previews, opening, and they receive rehearsal and show reports daily. We’d all go for coffee and adult beverages together, so folks could chat with me, the director, as well as the playwright and actors to gain a deeper level of understanding of the play and the production.

In exchange, participants agreed to read the script in advance of the project, attend a prerehearsal event at the theater to talk about the process, journal about their experience in whatever medium they find the most exciting (pen and paper, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and make these notes available to the Geva staff.

Perhaps our collectively bravest moment was when we went as far as to do a run through of the show, and then have the entire room, cohorts and actors talk about the show—why certain choices were made, where we are in the process—and equally important, what wasn’t working, and how we knew it wasn’t working – you know, sometimes things don’t work till week three.

Now that we’re through the process, or at least now that we made it through the opening, I can say for our first time out of the gate, it was a major success.

How do we gauge that? After four weeks of attending rehearsals and tech, the Cohorts called the show theirs—they talked about how nervous they were for their show to open, they brought friends to opening, they baked for the cast, they now obsessively check show reports as they came out—millions of dollars of marketing can’t buy this kind of ownership of our artistic product, and fluency in talking to their communities about it.

What I couldn’t predict is that the idea of education breeds excitement would be so true. The Cohorts suddenly wanted to learn more and more. Where is the costume shop, can we talk to the stitcher? Your sets are hand painted? Can we talk to the painter? What is the Equity book we all curse? And so on and so on. After opening, they commented on how they didn’t realize how many local artists it takes to pull off regional theater. Their appetite only grew as we offered more access to what we do. Some of the Cohorts were twenty-year subscribers who responded like they were hearing things they had never heard before. A great lesson in just because we told them how many local artists it takes to put on a show, they don’t always hear it—because until now, we weren’t really speaking the language our patrons spoke.

I invited several local critics and writers to participate, and they mentioned that NOW they understood why you can’t review previews.

Though it may be a great idea, I think it only worked because of the generosity of the actors and designers. The actors went out of their way to learn the names of the Cohorts kids. Most breaks in rehearsal were spent with the room just talking – as both groups learned about each other. Community got made on each 10.

I’ve also found that it’s been profound for me in changing how I think about engagement, how our audience wants to be involved and the real power inviting them into process has on all of us. When we did our run through and I listened to the cohorts make connections inside the show, I began to truly see them not only as observers, but also in the same way you see artistic staff visiting the room—trusted allies offering their opinions for you to take or leave as you ponder next steps. And for them, as many of them pointed out—to be asked, not marketed to—made the difference in how they came to deeply care about the process.

With any production, there is fun, short-term audience engagement, but sustained, deep, relationship-driven, artistic-based audience engagement? That’s more than doing great work for your audience, that’s doing great work with your audience.

The Cohort blogs show the progression of learning with great quotes like:
“Who knew about dramaturgy?”
“You’ve got to break a lot of props to make a play.”
“I have been fortunate to observe this theatrical collaborative, and I’m sure there are other plays with other directors, playwrights, designers, actors at other theaters where there is more hierarchy, more conflict, more control, and more certainty throughout the rehearsal process. And a good play is likely to be produced in the end, and the audience who sees it is likely to enjoy it. But this version of collaboration that I have been privy to watch, this play with this director, playwright, designers and actors at this theater, has been remarkably embracing of creativity and risk-taking, respect and playfulness. The result is something greater than its parts, something magical.”

These are my favorite blogs so far:

But it dawned on me, the only reason we hadn’t done this before is that we worried the audience would judge us too soon, that they wouldn’t understand process, that they weren’t smart enough to know what “first run through” means, that they’d expect perfection—and just the opposite was true. When the Cohorts knew where we were in a process, they reacted like we all do—they watched with generosity, they laughed for almost landed jokes, they rooted for moments, and they willed the show to success—and on opening night, they opened their show.

Next year we’re expanding. As of writing this, I don’t know what that means, but the momentum is too strong, and who are we to say no to a town that wants to learn more about it’s local theater? Great problem to have.

Sean Daniels is the Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at the Geva Theatre after spending 5 years at the Tony Award winning Actors Theatre of Louisville as the theater’s Associate Artistic Director. Mr. Daniels is the former Associate Artistic Director/Resident Director of the California Shakespeare Theater and before that spent a decade as the Artistic Director/Co-Founder of Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, GA.

For a longer version of this story, check out the original blog post at: