Audience Engagement: It’s 2amt. Do you know where your theatre is?

by David J. Loehr

in National Conference

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(This post is the first post of the Audience Engagement arc #TCG13 blog salon–learn more here).
It’s time to think outside the black box.

That’s what we do over at 2amt–check us out at and on twitter using the hashtag #2amt. We’re always open. And I don’t mean that as a joke. Conversations and chats are always going on the tag, but we’re also open to new ideas, new technologies, new ways of making theatre.

Everyone is welcome here–the #2amt conversation spans theatre companies and artists at every level, from students & beginners up to working professionals from all around the world. And that’s why TCG has asked me to help out with the Audience Engagement track for TCG13.

In case you don’t know me, I’m David J. Loehr, editor and artistic director of 2amt. (Artistic director? Yes, it’s more than just a blog. More about that later…) I’m also the artist in residence and co-founder of a small theatre company in Madison, Indiana, the Riverrun Theatre Company. By trade, I’m a playwright, but I also work in marketing for my theatre and others–something’s got to pay the bills…

In this audience engagement track, we’re here to talk ideas. We’re going to talk about how (or if) you’re reaching out to your audience beyond the work on stage. Are you listening to them and responding? Are you supporting your local artists and reaching out to their audiences? If your company is named “X Theatre of Y City,” are you truly “of” your city or merely “in” it? How can you engage your audiences in new ways whether they’re in your building or not?

We’ll look at technology both at the 101 level and the advanced level. Some of your companies use Twitter, but how well do you use it? Have you looked at other mobile apps like Layar and Moveable Feast? Why do have that deer in headlights look? Don’t worry, we’ll take it slow and introduce you to apps you might not even know about.

We’ll also talk about our “Never Be Dark” concept, the idea that a theatre building has something new going on all the time. More than once, I’ve gotten the response, “But we always have something going on. That’s our season.” Of course, that leaves out the key word: “new.” How does that work? Why should you want to embrace a Never Be Dark program? And what do I mean by “never” anyway? Short answer: because “Be dark less of the time” isn’t as catchy a call to action. I know a few adminstrative types who are terrified of this idea. Never Be Dark doesn’t need to be scary, it doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s only as difficult as you want to make it. But we’ll get to that.

Augmented reality, social media, digital broadcasting, crowdfunding–we’ll hit the high tech, but we’ll also talk low tech.

We’ll talk about the 360 storytelling format, which can be as simple as a few people sitting in a circle telling stories. Outside of the basic concept—tell a story in six minutes, ie 360 seconds—the format is fluid. It can be themed, it can be a free-for-all. It can be a slam, it can be an open mic. It can have ringers, it can have special guests, it can simply be your regular patrons. It never ceases to amaze me how people will come to a 360 just to watch only to jump up and tell a story themselves by the end. Talk about an engaged audience.

Even if you don’t have an event like that, there’s still the lowest tech of all. Just get out there and talk with your audience. Listen to them, talk with them before the show, after the show, in the bar, wherever.

We’re going to go blue sky here. Nothing is off the table. We’ll talk potential, possibility, evolution, looking at what’s worked and how it’s worked differently from place to place.

I don’t believe in “one size fits all” ideas—I like ideas that can scale. My company might do a 360 that looks and feels completely different from the way Actors Theatre of Louisville might do one, which would be different from the way Cambiare Productions in Austin might do one, which would be different from the way Woolly Mammoth might. They’d all be recognizably 360 events, but they’d all fit the style and personality of the host company.

But if we don’t talk possibility, if we stick to a rigid idea of what-we-can-do and how-we-do-it, if we go by the marketing wisdom learned in school, then we’re stuck in the same boxes we’ve been in for years. It’s a new world out there. You can’t rely on newspaper ads and slick season brochures anymore. Your audience wants to interact more—they’ve been conditioned to it by now. Let’s stretch and meet them where they are instead of simply waiting for them to come to us.

We want to hear what you’re doing, too. Maybe more important, we want to hear what you’re not doing, what you’re afraid to do, what you’ve tried once or twice that didn’t quite work the way everyone said it would. Maybe we can help figure out what happened. Maybe we can crowdsource a new way to try it again.

If you’re on Twitter, come find me at @dloehr and @2amt. Fair warning: the personal account is not just theatre stuff, but I’m more interactive there. If you’re not already on Twitter, I’d say come on in, the water’s fine. It’s not just people tweeting about their lunches or making bad jokes, it’s not just broadcasting news and events. If that’s how you’ve used it in the past, or if that’s how your theatre’s marketing department is using it, stop it. It’s not a broadcasting medium, though it can be used like that. It’s a conversational medium, as direct a form of engagement with your audience as you could want without being in the same room.

And for the love of God, if your company retweets people praising your company over and over, stop that. Your followers already like you, they don’t need convincing. Potential followers don’t want to see the hard sell, that’s an instant turn-off. Instead, use Storify to collect all those tweets, create a Storify document that you can embed in your company’s blog, and point your followers to that. It serves the purpose of showing off the love without annoying the people who already love you. You don’t know what Storify is? Fear not, we’ll get to that one, too.

So there’s your first assignment. Find me on Twitter and reach out, say hi, get your toes wet. As social media go, it’s pretty easy. Once you get past the temptation to do the “I hope I don’t run out of characters before I finish what I’m” joke, you’ll be fine. Because we’re going to look at a whole range of apps and media that you and your theatre can use to engage, interact and attract audiences. This is just the beginning.

Step outside of that black box. You’ll be glad you did.

David J. Loehr is the editor and artistic director of 2amt. He is also the artist-in-residence & co-founder of the Riverrun Theatre Company in Madison, Ind. Plays include: The Incomparable Radio Theatre of the Air, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Seeing Red, Wise Man, A Report of Gunfire, The Rough Guide to the Underworld and more. His work has been performed at the Capital Fringe Festival, Chicago Fringe Festival, Louisville Playwrights Festival, NJ One Minute Play Festival, South Carolina Repertory Company, Glass Mind Theatre and Actors Theatre of Louisville. He is also a marketing consultant and occasional sound designer for multiple theatre companies.

  • Kathy Janich

    This is a terrific blog, full of exciting ideas. Thanks!