Audience (R)Evolution Wrap Up

by Jim OQuinn

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Audience (R)Evolution Wrap Up

(Photo by Alissa Moore. Pictured: Teresa Eyring)

Getting to Know You!

Forging brave new bonds with audiences at TCG’s landmark Audience (R)Evolution Learning convening in Philadelphia

Audiences, we can all agree, are an essential component of theatre—without spectators, the “place for seeing” may as well remain dark; without listeners, the actor needn’t bother to speak. But more often than we may be willing to admit, discussions about audiences and their well-being have focused mainly on the quantitative: How full is the house? Will they keep coming? Where can we find more of them? What are they willing to pay?

Those are important questions, no doubt—but there’s a revolution afoot in the way theatres relate to the people they serve, and the questions that need to be asked are getting more complex. Patrons? Customers? Guests? Collaborators? Just who are those people who show up at our theatres to sit in the dark absorbing messages from our stages? What are they looking for? What do they take away? How do their lives connect to the life of the theatre and of the artists who work there? Do they have a say in what’s being communicated? How can the theatre experience have a real and lasting impact in their communities and their world?

These were the kinds of questions—qualitative, urgent, full of implications—that buzzed through the highly charged atmosphere at TCG’s first-ever Audience (R)Evolution Learning Convening Feb. 20–22 in Philadelphia. Nearly 250 theatre, arts and cultural professionals from across the U.S. were on hand for a fast-paced agenda of guest speakers, model-sharing and peer-to-peer consultation, conducted in the sleekly designed auditoriums and meeting rooms of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in the heart of the old city. For nearly half the crowd (many of whom had “marketing,” “communications” or “community relations” in their titles), it was their first TCG-sponsored meeting.

The topic on every tongue was audiences—not just how to pack them into seats, but how to engage them fully and deeply in the art of theatre, and then to parlay that engagement into community revitalization. But the watchword of the event was “revolution.” And why not? With the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall only blocks away, America’s historic beginnings seemed present and palpable, and the event organizers capitalized on the resonances, geographic and otherwise: Signage  by TCG creative director Kitty Suen and video montages by Artistic and International Programs Associate- J.P. Smith reinforced the theme of change; consultant and plenary facilitator Lisa Mount, with banjo in tow, enlivened the opening session with repurposed lyrics to a Revolutionary War–era tune, “The Girl I Left Behind Me” (“Oh, I’ve come to Philadelphia / To see if I can see / What I know about my audience / And what they know about me”); familiar “revolution” melodies, from the Beatles to Nina Simone to T-Rex, punctuated coffee breaks; and a steady emphasis on up-to-the-minute technologies and their potential gave the word another twist.

Photo by Alissa Moore. Pictured: Lisa Mount

The parenthesis around the “r” in the conference’s title got attention as well. “While the American Revolution may have lasted eight or so years, the American evolution began long before that,” noted TCG executive director Teresa Eyring in her welcoming remarks. “That parenthesis is there to remind us of the importance of both kinds of progress. We’ll be exploring revolutionary ideas of theatre and community, and also practical models evolving one step at a time.” Eyring thanked the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—whose arts-giving representatives Ben Cameron and Cheryl Ikemiya were active participants in the meeting—for generously underwriting the multi-year Audience (R)Evolution effort, and the Andrew W. Mellon and William Penn Foundations and MailChimp for support of the gathering itself.

In fact, as co-organizer Emilya Cachapero, director of TCG’s artistic programs, indicated from the dias, the convening represents “the second of four phases, after research and assessment, of this new initiative unfolding over three years. Next come 10 grants of $65,000 each for the replication or reimagining of successful audience engagement models, followed by dissemination throughout the field of our findings.”

Three plenary sessions that headlined the convening were designed to view audience engagement through distinctively different lenses—gamification, or problem-solving through the use of game thinking and game dynamics; hospitality, the operating concept of the food and guest-services industries; and digital engagement, encompassing a wide range of online activities, from fundraising and advocacy to social networking. These presentations alternated with small-group gatherings in every corner of the CHF facility, which houses a well-appointed research library and a media-savvy museum devoted to the history of chemistry. A rigorous schedule kept participants on the move.

“We’re encouraging creative responses—not just talk, but all sorts of ways to get at issues, by singing, dancing, drawing, moving,” facilitator Mount suggested at the meeting’s outset. “We welcome your method of processing information.” Some participants and presenters took the bait, especially in small-group sessions on relationship-building, on-site engagement and community impact, where out-of-the-box thinking and creative back-and-forth were de rigueur. The drawing option was vividly exploited by guest graphic artist Lynn Carruthers, who documented plenaries and speeches via giant graffiti sheets of summary text that proliferated as the event progressed.

Photo by Alissa Moore. Pictured: Lynn Carruthers

“The fourth wall is now between the virtual and the real—maintaining it is not possible any more,” declared Gabe Zichermann, the gamification expert whose lead-off presentation set a lively and iconoclastic tone. “We’re in the midst of a significant engagement crisis—we can’t maintain people’s attention any more.” One way to make contact with “the new generation of super-fast-functioning people with short attention spans,” he posited, is to use gaming concepts in creative ways to seduce them into new levels of engagement.

A bearded fellow with a casual speaking style and plenty of visual aids at the ready, Zichermann plugged his startup company, Gamification Co., and his upcoming book, The Gamification Revolution, as possible idea sources for theatre professionals eager to motivate audiences in new ways. “Revenue is the product of engagement, not the starting point,” he pointed out, as marketers in the room absorbed the distinction. “When an audience member pulls out the credit card, that’s the culmination. They become engaged much earlier. The best ideas from gaming can help you reach your objectives.”

“Hospitality is one-size-fits-one, not all,” specified second plenary speaker David Steffen, a client advisor at Hospitality Quotient, a New York City–based firm that serves restaurants, hotels and other person-to-person businesses. “Hospitality should happen for you, not to you.” Steffen, who formerly worked as director of marketing and sales promotion for Roundabout Theatre Company, applied the principles of what he called “the virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality” to the work of theatres, asserting that “taking care” of audiences is essential to success. Drawing upon the philosophies of well-known restaurateur and hospitality guru Danny Meyer, Steffen concluded that “dialogue is the foundation of hospitality—making a connection, creating a relationship with your stake-holders.”

When the plenary focus shifted to digital engagement, Rich Mintz, executive vice president of Blue State Digital, took over the stage to survey ways his cutting-edge company’s expertise—which assisted Barack Obama in his first and second presidential run and has served the NAACP and the United Way—can be applied to theatrical matters of every sort. Mintz prefaced an insightful litany of digital possibilities by billing himself as “the kooky one” at non-arts conferences, and confessed that he arrived in Philadelphia on a motorcycle.

Photo by Alissa Moore. Pictured: Lynette Turner, Steven A. Wolff & Andrew Taylor

Statistical findings from other sources made their way into the discussions as well. A trio of presenters from AMS Planning and Research—Lynette Turner, Steven A. Wolff and Andrew Taylor—shared information based on in-depth surveys of the field commissioned by TCG, and spiced their calculations with an instant survey of the room: Who cares most about audience engagement, versus artistic quality, versus marketing success? If your theatre went away, would anybody care? One crucial poll showed that “a more fulfilling experience” at the theatre was far more important to conference-goers than becoming a community resource or attracting a new demographic.

A place on the program for agitation and inspiration (and another bit of linguistic joshing) was provided by a quartet of (R)Ev-ifestos, five-minute speeches by invited theatre practitioners designed, in Eyring’s words, “to widen the frame, challenge old assumptions and imagine new ways of working”. The diverse speakers—Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Illinois’s Sojourn Theatre; author and cultural consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne; Anthem Salgado, founder of the web resource Art of Hustle and one of TCG’s Young Leaders of Color grantees; and Trish Santini, external relations director of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater—enlivened the proceedings and contributed to a number of “aha!” moments that participants shared aloud and on Carruthers’ graffiti billboards. “It boils down to this: We do the best plays we’re capable of and we’re really nice to the people who come see them,” declared the Guthrie’s Santini, earning an approving laugh. Other “aha!” takeaways, from these speakers and others, included:

  • “Develop a kick-ass plan and change it as often as necessary. Innovation is a moving target.”
  • “Avoid the one-off and the urge to pursue bright shiny objects.”
  • “It’s okay to do less better—go deeper, not wider.”
  • “Not every relationship has to become a marriage—a one-night stand is okay.”

It was in the convening’s smaller rooms that the mechanics of a nascent audience revolution were examined, piece by piece.

“We take the ideal of inclusivity seriously,” declared Mixed Blood Theatre Company managing director Amanda White Thietje as she touted her theatre’s Radical Hospitality program, designed to erase economic roadblocks for Minneapolis audiences. Some 50 percent of the seats at Mixed Blood go for free—“or for $20 if they’re reserved on line,” thanks to ongoing support from the Minnesota Arts and Heritage Fund and other sources, Thietje reported in a relationship-building break-out. Free performances are also a strategy for the Theater Offensive of Chicago, which takes its collectively created OUT in Your Neighborhood shows to targeted spots in the city, aiming to address issues like homophobia and racism. “So what if we get the hell out of the theatre ghetto?” reasoned executive artistic director Abe Rybeck. “People are yearning for this kind of cultural intervention where they live.”

Photo by Alissa Moore.

Claudia Alick and Mallory Pierce of Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviewed the rigorous process that gave birth to OSF’s Audience Development Manifesto, completed in 2010 at the urging of artistic director Bill Rauch. “We have quarterly meetings to check ourselves and hold ourselves accountable its principles,” associate producer Alick noted. The theatre’s diversity and inclusion efforts have “transformed negative assumptions, like ‘People of color will never come to Ashland,’” she added with a knowing grin. Diversity can also be addressed via content, as was the case in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s landmark production It Happened in Little Rock, about the desegregation of the city’s Central High. “Our Community Partners program, which permeates the theatre, including our board and our donors, helps audiences understand our work and to build experiences around the themes of the plays,” offered producing artistic director Robert Hupp.

Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, waxed enthusiastic about his theatre’s three-year-old audience strategy known as Connectivity, led by senior staff rather than the marketing department. “We create a ‘claque,’ a superbody of community volunteers, staffers and board members—they become evangelicals for each show.” The New York City–based Wooster Group keeps its audiences hooked with daily videos about the ensemble and its work, posted on its Facebook home page “like a diary to keep visitors returning to the site,” according to assistant director Jamie Poskin. The group hired a full-time filmmaker for the project, and has posted some 600 dailies—around 16 hours of material, which has garnered 300,000 views—since the project was launched in October 2010.

How do you keep audiences in the groove once they’ve arrived at your venue? “Our audiences get world-class hospitality and the conversation that the play wants to have,” asserted Center Theatre Group literary associate Joy Meads in a session about on-site engagement. The L.A. company’s Concierge Program and its interactive lobby installations (like listening stations riffing on a recent production of Krapp’s Last Tape) helps staff “recognize the difference between skimmers, swimmers and divers,” Mead added, depending on the person’s depth of involvement. “CTG has a real 360-degree view of our audience,” chimed in director of marketing, communication and sales Jim Royce.

Two Boston-area companies, American Repertory Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company, emphasized their on-site atmosphere as audience magnets, focusing on the former’s high-visibility Oberon space, a club environment essential to artistic director Diane Paulus’s aesthetic, and the latter’s shift toward extracurricular audience involvement, reflecting artistic director Peter DuBois’ philosophy. “He believes in theatre as a social space, a space for dialogue,” communications manager Rebecca Curtiss said of DuBois, whose six-nights-a-week program of post-show conversations has grown to attract between 9,000 and 10,000 participants per year.

Photo by Alissa Moore.

Paired up in a community impact session, Minneapolis’s Bedlam Theatre and Brooklyn’s Foundry Theatre celebrated their commonalities. “We have the competitive advantage of fun,” suggested Bedlam chief artistic office John Bueche, thanks to the company’s multiple identities as a bar, restaurant and theatre club. “It boils down to the audience experiencing what it wants to experience in a place where it wants and needs to be.” The Foundry’s Andre Alexander Lancaster relished his organization’s community organizing bent, formalized in its Audience Ambassadors program. “We have the simple radical idea that NYC theatre should look like NYC itself,” he posited.

Youth violence in Chicago prompted a response from Steppenwolf for Young Adults, in the form of its citywide Now Is the Time initiative. “We bring teens to the table,” says artistic and educational director Hallie Gordon, for town hall meetings and school assemblies around the city as well as for performances. Peter Brosius, artistic director of Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company, creates high-level investment for his young audiences via the Teen Director’s Lab and Festival, which puts a yearly production totally in the hands of kids. “What’s cool about it for us is that we see aesthetics and ways of working that we would never embrace!” Brosius declares. “The work is so different and challenging—and ownership by the kids is total.”

Partnerships were the key element in Out of Hand Theater of Atlanta’s search for new audiences, funding sources and science-based material, as evidenced in the company’s evolution-themed spectacle Hominid (which, thanks to a hook-up with the Dutch group Lunatics, was performed in the Netherlands with actual apes in the background) and Group Intelligence (which uses audiences to simulate molecular behavior and attracted funding from NASA). Zeroing in on a small group of patrons for an intimate, in-depth journey from play selection through rehearsal through opening was associate artistic director Eric Ting’s favored approach in Spark, a program of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.

A range of other innovative audience strategies—outreach to military communities at Virginia Stage Company and Florida Studio Theatre; invasions of city neighborhoods with the artists of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts; on-site and online communiqués with the public at New York City’s HERE Arts Center and Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories; redefining the word itself at Cleveland Play House (where “audience” can mean people who don’t come to plays) and Maryland’s Imagination Stage (where pre-schoolers and their caregivers take precedence); a cell-phone-guided experience designed for a single audience member, engineered by Philadelphia’s own Headlong Dance Theatre—all these and more were explored in break-out sessions. In a bonus workshop, veteran experimentalist Ping Chong introduced fellow theatre-makers to the process by which his acclaimed multi-year project Undesirable Elements came into being.

Photo by Alissa Moore.

Then the real business of sharing began. In a culminating move, the convening broke up into 10 designated groups for facilitated “clinics,” wherein theatres of varied size and focus submitted sheets enumerating challenges or “symptoms,” and a representative sampling of “patients” were selected for peer counseling.

Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, and Tom Kaiden, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, took charge of a final plenary exploring ways of measuring the impact of the strategies that emerged.

The overall effect was cathartic. “I feel that we’re moving away from numbers and butts-in-seats and toward real civic engagement and involvement—and that’s so great,” reflected Penumbra Theatre Company’s associate artistic director Sarah Bellamy after the sessions. Rob Ready, marketing and business development manager of San Francisco’s Z Space, concurred: “It’s easy for us to get stuck in little bubbles, with no time in our days to stick our heads out. It’s a pleasure to learn about things all these companies are doing that are wild!” Pew Center for Arts and Heritage theatre director Fran Kumin said she headed home bearing “new models and new ideas I can share with my community.” Her sentiment seemed universally shared.

“If we want our theatres to stay open, then we ourselves must stay open,” Eyring contended in her closing remarks. “We must stay open to new strategies, even when some of them fail. We must stay open to new audiences, not for a single show but for the long haul. We must pry open our assumptions of what theatre can be, and recognize that it can and does happen anywhere, with anyone.”

Jim O’Quinn is editor in chief of American Theatre magazine.