Free beer (or even cheap beer) may be the easiest and fastest way to tap into a new audience. Drinks, food, socializing, and costumes (on the audience, not the performers) are what young Denver locals look for in a night out. Translation: they aren’t looking for theatre.

How do we know? We happen to be young Denverites ourselves and have attended and studied the events that draw the demographic we desire. And most importantly, we asked. We started by conducting focus groups with the young, adventurous, and unattainable. We gave them free beer, asked them what they wanted in a night out, and why they weren’t currently attending our shows. One twenty-something replied bluntly, “Theatre is a bad brand.”

Like many performing arts organizations, the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) is concerned about aging audiences and the challenges of engaging the next generation of theatergoers. Not only does the word “theatre” come with baggage but it also competes with any number of inexpensive social events. Denver offers a range of activities from live music to sports to food truck flash mobs to ping pong warehouses to biking in costumes while drinking. Its 5:00 on a Friday, you have $20 bucks from the ATM or if you’re lucky $40…what would you do?

Our solution: let them drink beer. But behind the beer is a model for curating a complete audience experience before, during, and after the show. We’ve removed the waiting in the lobby for the show to begin. We’ve removed the curtain speech with the endless instructions. We’ve removed the separation between artist and audience. And we’ve added beer, snacks, costumes, and ways to get involved, not just watch.

At Off-Center @ The Jones, DCTC’s home for this new approach to programming, the show starts the minute you walk in the door. Whether you’re putting on costumes in the bathrooms, submitting ideas for that night’s show, or mixing Pop Rocks and beer, you’re involved.

Each show is created with the full experience in mind. Artistic, marketing, development, audience engagement, and production are all equal players in the creation of a show. What’s going on in the lobby? What’s happening online? What happens once the performance ends? What community partnerships can we develop to strengthen the experience and broaden our reach? It’s all part of the show, it’s all part of our Recipe for programming, and it’s all part of making theatre feel like a night out.

For example, take our show DRAG MACHINE, a drag queen time machine that explored the history of drag and its effect on the gay rights’ movement. At home, on your couch, you could create your own drag name using on our online Drag Name Generator and learn how to give yourself a drag makeover with our instructional video. We transformed the theatre lobby into an airport terminal so the show started the minute you entered and were handed cotton candy. Our flight attendants conducted security screenings with fairy wands, Captain Shirley Delta Blow counted down to takeoff over the loudspeakers, and a screen showed arrivals and departures with delays due to “raining men”. Then in order to freshen up for your flight into the Gay Universe, you had to decide which bathroom to enter – Kings or Queens? Inside, we provided the proper makeup, mustaches, wigs, and feather boas to become either one.

The bar was onstage until the show started and, to complete the scene, our ushers costumed in shiny pink vests and rainbow bow ties were straight out of our target demographic. We’ve branded them Team-OFF and they act as our advisory board, street team, and volunteers. In return, they get to participate in creating the shows and get free admission to all of our events. It’s the perfect combination for people who might not have the money, might have some extra time, and might want a creative outlet from their day jobs.

Our approach to curating theatrical experiences was designed through the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, created and administered by EmcArts and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. The eight-month Innovation Lab process allowed us to research, develop, test, and implement our ideas around new programming and audience engagement. It also helped our organization build the capacity and resources needed to be innovative and support this new initiative.

Off-Center is a test kitchen for the DCTC where we prototype with new forms and techniques to attract and engage the next generation of audiences and artists. We function cross-departmentally so that every department can benefit from Off-Center’s research and development. The Jones is a space where we can take risks and the successes can be taken to scale elsewhere in the organization. The stakes are low, the tickets are cheap, and, thanks to a generous sponsorship from Molson Coors, the beer is free. It’s our opportunity to find out how to reach an audience who isn’t coming to the theatre and develop content that is relevant and directly appeals to them. This model makes every show a prototype and every audience a focus group.

You can find out more about our process by checking out our profile on ArtsFwd.

Written by
Charlie Miller & Emily Tarquin
Co-Curators of Off-Center @ The Jones