The Reduced Shakespeare Company have always been about “audience engagement”, except we don’t call it that. We call it Podcasting, Tweeting, and Facebooking. In fact, we were doing audience engagement twenty-five years before social media was even invented. Back then we called it going out to the lobby after every show, signing autographs, and shamelessly hawking our merchandise. We still do that after every performance, but now we also do it virtually, 365 days a year, even on days when we aren’t performing live.
In our case, audience engagement is a natural extension of our performance style, which has always been to break the fourth wall and acknowledge and try to eliminate the barrier between performer and audience. In fact, in each of our shows we actually incorporate audience members into the performance, to the delight of everyone except those unfortunate few who are chosen.
We’ve always considered audience engagement fun, a way to extend the joy we get from performance. But lately we’ve come to realize it’s also imperative: Although we play in magnificent venues all over the world, we’re a theatre company with no building of our own. We also don’t have a regular season or a consistent performance schedule, and having fans all over the world makes arranging tweetups a nightmare. We want to keep our audience engaged, interested, and entertained even when we’re not onstage, and we can’t always get them to come to us. We have to go to them.
That’s why we’re so happy Al Gore invented the internet. Even our very first early-90s website, a bare-bones affair put together by a fan, had a chat room and message board that allowed us to interact with the audience. It also allowed the audience to interact with each other and arrange to meet and attend performances together a decade before anybody started using the word tweetup.
Our current website ReducedShakespeare.com (maintained by company member Matt Rippy) is a great hub for all our performance information, venue and box office links, and press materials for venues and theaters that are presenting us. Our website also hosts our weekly Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, which we started producing in 2006. Each episode reaches roughly 4000 listeners and is the centerpiece of our social media presence, a backstage audio blog that serves multiple functions:
• It’s an entertaining value-added feature (like a DVD extra) for audiences looking for deeper insight into our performances (or simply more laughs);
• It’s the only regular performance we offer. Every Monday, for almost 340 weeks now, whether we’re touring or not, we offer weekly commentary, improvisation, backstage details, answers to questions, and excerpts from our shows and recordings;
• It’s an extension of our school and community workshops, featuring interviews with comedians, actors, authors, broadcasters, and assorted mucky-mucks; and
• It drives traffic to our website, where almost as many listeners stream it as download it via iTunes or some other podcatcher.
Of course, our website isn’t the only online neighborhood where our audience digitally lingers, so we try to keep them entertained on Facebook and Twitter, two extremely useful (and, again, fun) services that are outstanding ways to maintain relationships with our audience through amusing observations, informal conversation, funny one-liners, links to interesting articles, and silly pictures we hope will go viral.
The kids today are also big fans of the YouTube: We’ve had many audience members tell us they first discovered us by watching clips from our shows that are (legally or – sigh – illegally) posted there. (We should actually be more active on YouTube, now that I think about it.)
There are two dangers to all this, of course. Call these Pro Tips:
• Don’t use all these social media exclusively as transmitters. Be receivers as well. Don’t monologue. Dialogue.
• Don’t post only promotional material. Your fans already like you, they’ll get bored and stop listening if all you post is awesome reviews. Make your posts funny, irreverent, interesting. Give your audience something they can’t get anywhere else. Think of it as entertainment, not advertising.
Sometimes the best way to promote your company is to promote another company. We use our social media to share links to the work of other companies we like. Sometimes we’ll dedicate entire episodes of our podcast to theaters where we perform, introducing our listeners in other parts of the country (or the world) to institutions they might not otherwise get to visit.
There are other social media options, obviously; I’ve only listed the ones we use. But no matter what you call it, Audience Engagement is vitally important — and if done right, can be one of the most rewarding and entertaining parts of the job. Imagine a lively cocktail party filled with bright chatter deepening and strengthening the relationship between you and your audience. That’s Audience Engagement via social media. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, we’ve always depended on the laughter of strangers, and for that reason we’ve always considered the audience to be the fourth member of our three-person troupe.
Keeping engaged with that audience is not only the right thing to do, it’s (as I think I may have mentioned) fun.
This blog salon is curated by David J. Loehr, the editor and artistic director of 2amt. For more posts and conversations surrounding audience & community engagement, and other ways of “thinking outside the black box”, visit the 2amt website, or engage on Twitter at #2amt and @2amt.
This year, the Reduced Shakespeare Company tours six shows to five countries on four continents, including the world premiere of The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in November 2013. Find us on Facebook and on Twitter @reduced and @austintichenor. The @reduced account also won a Shorty Award for Excellence in Social Media as a Cultural Institution, a category they don’t even recognize anymore. Here’s hoping they bring that back.
Austin Tichenor has been co-Managing Partner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company since 1992, and has performed with them off-Broadway, in London’s West End, in the PBS version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), and at such theaters as the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, American Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Austin wrote the play Dancing on the Ceiling and co-wrote The Complete History of America (abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) (Helen Hayes Award nomination, Best New Play), All The Great Books (abridged), Completely Hollywood (abridged), The Complete World of Sports (abridged), and The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged), all of which have been published and translated into over a dozen languages. Television credits include recurring roles on Alias, 24, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Felicity; and various guys in ties on ER, The X-Files, The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, Nip/Tuck, and shows like them. Austin is the co-author of the irreverent reference book Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (abridged) and the comic memoir e-book How The Bible Changed Our Lives (Mostly For The Better). He produces and hosts the weekly Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, available on iTunes and at reducedshakespeare.com. Follow him on Twitter @austintichenor.