Involve Me (and I’ll understand)

by Sean Daniels

in Audience & Community Engagement,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Audience Engagement blog salon curated by David J. Loehr for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Last year we started with a bold idea.

Actually four bold 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.”— Proverb.

We tried a grand experiment: The Cohort Club. A full immersion experience into how a play gets made. The show in particular was Karen Zacarias’ THE BOOK CLUB PLAY, directed by me, and the group was made up of 20 Rochesterains that looked like the local community (in terms of age, race, class, and we even including the local theater critics – they’re people to!).
It was a smash success, not only in terms of giving our audience a fluency in talking about the theater, but in more measurable terms like a significant jump in individual giving and a much higher season subscription renewal rate.

Also, I can’t say this enough, we had subscribers who had been with us for 20 years who finally got that everything we make was local, they finally understood the difference between us and the Broadway tours. For example, when they heard that all our sets were painted by the same guy, and he shopped at the same grocery store they did, their minds were blown – we were finally speaking the same language.

It also positively affected the work it self – rehearsal rooms in Rochester look a lot like rehearsal rooms in Louisville and Seattle. The difference here was these actors suddenly had 20 people deeply invested in them and their work – not only offering to drive them wherever, but wanting to learn more about the why of making theater, not just the how. We realized that everything that had stopped us from doing this before was fear based – that the audience wouldn’t understand what a run thru looks like in week two. As with more fear based thinking, we were wrong, each run thru had an army of supporters, cheering them on, truly impressed that just 10 days ago these actors were meeting each other for the first time. Our audience was smarter than we had given them credit for, and wanted our work to be good even more than we do. I think in that moment, I got what it really meant to be making theater, regionally.

So, we’ve decided to expand it – to continually add cohorts until (and this is the big lofty goal), the entire city become our educated allies who support, attend and understand the theater. And – what do you get from being in the community?

In quieter moments we call them: Gevangelists.

Another grand experiment, here’s how the expansion will work:


Identify 2 groups of 20 Rochesterians each, of varied ages, races, and socio-economical standings. One group will engage with us in the Fall, the other in the Spring.

These 40 people will become a part of the process of creating theater right here in Rochester through observing the rehearsal and production process, and conversations with the artistic team.

Each Cohort Club, the Fall ‘13 and the Spring ’14 groups, will follow two shows from first rehearsal to opening night.


We’ll provide them with unprecedented access to the artistic process – and access to learning opportunities (chats with staff, tours, behind the scenes events, etc).

They’ll be welcome at all rehearsals; our technical rehearsals, previews, opening. Each member of the club receives daily rehearsal and performance reports.

They’ll have scheduled opportunities to chat with the director, playwrights (when possible), designers and actors, to gain a deeper level of understanding.

They’ll have a scheduled time to watch us add in the technical elements (first time with the set, adding in lights, costumes, special effects and meet the many local artists who build our sets, make our costumes and keep the place running.

We’ll find a few post-rehearsal nights for everyone to go for drinks to allow for conversation amongst artists and audiences outside the rehearsal room.


They agree to attend a pre-rehearsal event at the theater, where the process will be explained and any and all questions answered. Snacks will be eaten, drinks imbibed, friends will be made.

They agree to read the scripts in advance of the projects.

They agree to attend at least 2 rehearsals a week, when we are in rehearsal. The length of time they spend at each is up to them.

They agree to journal about their r experience in whatever medium they find the most exciting (blog, pen and paper, Twitter, Facebook), and then repost their writing on Geva’s blog,, or e-mail it to us so that we can repost it on the gevajournal. Each week, we’ll have an in-person check in…

FALL (focusing on comedy, with new works mixed in)
The shows:

ALL YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED by Greg Kotis (world premiere)

ALFRED HITCHOCK’S THE 39 STEPS adapted by Patrick Barlow, from the novel by John Buchan

SPRING (focusing on new work, with comedy mixed in)
The shows:

INFORMED CONSENT by Deb Laufer (world premiere)

TINKER TO EVERS TO CHANCE by Mat Smart (world premiere)

We’re trying to take what we learned from the first round, and expand upon it. We learned that our Cohorts wanted to learn more about each other – that they wanted a safe place to talk about what they had seen that week, and that they wanted even more dialogue that we had set up previously. Great! All great things to focus on in the next round.

“Education breeds excitement”, let’s see if it works for a whole city.


P.S. More here.

Sean Daniels is the Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at the Geva Theatre Center after spending 4 years at the Tony Award winning Actors Theatre of Louisville as the theater’s Associate Artistic Director (where he directed a record 17 productions including 5 Humana Festivals in his 4 seasons). 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 and Co-Founder of Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, Ga.