Audience Revolution in Ashland, Oregon

by Freda Casillas

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for Audience Revolution in Ashland, Oregon

(Allen Elizabethan Theatre photo by T. Charles Erickson. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

Leading with diversity and inclusion as a selling point for theatre? We often get funny looks from new group leaders with that opener.  At a theatre with Shakespeare in the name? Truth is we lead with the art. OSF’s playbill increasingly reflects varied cultural traditions, and its commitment to diverse voices and classical repertory. So yes diversity and inclusion with Shakespeare.

We are located in a relatively rural area in Southern Oregon. We are a destination theatre. Not only do the majority of our new audiences have to embrace the value of theatre, they have to go on vacation to get to us.

So we started locally inviting specific organizations to experience the value of theatre, and now we rely on and cherish our Community Partners who distribute play tickets and co-organize and co-host outreach and education events. We have built lasting and effective partnerships with Latino service, education and media organizations in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, the roughly 30-mile radius around Ashland. These arts/non-arts partnerships have proved successful in reaching a broad cross section of Latino individuals, professionals and families diverse in age and socioeconomic background. For example, the community’s largest health care provider La Clinica has been a Community Partner for five consecutive years, and its senior staff have served on the OSF board every year since 2001. We regularly feature year-round community-building programs that include playwright discussions, bilingual advertising and social media, free and discounted tickets, public play readings in Spanish, Spanish open-captioning of selected performances in all three OSF theatres and events by OSF actors and artists. And we partner every year with the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association to sponsor and participate in Chinese New Year festivities.

Our work in Audience Development with community partners is practicing active inclusion. In March 2010, the OSF board adopted an Audience Development Manifesto (ADM), Oregon’s first arts organization and one of the country’s first regional theatres to do so. Four key points have emerged in developing the ADM and in what OSF is learning from communities of color:

1) when OSF communicates with sincerity and comes from a place first of service to the community, it is considered relevant to that community;

2) communities of color are hungry for ethnic specific stories;

3) the most effective engagement strategy is one that merges a community organizing model with a traditional sales model;

4) we are successful when we translate the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion into conduits for communities to discover for themselves the value of theatre.

OSF’s “Reimagining” project accelerates the Audience Development Manifesto, translating the Manifesto’s words into action in a major way. Internally, it brings OSF’s inclusion commitment from a place of seeking diversity to a new level of actual and demonstrated equity.

Our Audience Revolution TO DO LIST

1) Audience development evaluation by an outside arts consultant with diversity and inclusion competency who will review 2009-2013 programming and empower OSF with effective methodologies for qualitative and quantitative recordkeeping for the re-imagined program.

2) Adapt OSF’s Cultural Connections Education Experience (CCEE) for local schools to Portland schools. Visit MPAACT Theatre to observe youth programs in action that teach the value of theatre and storytelling. Develop Portland CCEE curriculum based on MPAACT model. Test and refine the new model in Grant High School in Northeast Portland (30% students of color, the majority African American) and Woodburn Middle School in the largely Latino suburban community of Woodburn.

3) Launch Community Conversations with OSF’s playwright-in-residence Luis Alfaro to deepen relationships in Portland. Interview and select a Portland-based project staff and create an engagement and lead-contact generation plan to liaise with Portland’s Azumano Travel and community leaders on logistics and scheduling for motor coach visits to OSF by such groups as Hispanic Metropolitan and African American Chambers, Partners in Diversity.  The motor coach visits are scheduled to coincide with OSF’s biennial CultureFest.

4)  Improve technology to offer Spanish/English open-captioning (OC) on demand for visiting groups or individuals. Purchase equipment and advertise via print and social media the English/Spanish open-captioned performances in the 2014 season. Hire a bilingual technician to format Spanish OC to LCD screens and operate the equipment for each OC performance. Actively invite visiting groups to take advantage of new on-request system and deliver 10 OC performances. Evaluate success to date and plan strategies for advertising 2015 season’s OC performances.

Again, we are a destination theatre. So we must mindful of all the obstacles. These obstacles and challenges to the above strategies are both internal and external, in such areas as ticket pricing and availability, planning horizon, language, lack of familiarity and perceptions of theatre as an elitist art form, and Ashland’s remote location and the time and expense of staff travel to distant communities.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2013. Portland Minority Bar Association Event. Photo: Brad Eastburn.We built the above Audience Revolution model in the success of our local community partnerships, which we re-imagined for destination audiences to:

1) address and overcome objections to traveling to OSF and southern Oregon;

2) address and counteract perceptions of the value of theatre;

3) articulate and demonstrate why theatre is relevant for communities of color.

OSF is also keenly aware of its dual roles as Oregon’s largest arts organization and major contributor to the state’s tourism industry. It has a responsibility to lead by example in the area of equity and inclusion. We hope that the two-way dialogue and active engagement created by our Audience Revolution projects will vividly demonstrate for audiences, artists, students and company the significance of theatre in communities of color. All aspects – bilingual staff, ethnic-specific welcome events, even the hard conversations about institutional racism – put inclusion into everyday practice. For our theatre and arts peers around the state, region and nation, and for Oregon’s tourism and travel industry, OSF’s AudRev reimagining embodies both the challenges and tremendous potential of authentic equity and inclusion practices.

(Photo above by Brad Eastburn. Pictured: a group of lawyers from Portland Oregon who visited OSF at the invitation of Judge Darlene Ortega, an OSF board member.  Cultural Connections booked their discounted tickets and arranged for them to have dinner with OSF actors.)

Freda_Casillas photo_ 1-15-14 postFreda Casillas is currently OSF’s Audience Development Manager.She is responsible for developing and managing the external marketing plan and strategy known as “Cultural Connections”. This strategy seeks to broaden the range of people who attend and engage with Oregon Shakespeare Festival via multicultural marketing and community engagement. She is also responsible for coordinating the biannual event, CultureFest which is a four day celebration of multi-ethnic cultures and the work on OSF’s stages. Freda has also been instrumental in creating the infrastructure for the internal and external diversity and inclusion initiatives at OSF including the Audience Development Manifesto.
(Photo above by Jenny Graham).


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.