(Photo of Main Street in Hillsboro, OR. The following post features work by a MetLife/TCG A-ha! grantee–to learn more about the program, click here.)
We are the only professional theatre company in Hillsboro. We sit, literally, on the dividing line between urban/suburban Portland and the rural/agricultural west of Washington County, Oregon. Our Artistic Mission is to crack open and examine the great works of Western dramatic literature in new, innovative and provocative ways (often in world premiere literary adaptations). We are fiercely local and believe that we can not only grow but thrive as a theatre company by connecting our work to our community in profoundly meaningful ways. We take our work as artists and as a community resource very seriously.
When we look east from our theatre towards Portland, we see the largest and most densely populated community in Oregon and the largest concentration of professional performing arts groups in the state.
When we look west from our theatre, however, we see a series of small, agricultural communities with extremely limited access to professional performing arts. As the closest professional performing arts organization to these rural communities, we are eager to connect our work with the people who live there in the same way that we have done for our patrons in Hillsboro.
The funding we received from TCG’s Met-Life A-ha! Think It, Do It program has enabled us to engage in a remarkably fruitful conversation with our neighbors to the west. The insights, thoughts, concerns and needs identified by our generous participants have given us a clear direction; go west. Go. West.
To be frank, no one was more surprised than we to discover this. In many ways, looking to rural and predominately agricultural communities west of our hometown seems counter-intuitive. Why wouldn’t it be better to target the high population areas of urban Portland? Seems reasonable…but when a member of our Board of Directors reviewed the results of our TCG/MetLife funded research, she said (without an ounce of irony), “There’s gold in them thar hills!” and we agree…not just in terms of new audiences and the earned income that comes along with more ticket sales, but in new and innovative thinking, in the potential to learn from the diversity of the people who call these communities home, and in the future of building a more engaged, thoughtful and connected base of arts supporters.
The information we received via our Think It grant has given us the chance to do just that: think.
Think about our future, think about the role we can and should play in the future of these communities who are facing major changes in demographics and economics, think about our own preconceptions and biases and how best to overcome them, and to think about how our friends and neighbors in Gaston, Carlton, Banks, Yamhill, Vernonia, Forest Grove and Cornelius can come to play a crucial role in the future of Bag&Baggage.
We also arrived at a few broader conclusions that may be of interest to our colleagues in theatre across the country who are also trying to reach out to rural communities.
First: LANGUAGE IS KEY
(B&B’s outdoor production of Romeo & Juliet)
Professional theatres with an interest in connecting their work to non-traditional communities (such as rural or agricultural communities) must keep in mind the importance of language choices. Our assumption was that the term “professional theatre” was commonplace and easily understood by all of our potential audiences; this assumption was not only incorrect but actually increased barriers to access for our targeted communities. Generalized language like “classics, provocative, adaptation, professional, high quality and accessible” do not communicate the nature of our work in the ways that we assumed. In fact, this language can act as an additional barrier to individuals who are unfamiliar with theatre, creating confusion and unintended associations.
Here is a great example: When we asked participants about their perceptions of “adaptations of Shakespeare,” we got a generally negative response. When we reframed the question to ask “Would you be interested in seeing a performance of Shakespeare that re-imagines the story of, say, Romeo and Juliet, in new ways that makes it more directly relevant to you and your community?” the response was significantly more positive.
When we started to dig deeper and talk with participants about “the most popular plays in American history, plays you have heard of by authors you have heard of” versus “classics,” or “we are a non-profit theatre group that is committed to paying all of our artists a competitive wage” instead of “we are a professional theatre” or “we put a great deal of time, energy and resources into creating beautiful and engaging costumes and scenery” versus “high production values…” Well…the responses were, in every case, more positive.
It is crucial that, when defining our work to audiences unfamiliar with professional performing arts and theatre in general, we use specific language that is familiar, comfortable, and free from negative or confusing associations. It is also crucial that we remember that we have our own language, our own vernacular, in theatre that can create confusion and dissonance within potential audiences with limited experience of our world. It isn’t just helpful to be sensitive to language, it is respectful and inclusive…
Second: YOUTH AS ACCESS
Across each community we touched, the single most important theme we heard was the desire on the part of the whole community to ensure that students have access to arts experiences. In fact, for the vast majority of our respondents, there was serious concern about the current lack of access to the arts for young people, indicating an understanding on the part of community leaders of the importance of arts experiences in an educational setting.
Interestingly, the value of arts experiences did not translate into a community need for residents of all ages. This is a fascinating disconnect: why are arts experiences so crucial for kids but not for adults? Why do parents, elected officials and community leaders feel that arts access is most important for students but not, necessarily, for all members of their community?
Our perspective is that there is enormous potential for professional theatres to not only meet the identified community need for youth access but, by doing so, begin a larger conversation with parents, elected officials, educators and community leaders about the value of access for ALL residents.
Provision of arts education and access is, clearly, important, but it can serve multiple purposes for professional theatre by acting as a point of access to the whole community and by beginning a dialogue about how the value of arts for students can be expanded to include value for all. The door is open, we just need to figure out how to go through it…
Third: BACK TO BASICS
(Christmas in Vernonia, OR)
The process of establishing a profile in rural communities is made more difficult by major differences in communication infrastructures. For example, only one of the communities we explored for this research project had their own local newspaper. Traditional marketing efforts like press releases, poster and flyer distribution, earned press coverage or high visibility due to the location of a venue are simply not effective.
Instead, marketing and awareness-raising can be achieved by going “back to the basics.” One on one outreach, personally attending events and festivals, developing friendships and mutually-beneficial partnerships with small business owners, announcements in church newsletters, “word of mouth” and, generally, becoming a valued member of, and partner to, the community.
One great example from our project was our performance of A Christmas Carol in Vernonia, Oregon on the same day as Vernonia’s annual Christmas parade. We arrived in Vernonia about 2 hours before the parade began and had the opportunity to walk up and down Main Street, meeting residents, talking with small business owners and (yes) even having a beer with a small group of seniors seated in the window-booth at a tavern. Eileen, Gretchen, Carl and Joseph were surprised to see us, delighted we had come to see the parade, shocked that we were there to perform for their community and eager to have us come back to meet their families and grand-children. The four residents watched the parade, finished their beers and came to the show that night and have since joined our e-mail list, liked us on Facebook and offered to invite their friends and neighbors to future shows…all because we sat down at the tavern and had a beer with them.
Our sense is that making these connections will not be difficult, but it will require resources such as staff time and travel and an eagerness to learn more about the unique character and nature of each community. A greater commitment to having a consistent presence, developing long term relationships and mutual trust is absolutely key to success.
Fourth: EXPECTATIONS AND AUDIENCE DIVERSITY
Over the past few years, B&B has received consistent and persistent feedback from both public and private sector funders that we need to do more to reach out to Washington County’s large (and growing) Latino community. We not only understand this feedback, but we embrace both the reasons and the values of doing so.
It is clear from the experiences of hundreds of our colleagues in the performing arts that outreach to diverse communities is both good and good business, but it is also complicated; perhaps more complicated than funders and the public sector might think.
Our research project identified the need to reach out to our Latino neighbors as one of the highest priorities and, at the same time, feedback from leaders in the Latino community indicated that outreach may, in fact, not be successful.
The reasons are many, and complex; historic divisions between dominant and immigrant cultures, economics, language barriers, perceived institutional racism, lack of communication outlets, discomfort and…perhaps most crucial for us…an admitted lack of interest in our work.
These are enormously challenging issues and, although many of our colleagues across the country have had remarkable success in developing outreach to diverse new audiences, those efforts have been time consuming and costly.
More than anything else, our research has led us to these three important conclusions:
1) Outreach to and inclusion of diverse audiences is crucial for the future of our work;
2) Increasing diversity in audiences, cast and staff is far more difficult than most funders understand due to an enormous range of barriers;
3) We currently do not have the resources, skills or knowledge to do this successfully.
It would not be an overstatement to say that these issues create serious moral and structural dilemmas for us as a company.
How can we embrace and embody the value of diversity without the resources to do so effectively? Are the needs of the Latino community in Hillsboro able to be met by our current artistic mission or will we need to alter that mission in order to meet those needs? Do we want to change our mission? Do we, as a company, reinforce barriers that exclude a broader audience by our focus on the classics of American and English drama, through our ticket pricing, through our marketing and public relations activities and through our casting and staffing choices? How can we, as a small non-profit arts organization, succeed in addressing historic tensions, economic circumstances, ingrained suspicions and cultural divisions when other, larger organizations have not been able to do so?
What do we need to do?
Simply put, we don’t know.
What we DO know is that much greater attention needs to be paid to these issues, not just internally but also from funders and the public sector.
The results of our research, with the generous support of our neighbors and supporters across the region, has given Bag&Baggage what is essentially a “handbook” for how to now move forward. There are some very serious questions we must consider in this process:
Do we want to alter our artistic mission to include a greater focus on educational theatre? Do we have the resources to step into the difficult waters of a major outreach program to our Latino neighbors? Do we have the staff time and finances necessary to implement some (or any) of the marketing and communication options that have been suggested? What will our future look like if we don’t?
Perhaps most important to us is that we have a place to start, and a number of incredibly valuable insights that can help us (and, perhaps, our friends in theatre across the country) who also want to cross the line.
Scott Palmer, Bag&Baggage’s founding Artistic Director, has directed and produced critically acclaimed theatrical productions across the globe. As the Artistic Director of Glasgow Repertory Company (Scotland’s Shakespeare company), Scott directed world premiere adaptations of King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It and The Tempest. His radical reinterpretation of Lear was called “a 21st century Lear to cherish” by The Scotsman and his anti-war adaptation of Henry V was called “a thoughtful effort to relate to the modern world” by the Scotland on Sunday. In the United States, Scott has adapted and directed versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Comedy of Errors. His world premiere adaptations of Twelfth Night (featuring added text by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and The Taming of the Shrew alongside Fletcher’s rarely performed sequel The Woman’s Prize have helped to develop an international reputation for Bag&Baggage. In addition to Shakespeare, Scott has directed critically acclaimed productions of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Simon Levy’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and his own zany, comedic adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that puts Dickens himself center-stage. Scott is a passionate advocate for the arts, having served on the Hillsboro Arts and Culture Council, the Westside Cultural Alliance and regularly reviewing grants for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust. In 2010, Scott was awarded the City of Beaverton’s Arts Leadership Award and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce recognized him as Business Leader of the Year. Scott’s continuing work on major literary adaptations have brought him to the attention of Shakespearean scholars across the world, and his work is regularly reviewed and featured in textbooks and journals. Scott received his BA at the University of Oregon, his Masters at Oregon State University and studied for a PhD in Contemporary Theatre Practice at the University of Glasgow.
The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.