We anticipated that adding a new position to Woolly’s Connectivity Department would enhance our ability to forge new partnerships and nurture relationships in order to represent the needs and interests of the community from the outside-in. At the same time, one of the most exciting developments of adding a Connectivity Associate has been the ability to work on models of engagement that place the community at the center, with a new role in the creation of Woolly’s plays — switching things up and working from the inside-out.
For three evenings this fall, we invited community members to join us for the “Appetizers,” a series of public workshops that brought audiences and artists together with a focus on three new Woolly plays in process. Each Appetizers event was devoted to one of the upcoming new plays in Woolly’s 2014-15 season – including Cherokee, Lights Rise on Grace, and Zombie: The American. As stated by Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, “our goal with Appetizers is to create a rare public window into our artistic process, and to learn how this engagement with our audience helps to shape our work to come. I hope that Woolly’s patrons will lend their voice and experience to this new and, I hope, very fun experiment.” With the addition of the Connectivity Associate, we were able to maximize our efforts to reach out to members of the community for whom we believe these plays will be personally or professionally relevant, and invite them to be a part of these important formative conversations.
Each evening included a brief reflection by the artists on their process so far and a sampling of scenes in development. Otherwise, these open creative sessions were as different as the plays themselves – from the screening of film clips and other sources of inspiration to a zombie movement workshop – and created a range of entry points for audience members to access the material, and space for sharing their personal reflections on the work at hand. These facilitated discussions enabled us to hear directly from our audience members about the connections they perceive between these pieces and their everyday lives, and where they see themselves in these plays. They have also challenged our assumptions, and are helping us frame the public dialogue around each of these works.
In addition to helping us identify the conversations that have the most resonance for our community, Appetizers audiences have played a vital role in addressing the questions, “Who else should be included in the conversation around this play? Which organizations and/or individuals should we invite?” As a result, we have begun to build relationships with key stakeholders much earlier in the artistic process, and form new Connectivity partnerships that will result in special events and audience engagement projects during the run of each show. We even got a head-start on one such collaboration with a pre-Appetizer movement workshop (an amuse-bouche!) with Dance Exchange, an internationally recognized dance company based in Takoma Park, MD. Woolly’s Connectivity staff and collaborators read a few short scenes from Lights Rise on Grace as inspiration, and participants were able to create embodied responses to the material that were then shared with the Appetizers participants, modeling the ambitious partnerships we hope to continue.
As we continue down this path, we are excited about the power of Connectivity as not just a two-way street, but a multi-lane highway where the passions and needs of this community flow through the building in every direction imaginable. Instead of programming for the community, the community has programmed for themselves, flexing the power to both shape the Connectivity conversations around individual shows, as well as the show itself, and leading to a very new kind of explosive engagement for Woolly audiences.
Kristen Jackson is the Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC. She has worked on and off-Broadway in casting and producing, and regionally as a teaching artist and performer. Credits include: Ostar Productions; Playwrights Horizons; Actors Theatre of Louisville; and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. She also worked in arts administration and provided programming support for Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance. Most recently, she earned her MA from UT-Austin in Performance as Public Practice. She also holds a BA in Theatre Studies and English from Duke University.
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.