What I am about to say isn’t a new concept. In fact, several experts in audience engagement have been saying this for years, but it always bears repeating: an audience is not built with just one production, project, or event. This process takes time, research and strategy.
An active and engaged audience needs to feel like a theatre company is constantly thinking of them, as if a season has been curated specifically with them in mind. This comes from studying and researching the community around your theatre.
Hi-ARTS is about to enter the most important moment in our history. We were founded in 2000 as a project called the Hip-Hop Theater Festival. The Hip-Hop Theater Festival is a week-long festival featuring theatrical productions, staged readings, dance and music performances and mural creations and has been produced in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and the Bay Area. As time progressed, we realized that the Hip-Hop Theater field and artists needed more: a theatre company that produces and presents year-round programming. Thus the Hip-Hop Theater Festival became Hi-ARTS.
A major part of our growth as an organization is the acquirement of space. Up until 2012, we were a nomadic company – renting shared office space and theatre spaces. In 2010, we were introduced to Artspace, a non-profit organization that turns abandoned buildings across the U.S. into affordable housing for artists and their families. Artspace was about to start the process of turning the abandoned East Harlem elementary school P.S.109 into 89 affordable housing units, office space, classrooms and theaters for 3 local arts organizations, and they wanted Hi-ARTS to become a major partner.
With the knowledge that the construction of the theaters and office space would be completed in 2015, in 2011 we identified, renovated and rented a store front gallery space across the street from El Barrio’s Artspace P.S.109. We understood that we needed to cultivate an audience years before we would start programming out of P.S. 109. We have taken the time to research the neighborhood and establish relationships with local community leaders and politicians. The population of East Harlem is 52.1% Latino and 35.7% Black with a median household income of $21,480. Although East Harlem is home to such arts establishments such as El Museo del Barrio, this community hasn’t traditionally had access to professional theatre. P.S.109 is surrounded by the Washington Housing Projects and its residents have not normally been targeted by theatre companies in New York. We also already have a built-in audience that lives inside the building, so we are creating special discounts and events specifically for the P.S. 109 residents.
We are working with local leaders in the community to curate events outside of productions to further engage the audience so that they feel comfortable in the space before they experience our theatre productions. In a city that has experienced substantial gentrification, we are recognizing and honoring the history of the neighborhood by featuring visual arts exhibitions by local artists who have documented East Harlem for decades or featuring portraits of local residents. We are giving tours of PS109 to community members during its construction phase so they feel like they are getting an exclusive sneak peak of the theaters. We want our community to feel like they have ownership of the art and the space. It’s slow. It’s steady. It’s tedious. But as an organization that has never had a full season of work or a performance space, we know that our community needs to be emotionally connected to the work and feel like they are wanted, not for their ticket buying power, but for their perspectives, their opinions and their experiences. They need to know that their voices are valid and that we are listening.
Coming July 2015…Hi-ARTS at El Barrio’s Artspace P.S.109, 215 E. 99th Street NY, NY 10029. www.hi-artsnyc.org
Tiffany Vega joined the staff of Hi-ARTS/Hip-Hop Theater Festival in 2010 and currently serves as its General Manager. She is a graduate of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Leadership and Advocacy Leadership Institutes, is on the Steering Committee for the Latina/o Theatre Commons, is currently serving as a Facilitator for the New York City Council’s Participatory Budget Process for District 8/East Harlem, is on the Artistic Selection Committee for the Harlem Arts Festival and was on the Artist Selection Committee for El Barrio’s Artspace PS109. She is a member of Women of Color in the Arts, a founding member of La Cooperativa of NYC Latin@ Theatre Artists and was a Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Scholarship Recipient. She is also the President & Founder of La Vega Management, a company that focuses on theatrical general management and producing. Tiffany received a MFA from Columbia University in Theatre Management and Producing and a BA in Theatre from the University of Maryland-College Park. Tiffany is a third generation resident of East Harlem and a former student of Elementary School P.S. 109.
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.