Lessons Along the Way

by Rob Urbinati

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

When I became Associate Artistic Director at Queens Theatre in 1999, we produced “commercial” plays on the Mainstage by writers such as Neil Simon, Joe DiPietro, Agatha Christie, etc. The audience was mostly older and white.  These productions were generally satisfying, but since we had many subscribers, there was no good reason why we could not also present new plays.  Over the next few years, we began to add premieres of new comedies by writers such as Joni Fritz and Susan Barsky to our Mainstage season, and to our delight, we found that audiences trusted our selections, and attendance for the new plays was no different than attendance for familiar titles.

Meanwhile, the demographics in Queens were (and are) continuously evolving. And while we presented music and dance programs that were of interest to the Asian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, African, Mexican, Central American and South American audiences in the borough, I felt strongly that we should also be offering plays to these audiences.

To satisfy both needs, we created a New Play Development program which consisted of two components: Plays A Mother Would Love, to find “mainstream” material for the Mainstage, and The Immigrant Voices Project (IVP, now known as New American Voices) to provide opportunities for minority and underrepresented voices in Queens.  My title was changed to Director of New Play Development. We started the program in 2002, and began accepting submissions. We received over 100 submissions a year.

Clearly, the two components of the New Play Development program were not mutually exclusive: Kitty Chen’s “Rosa Loses Her Face” was both a Plays A Mother Would Love play and an Immigrant Voices Project play. We presented a reading of the play in the Studio, and the following season, a full production on the Mainstage.

We speculated that 20 – 30 people would attend the readings. We’ve rarely had fewer than 80 people in attendance at any reading since the program’s inception. The audience for IVP readings consists of the more adventurous Mainstage subscribers, but we found that while these audiences were willing to accept material that ventured beyond the parameters of Mainstage productions, there were certain “restrictions.” They preferred plays that were family-themed, and featured older characters.  The families could be from any culture, and the subject matter could be decidedly non-mainstream, as in Qui Nguyen’s “Trail By Water,” which involved cannibalism. Serious subject matter made no difference: our audiences for the New Play Development program were eager to take a step into new and riskier territory. But if we presented a reading about “swinging singles” of any culture, they were less interested. The plays had to be inter-generational.

Another challenge with programming the Reading Series is that while we want to keep the audience we cultivated for new work, we also want to expand the audience to include the demographics that the plays represent.  So far, apart from friends of the writers, directors and actors, that has not happened.

The Reading Series was never intended to be an end in itself. All plays that are selected for Readings are candidates for full production, either in the Studio Theatre or on the Mainstage.   Since the New Play Development program began, we have had over 10 plays that have gone on to full production. But we should have more – at least one or two a year. Readings are not substitutes for production.

Queens Theatre should also present more co-productions with Manhattan-based theatres.  Queens audiences are distinct from Manhattan audiences in many ways, with minimal overlap. Playwrights would benefit from having their work seen in two boroughs.

Also, as the premiere performing arts venue in the borough, we should open our doors for smaller companies.  Last year, we welcomed Titan Theatre as our first “company in residence.”  There are other new companies that could benefit from the resources that Queens Theatre can provide.  We are also looking into hosting Queens-based “writers groups.”

In addition to the Mainstage and the Studio Theatre, we have a third venue – a Cabaret space.  This venue was built with funds from a capital improvement grant given to the theatre by the Borough President in 2006. But construction ended just as the economic downturn of 2008 began, and the Cabaret space has never found its footing, and remains under-utilized. It is an ideal venue for readings, comedians, one-person shows, and workshops of new musicals.

Another major challenge is that over 50% of audiences that attend the performing arts events at Queens Theatre speak English as a second language. Our readings and productions are in English. The few attempts we’ve made to present readings of plays in Spanish have not been well-attended.

We need to find ways for the audiences who come to Queens Theatre for music and dance programming to attend new plays.  To do so, we need to explore technologies that allow us to present readings and productions in Mandarin or Spanish or Arabic with English “subtitles” so that our faithful audiences, along with new audiences, can participate in the process of new play development.


Rob Urbinati is a freelance director and playwright based in New York City, Director of New Play Development at Queens Theatre, Literary Manager of The Private Theatre and Artistic Adviser for Houston Family Arts Center. In New York, he has directed for The Public Theater, Classic Stage Company, York Theatre, The Culture Project, Abingdon Theatre, Pearl Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre and New York University. He has also directed at theatres and universities across the country. Rob’s plays as a writer include “Hazelwood Jr. High,” “West Moon Street” and “Death By Design,” all published by Samuel French, and which have received over 70 productions world-wide.  His new play, “Mama’s Boy” and his new musical, “The Queen Bees” will premiere in 2015.

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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.