“Who is it for?” Too often this question of audience engagement is addressed after a season of plays is selected, with the subsequent question “ how do we sell tickets to these plays?” Instead, I challenge artistic directors to really think about who they are making work for, and who they want to impact with this work before they start planning their next season or project. Thinking in terms of serving your community rather than selling to your subscriber base.
Who is the community around your theatre? What are their needs ? What issues need to be addressed ? What stories would enrich their understanding of the world? Whose voices are not being heard? This last question is extremely important, because I don’t think that the discussion of audience engagement can be divorced from the discussion of diversity. By allowing our theatre to be reflective of the diversity of our cities we will not only bring new audience members in but give our regular audience a deeper insight into their neighbors.
To take the challenge even farther why not engage your audience (and potential audience) in the process of picking your season? You don’t necessarily have to let them select the plays- but engage them in discussion to find out what matters to them and take this into consideration with your programming. For those theatre’s lucky enough to commision or develop new work- why not bring your audience into the process with the intention of both creating work that is reflective to issues they care about and also to give them a stake and a voice in the creative process. Present a workshop of a scene or two at a time- invite them into the rehearsal room and let them see not only the product but the sometimes messy always exciting process of creating not only the production but the work itself.
As artists, and arts administrators the financial realities of staying afloat often take precedence over our deeper responsibility to both serve and challenge our audience. If we don’t fulfill this responsibility it feels like we are continually treading the surface in the name of saving a subscriber base rather than diving into the depths of artistic engagement and risk. Serving a community or audience shouldn’t mean pandering to them. A play should never be chosen or not chosen over fear. Fear that if you don’t go with the “safe bet” that you will lose your audience. Let’s move beyond this fear, and focus on not only bringing in a new audience but challenging our existing audience and trusting them to rise to the challenge.
We go to the theatre to better understand ourselves and the world around us, to be moved, and to have an experience unlike anywhere else. By presenting plays that engage with issues that are important to our world and community, that both entertain and challenge our audiences we not only will sell tickets but will widen our audience demographic and be seen as a valuable asset to the entire community that they have a stake and voice in.
Tracy Cameron Francis is a director, dramaturg and interdisciplinary artist based Brooklyn. She has directed and developed work with HERE, Red Bull Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Williamstown Theatre Festival, CultureHub/LaMama, Portland Center Stage, NY Arab American Comedy Festival, Martin Segal Theatre, Monarch Theatre, NY International Fringe, Falaki Theatre (Egypt), Alwan For the Arts, Poetic Theatre and others. Francis has directed U.S. premieres of plays from Egypt, Algeria, and Finland and presented development productions of plays from Iraq, Pakistan, Uganda, Japan, Uruguay, Syria and Chile. She also creates original interdisciplinary site-specific performance works investigating social issues in public spaces. Artistic director of Hybrid Theatre Works, core member of Theatre Without Borders, Associate member of SDC, member of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, LaMama Directing Symposium (Italy), BA Fordham University, and recent recipient of a TCG Global Connections Grant to workshop a new play with a Syrian playwright in Beirut.
Photos: “Confluence,” an original work investigating the communities relationship and responsibility to the Willamette river created by Tracy Cameron Francis for Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival 2014. Photos by Scott Ryan.
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.