The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

by Melissa Hillman

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

(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.)

Over the past several years, the theatre community has become more and more anxious about “audience engagement” and less and less certain what that actually means. Some people think it means audience participation theatre, which can run from happening-style performance events to walkthrough shows like Fefu and Her Friends and Sleep No More to hauling unwilling audience members into the spotlight for 90 seconds of uncomfortable awkwardness. Some people think it means enabling the audience to participate in the show’s creation in some way. Some people think it means doing shows that engage your local audience by reflecting them in some way—usually season planning and/or casting—and creating events attached to the show, like talkbacks, community outreach events, or a lobby display audience members can add to or interact with.

We don’t, actually, have any real agreement about what “audience engagement” entails. The only thing on which we all seem to agree is that it’s tied so strongly to attracting young, diverse audiences that it’s essentially now code for that, and that it involves some kind of participation from the audience, which we imagine is the key to attracting these young, diverse audience members. Discussions of audience engagement are usually tied to anxiety about the DIY appeal of the internet and theatre’s need to somehow tap into that, due to the perception in our industry that young people, especially young people of color, don’t go to the theatre but are online all day long.

We hear that theatre attendance is falling, and believe that young, diverse audiences are nonexistent. We talk constantly about how there will be no future for theatre unless we can engage diverse audiences. We’re told that “audience engagement” will not only save theatre, but is an ethical imperative, and that we need strategies—at present, some kind of ill-defined participatory model—that will bring otherwise absent and apathetic young people of color into the theatre, inoculating us from irrelevancy.

The main problem with this discussion is that we’re pretending there’s just one “theatre,” and we know—we all know—that’s not true. There’s theatre that “counts” and there’s theatre left at the rope line. In order to “count,” you need money. No other aspect of your company or your work is more important. If your annual budget does not meet a certain threshold, your theatre is not considered important enough to be included in studies, articles, discussions, panels, and everything else from which we draw data determining national trends and important issues. In fact, you even need money to get money. Most grants for “small” theatres have an eligibility requirement of 100K+ annual budget, shutting small companies neatly out of both a crucial funding stream and the data gathered from funding orgs. The concerns of big budget theatres dictate the terms of the national discussion about the state of our industry.

In most American urban centers, there’s a vibrant, thriving indie scene—small theatres operating on a shoestring budget, paying people a stipend and operating out of 99-and-under rentals or non-traditional spaces. Think of it as DIY theatre. Indie theatres are now connected via the internet in ways they’ve never been before. The people working within them now have a picture, at least anecdotally, of the national scene, and can see that indie work all over the country is filled with young people, women, and people of color, both as creators and consumers.

We already know, if we care to look at the indie scene, what draws young, diverse audiences to the theatre, and that a participatory model is no more likely to draw a young, diverse audience than a traditional model if they don’t see the work as relevant to their lives, the tickets as good value for money, and the space as one in which they’re truly welcome. We don’t, however, care to look at the indie scene.

Because we ignore and undervalue indie theatre, we imagine we’re discussing issues in “theatre” when what we’re actually discussing is a particular segment of theatre—one from which women, young people, and people of color are largely shut out. The indie scene is dominated by women directors, and is much younger and more diverse than big budget theatre. As soon as theatre gets to a certain budget level, the women and people of color both backstage and onstage become much more scarce, and the audiences—and the programming– get whiter and older. We bring white male playwrights, directors, designers, and actors from indie theatres (and even grad schools) into big budget theatres—theatres that “count”—far more often than we bring in women or people of color. The conversations we’ve been having about that glass ceiling and its impact on the audiences we draw are crucial. But we should also be looking at the explosion of diverse performance already happening all over the country in the indie scene and considering why big budget theatres aren’t replicating that, instead of pretending that young people and people of color have mysterious, unfamiliar needs and require some new kind of participatory theatre to show up.

Big budget theatre’s financial dependence on older, well-heeled donors and subscribers results in a lot of programming that reflects that demographic, currently largely 40+ and white. There’s just not enough grant money to release every big budget theatre from dependence on subscribers and individual donors. Big budget theatres are faced with the need to serve both the older, whiter community upon which they’re inextricably financially dependent now, and the younger, diverse community they need to attract in order to be financially viable in a more demographically diverse future. Common approaches include slotting one “young” or “diverse” play (and leaving the rest of the season as is) creating special under-30 pricing, and stabs at defining and implementing “audience engagement” in talkbacks, parties, and lobby displays. Sometimes the one “young/diverse” slot features a production that incorporates technology and audience engagement, like projecting hashtagged tweets during the show. And because we have stats from larger theatres, we know that none of this is working—none of this is permanently increasing young, diverse audiences at big budget theatres.

One groundbreaking new play by a young Black playwright, for example, might attract a younger, diverse audience, but that audience won’t come back to see the rest of that season if it consists of a well-worn play by a white man, a London import written and directed by white men, a classic helmed by a middle-aged white man, and a middle-aged white solo performance, especially if that’s what that company’s season always looks like, and has looked like for the past 20 years. One hot new Black play isn’t going to pack that season—or even that one play—with young people of color, even if there are “opportunities for audience engagement,” or an under-30 deal that discounts tickets to next to nothing. People in a huge theatre sitting in the cheap seats understand the hierarchy of audience. And even if seats are general admission, the 22-year-old college student in torn jeans knows what his worth is to the theatre as he sits next to the rich white couple with their name in gold in the lobby. He knows he’s a tourist in someone else’s world. He’ll see that one play and then go right back to the storefront or underground theatre he’s been going to all year.

There’s no secret formula or magical new participatory technique that will create a young, diverse audience. The “secret” of indie theatre’s ability to attract that audience is simple: Tell the stories that audience wants to hear, all the time, charge realistic prices, and create a welcoming environment—one that truly values them rather than fetishizes them but otherwise treats them as unimportant. Is that realistic without dismantling big budget theatre’s financial dependence on that older, white demographic? I don’t know. Will that older, white demographic continue to financially support theatre that doesn’t consistently treat them, their stories, and their interests as more important than those of any other demographic? I don’t know.

Either way, it’s unrealistic to continue to ignore the national indie theatre scene in discussions of diversity. Recognition of the work in that scene, the artists in that scene, and the audiences it attracts will immediately change the terms of the discussion. That means decoupling “importance” from “money,” and it means being realistic about when we’re discussing who gets paid, when we’re discussing what work gets done, and when we’re discussing what kinds of audiences we attract—because those are all different discussions. Diverse work is getting done. Diverse audiences exist. The issue is that diverse artists—women and people of color—are not getting the big money gigs, not that the work isn’t happening AT ALL. The issue is that young, diverse audiences aren’t attending big budget theatres, not that young, diverse audiences don’t exist AT ALL.

If we’re going to have productive discussions about diversity, even coded as “audience engagement,” we first need to stop pretending that there’s one discrete “theatre community” that’s all failing in the same way. We need to stop pretending that a lack of diversity in big budget theatre is a lack of diversity in “theatre,” as if people of color cannot create theatre unless a big, white theatre bends down to help them. We need to stop pretending that a lack of diversity in big budget theatre audiences is a lack of diversity in “theatre audiences,” as if young people of color have no theatre unless a big, white theatre creates a space for them. You can’t stop young people of color from making art. It’s happening everywhere, all the time. You can’t stop young people of color from consuming art. It’s happening everywhere, all the time.

The discussion we need to have is why we accord so much more importance to money in our art than any other consideration, and why we (perhaps therefore) reserve big budget gigs and the disproportionate attention we accord to those stages largely for white men. The discussion about audiences we need to have is why a young, diverse audience packing the house every night at an indie theatre is considered worthless, but a handful of young people of color in an otherwise all-white LORT audience is prized, congratulated, and rewarded with a $65,000 grant for audience outreach.

The main concern about diversity in our industry isn’t creating art that attracts young people and people of color—we have that already– it’s creating art that keeps the upper echelon of theatremakers employed in a changing demographic environment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—people need jobs—but let’s have this conversation in more realistic terms, including recognizing that we largely reserve those jobs for white men. We need to face up to the fact that we enormously undervalue the work of women, young people, and people of color because so much of it happens below a certain budget, and we perpetuate that undervaluing by keeping them there.

We can start having a more realistic discussion about issues of our changing demographics, and what we can do to address them at all levels, by recognizing the work of indie theatres, and the women, young people, and people of color that populate them. You don’t need to invent a new kind of participatory theatre to attract diverse, young audiences. Go see the theatre they make and see, recognize it exists, and let’s start the conversation there.

Melissa Hillman is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley and blogs about theatre (mostly) as Bitter Gertrude. Impact Theatre was founded in 1996 and specializes in new plays by emerging playwrights, introducing the work of Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Elizabeth Meriwether, and many others to the Bay Area. Melissa holds a PhD in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley, where she was a Pearl Hickman fellow and twice won the Mark Goodson Prize for Distinguished Theatrical Talent. She is a frequent contributor to Theatre Bay Area Magazine and lives in Berkeley with her husband and their two sons.

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.

  • Kathleen Warnock

    (Melissa drops the mic). Outstanding piece saying things I’ve been thinking for years. Brava!

  • Susanna Brent

    If this is the conversation that you keep having over and over again in the circles that you frequent. Find better circles. The conversations that we are having are about audience engagement as none of the things that you described. Small theatres in our area have a vibrant voice with an important seat at the table. In fact, every theatre has something to contribute. While you claim that diversity is the answer, and let’s be clear here that there is a need for diversity in every industry across the country, what you are actually talking about is authenticity. When theatre’s sell out to donors and corporate sponsors they give away a piece of their authenticity each time, and those theatre’s that manage to grow with their authenticity in tact are the truly great organizations that we all admire today. Ultimately, for better or for worse, it all boils down to the work. Young audiences, in fact, all audiences flock to the theatres large and small that are doing real work, great work, exciting work. Let’s have that conversation, because you’re right, audience engagement is not the silver bullet. No amount of engagement will save a poorly crafted show. Is there a white patriarchy alive and well in American theatre today? Absolutely. Is it responsible for silencing the voices of indie theatres around the country? Absolutely not.

  • Wayne Paul Mattingly

    Great piece. Indie Theatre is definitely alive and well. Underpaid all, as it were, and there’s the rub…Always love the traces of snark in your columns:)

  • Pete Miller


    Smart piece. I’m convinced that figuring out how to better show the general public a wider range of the theatre available in any given community would be a great thing for play makers at all scales. More doors in to the playgoing habit can only be a good thing. I’m most active around Washington, DC where we have a wonderful scattering of producing companies creating a rich landscape of available productions, but almost no one knows they are out there. I try to be of use to companies large and small and find that nearly all of them, even the giants, feel that every dollar and hour and scrap of good will that they have available for communication and promotion has to be dedicated to filling their own seats as best they can. They don’t feel they have the energy for a collaborative effort to attract new people into attending theatre in the interest of building a larger pool of habitual playgoers. They are wrong, but I can understand why so few of them can recognize it. This sense of exhaustion and being out of resources probably contributes more to isolation between theatre companies than any systematic budgetism or sexism or racism – even acknowledging how powerful those forces are.

    My manifesto about drawing more people into playgoing is posted here:

    On a more Impact related note, I often use the cards pictured below as an example of clever outreach around a production. Not only were they a smart marketing component, every time I look back at them, I’m powerfully reminded of the whole experience at La Val’s Subterranean. POW

    Hope to see you in Kansas City.

  • Susan-Jane Harrison

    I don’t believe Melissa is saying that white patriarchy is silencing the voices of Indie theatre. It’s more nuanced than that. She is specifically addressing the conversation that is had about audience diversity. Neither do your points overall seem at odds with this article. It is as you say, a somewhat different conversation. I would posit also that the view may be different in different parts of the country.

  • Patrick Gabridge

    Excellent piece! Some of this is exactly why our recent study of new play audiences in Boston, from the New England New Play Alliance, made a point of counting attendance figures from ALL sizes of theatres in our area. I was shocked when I heard that one of the major national organizations doing a counting study looked at data from only a couple companies in town–the rest were too small to matter, I guess. But that’s where so much new work is happening, and the work that will, ultimately, have an impact on the rest of the theater world (or at least I hope so). Thanks for trying to keep the discussion honest, Melissa.

  • JLMandell

    This essay is, as is usually the case with Melissa Hillman, inspiring. But it is also so infuriating that I wrote an entire blog post about it.
    What audience engagement means — and what it shouldn’t mean: ageism.

  • Pearl Klein

    When I speak of audience engagement, I generally mean I want to see small, indy theaters stop engaging solely in a circle-jerk (“Me and my friends from art college started a theater company so we can produce the work we like”) and spray outward, connecting with the people who will get the kind of experience they seek because they know we are providing it because we communicate with them. Some people call that theater marketing, and most companies don’t do it well.

  • Melissa Hillman

    That’s incredible! We loved that show– that marketing brought a lot of people in as well. I’ll check out your manifesto!

  • Melissa Hillman

    This is an excellent response that brings up important issues we should be considering. Thank you for adding this to the discussion.

  • William Myers

    Many of those small indie theaters are thriving in-so-far as their participants are all carrying 9 to 5 jobs that give them the income to survive and evenings off to also act or engage in another aspect of the process of producing plays. They’re only ‘thriving’ in the sense that they’re being ‘professional’ without actually having the responsibility of paying their employees. That isn’t a model that the industry as a whole should realistically consider.

    The problem with audience growth is simple: selling tickets to see shows requires salespeople. When a theater was one of the few means of entertainment available, sales was easy… people came to you and the box office was all the ‘sales’ force you needed. Today, there are many other options and few people still rely on the information services that indicate that we’re available – our advertisement (newspapers and radio, occasionally local television). Artistic staff are rarely salesmen. Production staff even less so.

    If you want audience growth, hire salesmen. If you want awareness of your theatre and mission to spread throughout your region, hire marketing people. Good ones, not just an actor who took a class in marketing in college. How much time would you spend looking for the right actor to play your Hamlet or Don Quixote? Why would you hire (or ask) just anyone to market or grow your audience size?

  • J

    You’re absolutely right that indie theatre requires a day job — I’m living it. I have also lost thousands of dollars, like many of the people I know in the industry, to make sure all of my production staff get stipends and expenses covered. Yet the Flea Theatre can run off-Bway exploiting young actors and that is a viable model?

    What mode of access is there for me, as a young woman who has exclusively worked in indie shows, into what is referred to as “legit” theatre? Oh wait, unpaid internships and meager fellowships (many of which you now need a $100,000+ MFA to get) to have the opportunity of “exposure”. Or, if you’re an actor, paying hundreds for casting workshops. I could go on. I unfortunately don’t have the luxury of doing this — so I have a day job, sue me.

    You ignored the much larger point that the author is trying to make about how systemically oppressed people are wholly shut out from the (failing) regional/rep scene and just argued that if only more money was spent on marketing, theatre would be fine. Is this a joke? Theatres spend way more money on admin staff (and especially marketing) than they do on artists! That is certainly not the issue. Big theatres definitely use Twitter to market, don’t worry.

  • D.W. Gregory

    Terrific article that underscores a serious disconnect in American theatre. As someone whose work is performed mostly in theatres that “don’t count,” I thank you for this essay. Measuring worth by budget size is a default position, in some ways understandable if you are thinking to study the institutions that attract the lion’s share of theatre-going audiences. And these are the theatres where artists have some hope of landing a paying gig–what we would call the professionional theatre. Yet there are thousands of small theatremakers who are active and attractive to young audiences. Perhaps the fact that their ticket prices are closer to the ground than some of the major theatres is also a factor in their success. But how long is that model sustainable when it is subsidized by the artists themselves, who must either rely on day jobs to to survive or scrape by on subsistence wages?

  • Melissa Hillman

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m not at all discussing indie financials, apart from the fact that most indies are shut out of most grants, as I say above. The article is about the national conversation around a lack of diversity in “theatre.” We ignore that there’s enormous diversity onstage, backstage, and in the audience in indie theatre, and have never asked WHY big budget theatre differs so enormously, showing dismal diversity numbers in all three areas. WHY do we think we need a new “audience engagement model” when there are theatres all over the country that successfully attract the young, diverse audience big budget theatres say they want? WHY do we say young, diverse audiences “don’t exist” when they absolutely do, and why is no one examining why that audience goes in droves to Bindlestiff in San Francisco but not to ACT, SF’s flagship LORT? It has nothing to do with indie financials, apart from wondering why we’re shut out from every “audience outreach” grant.

  • Philip Powell

    Interesting read. Theatre as an art form isn’t dying, but the business models that we’ve built up around it over the past several few centuries certainly are. I hate to say hate, but frankly, to your average person, theatre’s value proposition isn’t strong enough.

  • Camille Mazurek

    Amen! You are so right!

  • Patricia Henman

    We must remember the elderly (whatever age we are talking about) is the supportive audience with more free time and money. When I was between 30 and 50, I had three children and had to make money to support the family so I certainly did not have extra time or money to be a regular theatre goer, and I worked in theatre as producer and actor. There are so many variables to why your audience is what it is and I do not think it is black or white, in any manner of speaking.
    This is an excellent article that begins the conversation but there is a lot more to say on audience engagement and engaging the audience.

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  • Pat Loeb

    just add disability to the list and I am in total agreement!

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