A Jar Full of Questions

by Josh Friedman

in Leadership U

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(This post is a part of Josh Friedman’s Leadership U[niversity] Continuing Ed grant activities.) 

Several years ago, my wife and I were getting tired of the same date night conversations about the kids, the week ahead, and what we’d have for dinner that week.  At the advice of a friend, we found a book with lists of questions designed to get us thinking and talking about our memories, our childhoods, our beliefs, our dreams, and our spirituality. We wrote these questions on slips of paper and put them in a jar. On date night, we picked out a few questions and left the daily stuff at home. The result was that we had interesting, illuminating talks that we wouldn’t necessarily have had if unprompted.

After a recent board retreat at a colleague’s theatre as part of my TCG Leadership U[niversity] grant activities, I was wondering what else our theatre, the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY, can do to get people talking about what they experience when sitting in our seats. The board retreat focused partly on engaging the audience, which is something we constantly think about and work on at the Hangar. We know that encouraging people to interact with the art and to experience more personal connections with the shows and the artists is crucial to long-term audience development. Retreat participants shared ideas such as having nightly post-show chats and starting a play club, which would be similar to a book club.

So I began to ponder how we offer our audiences a jar full of questions to spark great conversations about and around the themes of our work. How do we help them talk about the big ideas, the controversies, the intersection between ideas in the work and their own life experiences?  Sometimes we see a play, and the questions about life — our lives, the characters’ lives, or the lives of strangers — just jump out at us. In those rare moments, the questions and responses fill our ride home from the theatre with engaging conversation and, with luck, resurface in the days or weeks afterward. But sometimes, and maybe most often, our audiences may truly enjoy a production and not go any deeper with the experience.

So the questions kept coming to me after the board retreat (it was a long ride home).  How can we continue to engage with the audience after the play is over?  We already host post-show discussions after some performances, and we have a pre-show program every night, but I often hear from our patrons that they want more. How can we accomplish more with limited resources, and how can we get the audience to have this conversation with each other, creating a sense of community and shared dreams while celebrating diverse points of view and responses?

As an industry, we wrestle with audience engagement and declining attendance. Some of the barriers we hear about from people who don’t attend is that they have no one to go with and that the cost is too high. I think that these two barriers relate to the value of the theatre experience for these individuals, not the cost and not the companionship. Can we make the value of the experience greater and more meaningful by helping our community start and then continue the conversation?

This summer we are going to encourage our audiences to join the conversation with an online, moderated chat that will pose specific questions around the work we’re presenting — questions that get people thinking about the conflicts they saw among characters, the playwright’s intentions, the time period depicted . . . questions that prompt deeper thinking about the experience and that bring our audiences lives, feelings, and experiences into the discussion. We are excited to try this with our audiences, and I’m looking forward to seeing what thoughts and ideas catch on and how the community engages with each other based on their experience with our plays.

For those of you who have launched something similar in the past, I’d welcome your thoughts about what has worked and what hasn’t. Do you have any go-to questions that are guaranteed to get people talking? Do you start the conversation by asking a question during the curtain speech so audiences are already thinking critically when the lights come up? I look forward to hearing what our TCG community is doing to ignite great conversations.

JOSH FRIEDMAN Josh is the Managing Director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York.  His career spans more than two decades and he has worked in arts leadership positions as a producer, production manager, director of outreach, teacher, and stage manager.  Prior to coming to the Hangar, Josh was the production manager at Houston’s Alley Theatre where he was in charge of the administration, management, and development of the theatre’s production department. His previous professional credits include positions at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Cleveland Play House, Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Studio Arena Theatre, and O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Friedman has taught classes and workshops at Ithaca College, Butler University, Indiana University, and the University of Illinois.

Friedman is an alumnus of the Stanley K. Lacy Leadership Association LEAD program and served on the Board of Trustees for the Indianapolis Fringe Festival. He served on the grant selection panel for Theatre Communications Group’s Leadership University Grant and has presented at various national conferences. Friedman is a graduate of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and studied Fund Raising Management at The School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Leadership UniversityLeadership U[niversity] prepares professionals from all areas of the theatre for greater leadership responsibilities and long-term careers in the theatre. The program makes awards in two different areas: One-on-One grants of $75,000 plus additional support for early-career leaders and Continuing Ed grants of up to $5,000 for mid-career or veteran professionals. Leadership U[niversity] is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.