A few months ago, I attended a Baptist church service for the first time with a friend in Harlem. I was nervous in the way that’s common when you’re entering an unknown experience, particularly one in which you know you will be the outsider. I should have known better; from the moment I walked in, I was personally acknowledged by members of the congregation and invited to fully share in the experience. People squished together to make room for us in the pews, the person to my left shared his Bible so I could follow along with the readings, and our neighbors shook our hands and introduced themselves by name. There was a palpable joy at sharing in each other’s presence, and the sense that whether or not you attended the service every Sunday –and whether you were on the pulpit or in the pews– while you were in that room you were a crucial part of the communal experience.
This is exactly the kind of atmosphere that theatres can effectively foster to fully connect with their existing audiences and to welcome new ones. A play by its very nature has the potential to be a powerful connecting force, but the personalized nature of the theatergoing experience around it is what will make an audience feel invited into the space to begin with, and comfortable enough to come back.
This is the approach that my theatre company, Pleiades Productions, is pursuing for our upcoming season. When we formed the company three years ago, one of our goals was to create socially-conscious work that welcomed people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and ages. We quickly learned that actively engaging as wide an audience as we hoped for was not simply a matter of putting on a play that had the potential to connect with many people, then waiting for them to show. The challenge became reaching audiences beyond our friends, family, and extended circles, and after that, maintaining meaningful connections with them in between productions. It became clear that to successfully cultivate the varied audience we were hoping for, we had to find ways for them to engage with the process on a more personalized level.
After a year-long hiatus filled with discussions and brainstorming, Pleiades is setting out to attempt this anew with a revamped structure that will better support our mission of connecting directly with diverse communities and creating a space that can belong to everyone who walks through our doors. Instead of reaching out to audiences to attend one show, we are inviting them to join us for an ongoing community experience over the course of a seven-event season. These events will be tied together by a common question or topic inspired by the conversations happening around us, and we will encourage our audiences to submit their ideas which we will take into account when selecting the following season.
Although the season will be anchored by a mainstage theatrical production, the remaining events will be a mix of theatre and non-theatre events. We know that individual audience members have a broad range of interests and perspectives, and this “choose-your-own-adventure” quality will allow them to decide when, how, and to what extent they want to engage with the topic. Throughout, we will be making a concerted effort to personally welcome everyone who attends our events and to create a relaxed environment in which people can connect through a continued conversation across the season and beyond.
In order to engage a wide community with our work, it is our job to create a space that adapts to and serves the wide-ranging needs and interests of that very community. By providing varied options for engagement each season and personalizing each audience member’s experience, we hope to provide a way for each individual to find his or her own way into the conversation and feel a part of the larger community.
Estefanía Fadul is a Colombia-born, New Hampshire-raised, New York City-based director and producer. Credits include así van los fantasmas de méxico, primera parte by Matthew Paul Olmos (Repertorio Español), Underneath by Christine Jean Chambers (Around the Block), and Well by Lisa Kron (Pleiades Productions). She recently assistant produced Soho Rep’s first all-ages site-specific show Washeteria. Estefania is the founding Artistic Director of Pleiades Productions, a Van Lier Directing Fellow at Repertorio Español, and a member of the Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab. B.A. Vassar College.
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.