TCG Audience (R)Evolution: Reflection, Change, and Legacy

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in Audience & Community Engagement

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From March 25th to 27th, I was able to attend TCG’s second Audience (R)Evolution Convening. While I wasn’t there in my official capacity as TCG’s Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Blog Salon Curator and each of the presentations were livestreamed, I still wanted to share what drew me to this convening and share two bright spots of the experience:

As an arts administrator, dramaturg, playwright, and teaching artist, I am involved in a wide variety of audience engagement and community development activities and have been for the past 8 years. My point of entry into this work is that art and theatre are powerful tools for social justice and change, and I take an intersectional approach when calling for change. While the structure and goals vary depending on the needs of the event and community, the work is research and/or performance based. I’ve written program notes, created study guides and research packets. I’ve developed and instructed curriculum for art, dance, music, and theatre based interactive workshops. I’ve also moderated panel discussions, theatre symposiums, and diversity and inclusion training sessions. I’ve worked with a wide range of audiences from elementary, middle, and high school to college, young/middle age adults, and seniors. This might include watching and responding to a performance; discussing and sharing resources; or engaging with artists, activists, scholars, historians, religious and community leaders, and other experts about important issues related to the play or current events.

More and more, I’ve been called to respond to current events. Unfortunately, a great many of these events are tragic in nature. Emotions are raw and clear actions steps are needed. In the last two years, I’ve been called to create an artistic response or facilitate a conversation in response to the Sandy Hook shooting; the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner; and the impact of PTSD on service men and women and their family. Owing to powerful, enlightening, and transformative nature of these experiences, many audience members want to continue the work in their own lives and communities.  However, more often than not, theatres have moved on to another play or topic.

I decided to attend the convening because I wanted to find a cohort of theatre artists, administrators, and leaders who would be interested in developing action steps (or a toolkit) for how to respond to national tragedies that reflect relevant issues within their communities. This response could include identifying artists, activists, scholars, community leaders, and social workers that not only convene to create/present performance pieces and engage in discussion, but also share resources and report out on the work. My hope is to create a sustainable model that can be replicated across the country. It’s an ambitious and necessary endeavor, one that requires time, thoughtfulness, patience, and the collective action of many. So, I was excited to get started.

The first bright spot for me was our cohort meeting, which began by defining cohort and talking through the benefits of working this way.

First, here our working Definition of Cohort: A group of individuals working toward a shared goal, often on behalf of an organization or community that shares some set of characteristics, such as programmatic focus, geographic location, or size.

Secondly, these are the identified Benefits of Cohorts:

  • Builds on the values of diverse ideas, styles, and identities
  • Increases the likelihood of implementation
  • Enhances the power of peep exchange and peer support
  • Replenishes emotional reserves
  • Creates collective voice and collective impact
  • Reinforce skill-building
  • Are often more cost-effective

Next, TCG identified six common areas of inquiry and challenges for us to gather around and address in our cohorts:

  • Balancing new audiences and existing subscribers
  • Measuring effectiveness and data collection
  • Using new tech tools and social media
  • Motivating staff and aligning departments
  • Developing and sustaining authentic partnerships with diverse audiences
  • Creative placemaking

As you probably guessed, I joined the Developing and Sustaining Authentic Partnerships with Diverse Audiences cohort.  We had the choice of working in regions or nationally. I chose to work nationally. We were a large group of 30, and so divided into two groups of 15. Once in our cohorts, we were tasked with selecting one strategy to explore further.

Here are the 7 Strategies for Effective Cohort Building:

  • Create Clear Goals and Objectives
  • Build a Shared Understanding and Commitment for Accountability
  • Establish Clear and Effective Systems of Communication
  • Share Leadership
  • Share Decision-Making
  • Establish Trust and Relationship-Building
  • Model Optimism and Positive Reinforcement

There was a lot of confusion around this exercise, but Center Theatre Group’s Joy Meads and I found a way to navigate the experience together as co-facilitators. First, we spent time getting to know everyone and took the times to explain why we chose this particular cohort. Then, we decided to explore two strategies: “Build a Shared Understanding and Commitment for Accountability” and “Establish Trust and Relationship-Building,” and divided up again. I lead the conversation around Accountability and took extensive notes. I listened intently, took voracious notes, asked clarifying questions, and reflected back these major points of inquiry from our discussion:

  • How do we develop accountability structures when situations are forever changing?
  • How do you meet participants where they are (skill, availability) and develop adjustable measures that allow you to achieve intended goal?
  • How do you shift the structure of your work to achieve deeper relationships? What if a shift in structures impacts the bottom line (fee based to no fee) of your programming or organization? How do you ensure value is maintained and programming is honored?
  • How do you help bring awareness to the impact of behavior/how behavior impacts yourself, your community, and the project/intended goal?
  • Is theatre the correct paradigm to reflect community and work to achieve social justice and change? If so, how do we translate what works? Or is theatre incongruous to culture today?
  • When wanting to present an authentic and/or accurate dramatization of culture and science, it can be beneficial to work with experts and representatives. However, what happens when partnerships are no longer mutually beneficial? How do you continue to sustain and grow the work without the support? Can you turn to the community, who has grown to appreciate the work, for support?
  • How do you develop new skills and grow programming to meet the needs of your community?

Now, I should say that had maybe an hour over the course of 2 ½ days to meet in our groups. It’s not a lot of time, but we were focused and worked diligently. I left feeling inspired and invigorated by the amazing programs and initiatives taking place across the country.

Another bright spot occurred during Thursday’s Plenary Session, “The Ethics of Engagement,” facilitated by Michael Rohd (Founding Artistic Director, Sojourn Theatre). Speakers included Martha Lavey (Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Seema Sueko (Associate Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse), Doug Borwick (CEO, ArtsEngaged), and Shay Wafer (Executive Director, 651 ARTS). There were also guest respondents and an opportunity for the larger audience to engage. The conversation was provocative, urgent, and thoughtfully raised challenging issues. You can watch the full video here.

The following questions are still resonating with me:

  • How do we do thoughtful work without recreating harm?
  • Is it worth selling tickets if you are hurting people?
  • How do you enter a community? How do you exit a community?
  • Be prepared to hear something radically different from what you expect.
  • How do you balance shifting away from work that people have come to love?
  • How do we show value and excellence in diverse work?
  • How can we continue to nurture audiences across events?
  • What are we creating for future generations? What is our legacy?
  • Do you and everyone at your organization have a shared understanding of social justice?

While I wasn’t able to focus specifically on my project, it was in the forefront of my mind as I navigated the convening. In addition to learning new facilitation methods, I deeply appreciate having the strategies for guidance. What’s more, spending time with colleagues gave me insight and perspective into the successes and challenges many theatres face when developing programming with the community. Ultimately, what moved me about this entire convening was the desire to bring people together, to tell new stories of our diverse and intersecting communities, and to make theatre lasting and relevant for generations to come.

Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.