Building New Audiences
Some sixteen months ago, Su Teatro received an Audience (R)Evolution grant from TCG and thus, we set out to build organic leadership among our youngest and newest participants – youth and young adults, whose parents came to the U.S. from Mexico, and who have primarily been exposed to Su Teatro as students and artists.
Our goal was (and is) to drive a new era of authenticity – e.g. to cultivate community based engagement that is as relevant and resonant for young people as it is for our oldest and most established audience, Baby Boom Generation Chicanos. To this end, we assembled a cohort of staff members, artists and students, aged 14-25 to design marketing content and co-authorship opportunities that would inform strategies to actively involve their peers.
Overall, the project did not result in a significant increase in audience; however, it was a valuable learning process for everyone involved, and we – senior staff and people above the age of 35– probably learned the most from the process.
Su Teatro excels at forging genuine, deep and multifaceted relationships with individual audience members. One-on-one engagement is the most profound and ultimately the most effective tool in our box – and the relationships we are building with young people are marked by the same caring, mutual concern and respect that we have developed with our established audiences. We are building important and lasting relationships with young people, one individual at a time.
Clearly, though, the work of building individual relationships follows a slow, organic and often unpredictable path……we need other tools in our box. Here are a few things we learned through our project that we believe will help us to expand our toolbox and to continue to build a more inclusive, intergenerational and engaged organization.
Honor Creativity. It may seem like a no-brainer for a theater organization, but my boss, Tony Garcia refers to me as “the idea-killer,” because sometimes I am shaking my head before he even finishes his sentence. We all learned that brilliant ideas rarely drop fully formed from someone’s head on to the page. We learned to value the brainstorming process, to quell the impulse to self-censor and to be patient with process. Creativity flows through all of us and nurturing an environment that generates it is important for everyone. By being open to new ideas, and accepting that trial and error as intrinsic to the process, we achieved a much better end product.
I had to stop myself from intervening to manage an idea for a video or an outreach strategy that had time consuming written all over it. In my time at Su Teatro I have had a lot of latitude to learn on my own and everyone deserves some latitude. Encouraging flow allows the best ideas to emerge and also builds community.
Be Out in Public. Cohort and staff member Archie Villeda created an important moment for reflection for the group, when he organized an excursion to the flea market, on a Sunday, to promote the play Enrique’s Journey. Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia adapted the Pulitzer Prize winning account by journalist Sonia Nazario, of one boy’s dangerous trek from Honduras to the United States atop the train known as La Bestia.
At the Mile High Flea Market, most of the people – recent immigrants and Spanish speakers —the young artists spoke with did not know anything about Su Teatro – and some doubted that producing the story of Enrique’s Journey was a good thing. Spending time at the flea market, passing out fliers, may not have translated into new audiences for Su Teatro, but it allowed cohort members to understand their target market better and to appreciate some of the barriers that keep people from coming to the theater. At Su Teatro we know our core constituency intimately, and members of that constituency are not afraid to give us feedback, which allows us to know them even better. Developing new audiences is hard work, though, and it takes time to understand and hopefully to transcend barriers that some people might have. Underserved, audiences have barriers too, even when you are offering a story that is, at least ostensibly, about them or someone they know. Getting out of our box gave us a good reality check and impressed upon us the need to invest in more qualitative research and analysis, to move past our assumptions and to spend time outside of the theater community, talking to all kinds of people.
Listen. Adapt.Test. Start Over. We spent most of the grant period looking for the “tasty chicken” (as Tony Garcia taught us, the irresistible hook that exactly captures what our audiences want – we all use the term “tasty chicken” every day now – it has become a part of our organizational vernacular).
Sometimes we find the “tasty chicken” in spite of ourselves, like in the spring when we produced the Josefina Lopez play, Real Women Have Curves (for the second time in our history) and experienced explosive, sold out, intergenerational houses that came about with little effort.
In 2010, we moved from our small 100 seat black box theater in Denver’s historic Elyria neighborhood to a facility featuring a 250 seat proscenium theater and a 100 seat black box in the Santa Fe Arts District. In Elyria, selling 100 seats meant a sold-out house: the ultimate success. In our now not-so-new venue, selling 100 seats still leaves a cavernous gap, and what once meant success now feels like failure. Our capacity hasn’t changed much since our move and our marketing arc involves a constant commitment to testing messaging and analyzing the response (that, along with a vigorous ground game that relies on grassroots organizing).
Our cohort has embraced our constant process of getting to know our audiences better and now we all run around, developing social media posts and videos, analyzing their impact and starting over. We all talk to customers on the phone and marvel at their enthusiastic response to an email, or their confusion over some message gone awry. We can spend hours troubleshooting what worked and didn’t and delving deeper into the psyches of our evolving audiences. We are sometimes stumped when we are unable to reach an audience, and amazed at how audiences adamantly vote with their feet, as they did in the case of Real Women Have Curves. Across generations, we all revel in the process and we never give up. We all love it: the marketing conundrum, the puzzle to figure it out and of course, the success, when it happens. If we can fuse our resilience and our penchant for analysis with some elbow grease and hard labor on the ground, we might soon get to where we need to go.
Demystify. Most importantly, our Audience (R)Evolution journey was, (and is) a dialogue and an important learning opportunity for everyone involved. The project is an investment in capacity building – it has allowed us to involve young people not only in a conversation about marketing, but to expose them to the inner workings of our entire enterprise.
As a result, our cohort is well versed in organizational development, the Latino theater field, and the huge possibilities for art in the public interest. During the course of our grant, some of our cohort members were able to participate in the Latino Theater Company’s Encuentro 2014, which allowed them to travel to Los Angeles for four weeks to perform Enrique’s Journey on the LATC stage and to participate in workshops, roundtables and devising groups.
Most of our cast had never toured or been exposed to the national dimensions of the field. Each cohort member who participated in LATC Encuentro 2014 returned to Denver with a firm commitment to mentorship – a value that has always informed Su Teatro’s work. Working directly with staff, participating in the Encuentro, and getting into the belly of the beast has transformed the way cohort members see Su Teatro, the community, the field and their role in it. Our cohort members who participated in LATC Encuentro 2014 are effective mentors to the younger members of the cohort and to all of the young artists and students that participate in our programs, that is, 200-500 youth on any given day.
Toward the Future
We will continue to make every aspect of our work accessible to young audiences (and the community at large) and to emphasize the value of mentorship, reciprocity, building strong friendships and solidarity as the key to strong communities, for every generation, and across generations.
Our youth program is fairly young- a little less than 10 years old – compared to the total age of the organization – 42 years – but our ability to involve young people in meaningful ways is important to our ongoing relevance and our mission. The young people with whom we are building relationships are students in our programs, but often times, these same young people become members of our company, along with their peers, who find Su Teatro through other means (audition notices, referrals, friends, and teachers). Thus, a new generation is fueling our theatrical company as well as our audiences. It is essential that we develop the capacity of this new generation and that we actively and intentionally create the space for open dialogue that allows us to learn from them (and thus build our individual and organizational capacities).
Our city is a leading arts city, and our state has made a commitment to thriving arts districts, but still Latinos, the fastest growing population and the most significant under-18 demographic, continues to be underserved.
We think the city and state should reflect and celebrate Latino cultural heritage, not as the only option, but as an important facet of the American and Colorado story. We believe that the arts have a responsibility to be culturally responsive and relevant, and that arts equity is an important, ongoing issue that will not be adequately addressed unless people of color driven arts organizations step in to address them. In short, our target audience is comprised of young people who are the future of the city and the state and their participation in the arts, and in theater specifically, is essential (along with the participation of other nontraditional arts audiences).
We will continue to build our engagement strategies and to nurture this segment by:
- Tailoring internships and steering opportunities that allow youth to be involved in every aspect of the organization.
- Building opportunities for young people to create original work and to direct as a central component of in school and after school programs; and by continuing to create opportunities for them to perform in Main Stage productions as appropriate.
- Building opportunities for young company members to develop skills and knowledge through co-creation with veteran artists and professional development opportunities (exchanges with other organizations, trainings and national conferences).
- Developing a more intentional and systematic approach to inclusion and diversity. As we involve stakeholders in the organization in multiple ways: as board members, volunteers, committee members, donors, and content creators, we must include DREAMERs in this work, just as we include others who represent the diverse and complex face of the public we serve.
- Surveying and interviewing young people, nurturing our cohort, involving youth in the work of articulating the organization’s message, designing engagement activities and inviting their peers to be involved.
We look forward to the future, and to the process that will help us to get there.
Tanya Mote, Associate Director
Tanya has been with Su Teatro since 1997. She received her BA in Mass Communications and Spanish from the University of Denver in 1989 and holds an MA (1991) and a Ph.D (2009) in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She has served as a board member for the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) and the National Performance Network and is a track coordinator for the Allied Media Conference (Resourcing and Sustaining Our Movements). She teaches courses for DU – University College in Arts Management and Global Studies and hopes to write more for the field in 2015.
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.