By Brad Erickson
“Free Beer Fridays.” Parties every night—on stage, with the actors in costume. These were a couple of the eye-popping audience engagement techniques that kept a packed breakout room of 130 attendees of the recent National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) Conference scribbling in their electronic notepads. Holding the room on the edge of its seat were the featured speakers on the panel I was moderating: Lisa Mallette, producing artistic director of City Lights Theater Company of San Jose (also chair of TBA’s Theatre Services Committee and a Theatre Bay Area board member) and Cathleen O’Malley, director of audience engagement and media relations at the Cleveland Public Theatre.
It wasn’t just that Lisa and Cathleen are dynamic speakers (they are), or that the strategies they’ve launched at their companies are working (they are); it was more the subtle yet radical philosophical shift these two theatres have executed that so captivated the NAMP attendees. City Lights and Cleveland Public have made a decisive commitment to put audience engagement at the center of mission and strategy, and that change is remaking their audiences—and their companies.
As Cathleen, Lisa and I prepared for our session (entitled “Flipping the Audience Engagement Paradigm: Transforming your Arts Organization”), I was struck by how similar the tactics are that these two theatres have developed. Hailing from opposite sides of the country, City Lights and Cleveland Public have articulated an identical goal: to more deeply engage more people from their communities in what they view as the life-changing work on their stages. With this new measure of success, City Lights and Cleveland Public have invented analogous rafts of strategies to meet their objective.
Both theatres have realized that “audience engagement” is not an activity that can be assigned to one wing of the company: namely, the marketing department. Rather they have embraced the idea that audience engagement is the whole point and that the entire organization—from the board to the artistic director to the artists to the concessions staff (and, oh, yes, the marketers)—must be working together to broaden and deepen the impact of the art on the stage.
Second, both companies have strategically fostered relationships with community partners, enlisting their help in reaching new communities—and, crucially, recognizing the need and the benefit of returning the favor by supporting their partners in reaching their own objectives.
Both organizations understand that they are in the business of, as Cleveland Public puts it, “brokering meaningful relationships between art, artists and audiences.” Artists and audiences are strategically brought together to connect around the work. This is the point of City Lights’ after-show (that is, after every single show) parties: to offer the artists and the audience a chance to organically bond by sharing a glass of wine and diving into conversation around the work. Cleveland Public successfully lures artists not onstage back to the theatre through $10 tickets and (on Fridays) free beer, and audiences are delighted to recognize artists from previous shows sitting next to them, both groups ready to share their experience of that night’s performance—not in a formal “talk-back”—but in the buzzy lobby after the show.
City Lights and Cleveland Public are constantly inventing new ways of connecting with the people of their communities. Some of the innovations work, some fail. But the clear focus on audiences has not only increased attendance and enlarged their budgets, it has created a new sense of purpose shared by their artists, staffs and boards, and it has deepened the impact of these two theatres on their communities. And, through venues like NAMP, a strategic emphasis on engaging audiences has helped make these companies models for their peers around the country.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.