Executive Director's Note: Love Triangle
Thursday, February 5, 2015
By Brad Erickson
A few weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released a new report on public participation in the arts nationwide. Some disciplines have reasons to feel good, but for theatre the NEA data shows a continuing and dispiriting decline in attendance. Individual theatre companies may point to positive trends at their own box offices (which is great), but the research for theatre as a sector is bad, and hasn’t been good for more than a decade. Certainly here in the Bay Area, with a population of seven million, we know that theatregoing is not anywhere near what it could be. What's up, and what can be done?
|Photo: "love" by Jonas Cassel on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
The NEA report, coincidentally, came out just days before a national convening on audience engagement, cohosted by Theatre Bay Area, Theatre Development Fund (TDF, which runs the TKTS booth in New York) and HowlRound, held at Emerson College in Boston. An eclectic group of 80 attendees (playwrights, artistic leaders, marketers, managers and funders) were meeting to consider and discuss the findings from Triple Play—a research initiative led by TDF and TBA. Our project seeks to better understand and nurture what we call the "triangular relationship" between audiences, artists and theatre institutions. Our goal is to increase an appetite for new work, and all theatre, by directly linking artists and audiences.
For me the spark for this project came from a remark made at the Scarcity and Abundance convening, hosted by Arena Stage in Washington, four years ago. Conferees were looking at the relationships between generative artists (e.g., playwrights and devisers) and the theatres that produce them. While artists and theatre administrators was the assigned topic, we couldn't help but think about a third irreducible element of theatre-making—the audience. Just as we arrived at the Arena, then NEA chairman Rocco Landisman set the conference off to an explosive start with his observation that the nation’s nonprofit theatre sector suffered from too many theatre companies vying for dwindling audiences and resources. There was just too much theatre in America, and some theatres—a good many in fact—needed to go. The chairman's statements ignited the audience of theatre-makers and set off a yearlong debate on "supply and demand." Tory Bailey, executive director of TDF, turned to me and asserted that the real issue wasn't too much theatre-making but too few theatregoers—a lack of demand not a surplus of supply. As service organizations focused on audience development, ratcheting up demand was our job.
Later at that convening, the head of a presenting organization said that her role in theatre-making was to "bring the audience," which seemed a beautiful concept. And then came the catalytic remark when another participant observed that, really, all theatre institutions should be acting as bridges to connect the artist and the audience, but too often, inadvertently, they acted as walls.
That observation pointed to a three-part dynamic, a "triangular relationship" between artist, audience and institution. Over the past 18 months with the Triple Play project, we have been exploring this "three-way love affair," as one Boston participant put it. We commissioned papers and new studies from renowned researchers Zannie Voss and Alan Brown. We hosted conversations around this topic in six theatre centers around the country (New York, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis, the Bay Area and Los Angeles). We reported on our evolving work at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) national conferences. We recruited playwrights as researchers, working with 10 select theatres across the country, to interview audience members on why they do (or, too often, do not) attend new plays. And in each instance we have uncovered an intense desire—among artists, administrators and audience members—to understand how to more effectively link artist, institution and the work with the audience.
Now back from Boston, we Triple Players have reams of notes—over 100 pages of transcripts—packed with ideas, some proven (like the experiment City Lights of San Jose has been trying for two years, mixing artists and audiences by throwing an onstage party after every single show), others only imagined. We have video archives from the livestreaming of the Boston convening made by HowlRound. We have the summary of research on new play audiences conducted this fall by playwrights paired with marketers, and we have the commissioned studies by Voss, Brown and Polly Carl. (Find links to these resources at howlround.com/triple-play-convening.)
What we with Triple Play need, and what we will continue to connect, is more "bright spots." More ideas, tried and untried, for igniting a passion for theatre and deepening the impact of the work onstage. Artists, what have you experienced in connecting directly with audiences? Company staff, what have you tried, or would like to try, to spark interest and forge a deeper connection with the work in your theatre? Audience members (and that is all of us), how would you like to converse directly with the artists who move you? (Many in our study say they want to talk with the playwright over drinks—maybe a great way to start.)
Join the discussion and add a bright spot to the growing constellation of next steps in the comments below!