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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2014

Executive Director's Note: January/February 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014  
Posted by: Brad Erickson
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By Brad Erickson



Risky Business: Theatre is by its nature a risky business. Any artistic director could expound upon the vast array of unknowns inherent in planning and producing a season. Every managing director could point to the razor-thin margins common to the industry and share the ulcer-making ups and downs of any given fiscal year. Actors, directors, playwrights—every theatre practitioner could share her heart-pounding moments in the theatre. Risk is part of what we do and frankly a big part of what makes theatre-making so exhilarating.

Photo: Adapted from "Penrose Triangle" by Wes Peck on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

While theatre-makers may be genetic daredevils, audiences, we suspect, are a different matter. And that suspicion prompts artists, administrators and trustees alike to pull their punches when it comes to taking on "risky" work. Theatre leaders worry that challenging plays or unconventional stagings might put off their audiences, unsettle critics and disappoint (or enrage) donors—even while many theatres yearn to be making artistic choices they fear their community might reject.

Right now, Theatre Bay Area and Theatre Development Fund (our sister service organization in New York) are convening a series of conversations in six cities around the nation, to take a deep look at what we are calling the triangular relationship between audiences, generative artists and the theatres that connect them. The project, dubbed Triple Play and generously supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, grew out of findings uncovered by "Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play," commissioned by TDF, and "Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art," commissioned by Theatre Bay Area. As the project evolves, we are seeing the need to expand the inquiry to look more deeply at how we can increase an audience’s appetite for risk.

To spur our discussions, we have asked three teams of renowned thinkers to delve into this issue and share their findings. One is an exciting first draft of a paper by Alan Brown, "Fostering an Appetite for New Work: An Exploratory Investigation of Audiences and Risk." Alan’s piece examines data from some of WolfBrown’s previously conducted research (including the intrinsic impact research we commissioned that became part of "Counting New Beans"). In his paper, Alan relates some startling findings and suggests the need for a theory of change that can act as a pathway, moving audiences from aversion to risk through a spectrum of attitudes that increasingly embrace discovery and adventure, culminating in a desire on the part of the theatregoer to engage as a cocreator in the development of theatrical work.

Our commissioned research also includes the results of a provocative new survey conducted by Zannie Voss (known to the field as the primary researcher behind Theatre Communications Group’s annual "Theatre Facts") and Jack Schwimmer. Their poll of a national cohort of theatre leaders and playwrights explores the often divergent perceptions of theatre administrators and generative artists around engaging audiences with the development and production of new work. Finally, we invited Polly Carl from ArtsEmerson and HowlRound to provide us with a subjective list of "bright spots"—theatre companies both large and small around the country who are experimenting with new and effective ways of linking artists, audiences and new work.

All along, the goal of Triple Play has been to increase the appetite among audiences around the country for new theatrical work. A new and even larger aim is coming quickly into view: to increase their desire for adventure, discovery and even cocreation. Not that audiences who prefer the tried-and-true are unable to have deeply rewarding experiences at the theatre; they can and do. But because developing in audiences not just a tolerance for risk but a love of the new (or better said, the desire to discover something new to me) will more deeply enrich our patrons, excite our theatre-makers, and enlarge and enliven the canon—from the classics to the experimental—and help ensure the future of the theatre. No small goal! But it’s one that can inspire us all to reinvest in the cornerstone relationship of artist, audience and organization.

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.