Arts and Humanities
4:48 pm
Thu March 28, 2013

Put a Ring On It: On Meaningful Audience Engagement

I realized something during a recent conversation about social media use during live arts performances, the so-called Tweet Seats debate: what people crave isn't the soft distraction of their phone screens, not really. What they crave is the opportunity to lead and shape the conversation themselves. They feel more engaged with what's happening on stage -- not less -- when they are invited to talk about it as it's happening, not only during the designated post-show "talk back." So what if during the performance wasn't their first opportunity? 

Last year, Seattle Opera executive director Kelly Tweeddale reflected on meaningful audience engagement for Arts Journal. This stood out:  

There was an interesting body of research done by the Pew Research Center that made the differentiation that the Millennial (18-29 year olds) generation may be the most connected of all generations, but they are also the most isolated as it relates to deep, meaningful relationships and experiences. With that said, when asked what defines their particular generation apart from others, the top spot goes to (no surprise) technology, but the second spot is reserved for music and pop culture. That should be incredibly meaningful to the arts sector if it could just find a way to be perceived as “pop culture.” And I think that is where the arts need to follow.

Credit Credit Håkan Dahlström/Creative Commons

"Deep, meaningful relationships and experiences. " Isn't that the holy grail for any arts institution, to be able to say the community has formed a deep, meaningful relationship with the organization, and consequently has deep, meaningful experiences inside their walls? It's not really about hashtags and @-replies. It's about cultivating an atmosphere in which audiences feel as much ownership of the work as (outdated reference, but it works) Deadheads feel for the music. 

At Rochester's Geva Theatre Center, a recent experiment offered that backstage pass to twenty interested residents. As part of The Cohort Club, they were invited to become intimately engaged with the production of Karen Zacarias' "The Book Club Play." Director and artist at large Sean Daniels (formerly of Actors Theatre ), explains the guiding principles behind The Cohort Club  on the Geva blog:

1. Education breeds excitement. 

2. People wanna see how the sausage is made. 

3. If you want people to come see your shows, you need to speak their language, or teach them yours.

4. "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." --Chinese proverb.

Here is the Cohort Club plan: 

The Plan: to identify a group of twenty Rochesterians from varied ages, races, and socio-economic standings and give them unprecedented access to the creative process. And we did just that: we made the Cohort Club. And we made it look like Rochester.

Participants were welcome at all rehearsals, technical rehearsals, previews, opening, and they received rehearsal and show reports daily. Following rehearsals, we’d sometimes go for coffee and adult beverages together, so folks could chat with me, the director, as well as the playwright and actors to gain a deeper level of understanding of the play and the production.

In exchange, participants agreed to read the script in advance of the project, attend a pre-rehearsal event at the theater to talk about the process, journal about their experience in whatever medium they find the most exciting (pen and paper, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and make these notes available to the Geva staff.

According to Daniels, it worked: 

After four weeks of attending rehearsals and tech, the Cohorts called the show theirs—they talked about how nervous they were for their show to open, they brought friends to opening, they baked for the cast, they now obsessively check show reports as they came out—millions of dollars of marketing can’t buy this kind of ownership of our artistic product, and fluency in talking to their communities about it.

"Ownership of our artistic product" is a radical statement. It's opening the door wide and asking for outside input as the show is being built. Notice that they didn't only ask the Cohorts to help them publicize the show. It's not about guerilla marketing. They asked that the Cohorts make their notes available to the Geva staff -- not just after the show opened, but during rehearsals. 

Geva's going to grow the program and see what happens. It's one initiative, and there's no silver bullet -- true community engagement means working on many levels, from the high-profile donors down to the preschool set, with many strategies and hopeful outcomes in play at once. 

Most arts organizations offer meaningful experiences outside of regular programming -- "meet the artists" cocktail hours, educational lectures to accompany shows. My favorite melding of behind-the-scenes and performance is the Louisville Ballet's annual Choreographer's Showcase, because it's staged inside the company's rehearsal hall.

But often, immersive behind-the-scenes access is reserved for (necessary, important) higher-level donors. Or it's part of (necessary, important) educational outreach for K-12 students, like the partnership Broadway in Louisville has with the Louisville Visual Art Association, in which Fern Creek High School student artists created a 3-D installation on music to exhibit at the Kentucky Center alongside the touring production of "Memphis." Is there a way to move beyond social media and "extra credit" lectures and panel events to create those deep and meaningful experiences for the average patron? 

Because how exciting is it that Daniels writes he "couldn't predict that the idea of education breeds excitement would be so true"? 

The Cohorts suddenly wanted to learn more and more. Where is the costume shop, can we talk to the stitcher? Your sets are hand painted? Can we talk to the painter? What is the Equity book we all curse?  And so on and so on. After opening, they commented on how they didn’t realize how many local artists it takes to pull off regional theater. Their appetite only grew as we offered more access to what we do. 

Earlier this year, Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble invited me into their creation process for their original show, "No Punchbacks." I followed the development of that show from early rehearsals to opening night, and it's true, I felt more attached to that show simply because I had been in the room. And because I was able to ask questions: what's different about acting in a mask? What's funny to you about stage fight? 

All curious people have questions. How does a curating team put together an art exhibit? What does the first rehearsal for a new ballet look like? How are soloists selected from a choir? Imagine a community in which as many of your friends are involved in a Cohort Club of some kind as they are in book clubs or fantasy sports leagues. What would a Louisville arts scene that had that level of engagement look like, where curious patrons were invited to share in the making of the sausage and to tell the world what they see? 

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