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Curating Your Audience

02.12.10 | 3 Comments


CATEGORIES audiences, designers, ideas

As artists, we spend an extraordinary amount of time curating the creative communities in which we create work. We constantly seek new creative partners, vet them, develop affinities, establish trust, encourage growth and then build from there.

Its a process that takes time, energy and thoughtful conversation before the relationship ever bears fruit.

Then we take all that hard fought carefully honed community and throw it on a stage in front of an audience that has all too often been enticed by nothing more than a postcard. In a coffee shop.

We worry when our audience looks too much like us- sounds too much  like us- when their cultural references are too narrow- when their theatrical experience is too broad. We crave the new audience. We crave the diverse audience. And oh, god, we crave the YOUNG audience.

We walk into our venues and count un-dyed heads of hair (unless the dye job is more manic panic than hair club for men, in which case… BONUS POINTS).

Sometimes, we walk into that darkened room and just pray for faces we don’t recognize in those chairs.

Why do we work so hard to create intimacy in the act of creation only to feel more validated by the witnessing of strangers?

Yes, there can be magic in reaching out across the footlights and connecting to an anonymous heart that has no relationship to the world in which you live and breathe. It’s a kind of frisson that’s very satisfying as an artist- PEOPLE WHO DON’T EVEN KNOW ME WERE AFFECTED BY MY WORK.

But I tend to believe that the real magic happens when a theater performance is the culmination of a successful process of curating, not only the right artistic partners, but the ideal audience for a specific work.

At PCS, we recently had a matinee audience participate in a talkback after a production of Snow Falling on Cedars. It was a stereotypical “grey hair” audience of seniors and some malcontent students “suffering” through their first live theatrical experience.  It was the least glamorous and most banal of theater audiences, demographically.

However,  it was the voices of those seniors who made it clear that on that day, an afternoon in the theater had worked its peculiar necessary magic.

Why? Well, the show was about west coast Japanese-Americans being sent to internment camps during WWII. Many of the seniors in that audience were WWII vets (or widows). Several had grown up in Oregon, lived through the internment, picked the strawberries left in the fields when the Japanese were given 10 days to pack their things and get out. And seeing this particular show was, for them, a wake up call. A healing moment and and opportunity to stand for two hours in a neighbor’s shoes… an innocent neighbor they had, as children, watched silently get boarded up and shipped off to a prison camp, without knowing what the experience meant at the time. Some of the seniors in the audience were on the other side of that divide- interned Japanese who went on to re-integrate into their old communities after the war.

The actors in the talk back remarked that they could feel the difference, performing in front of that audience. It was, they described, a richer and more satisfying experience.

Let me be clear- I’m not trying to play apologist for the lack of diversity in our theatrical forms, our theatrical artists or our audiences. I firmly believe in the transformative power of shows that pull an audience out of their own world and create meaning from a different cultural lens. A different show may have had an entirely different “magic” audience.  In fact, that’s exactly my point.

Our Snow Falling on Cedars experience reminded me that the right audience for the right show at the right time is absolutely one of the essential ingredients that take an artfully conceived, flawlessly executed show from good to GREAT.

And we are often, especially when we work at a very small scale, unneccessarily haphazard about creating the right audience for our work.

This might seem to be a problem of scale. After all, our large institutions have the luxury of staffing, budgets and etc. to go after “niche” audiences. To “build relationships” and “create partnerships” with the audience. Which is true.

And yet. On the small scale, we still hire, and consider essential, a range of designers…whether we pay them or not, they are an essential part of the creation process from the ground up.

So.

Let’s create, as an essential staff member for a production, at ANY scale, an Audience Designer. Who is given the same core role as a lighting designer or a stage manager.

Not, let’s be clear, a “marketing person” who is brought in a few weeks before opening to make a postcard and send a press release.

A core artistic staff person who participates collaboratively from the first production meeting, from the first read; and logs as many hours as the actors will. A designer who works with the director to identify,  meet and then cultivate the ideal audience for the world that is being created onstage.

Give the Audience Designer a mandate to go out into the communities and find key stakeholders (the people who do all the talking and organizing for a community). Give them the latitude to bring those advocates into the rehearsal room and involve them through social media in the creative journey. Free them to create context and make connections- to assemble the audience with the care and creativity that the scenic designer takes in the construction of the play’s visual environment.

Their role would be less of a “bullhorn” and more of a liaison. And the communication that develops would ideally go both ways- audience questions, ideas and opinions provoking and shaping the creative work, artist perspective and communication preparing the audience and deepening the experience they are going to have.

Once the idea has been implemented, you may find that you need a different Audience Designer for each production. After all, just as we accept that different sound designers bring unique stylistic and cultural  toolboxes to the table, we may find that the right Audience Designer for a given production is one that has a personal connection to the themes and communities touched by this particular show.

Under the current system, this work of curating the audience lands in the lap of the director (A director who necessarily must prioritize the problems of the production over the problems of gathering the audience) or, in larger institutions, the “marketing department” or, occasionally the “community engagement” person (who almost universally work in parallel to, and not in collaboration with, the artists at the core of the creative process).

Even more commonly, we abdicate the job of exposing our work to the right audience to THE CRITICS – that beleagured and rapidly disappearing profession – who have their own audience cultivation problems that are frequently out of sync with our own.

And so the work goes undone. Or happens at strange surface tangents to the vision of the artists creating the performance.

There’s no need for this. Transform our thinking about how we create our audience and we could find ourselves performing for an animated, activated extended family, rather than a sea or more or less glamorously diverse strangers. By concentrating and focusing our audience cultivation with the same care that we focus our artistic lens, we can increase the amplitude of the waves we generate with our work (no matter how small the venue in which the artistic stone is first dropped).

We can, to strain a metaphor, make a bigger splash.

Or we can maintain the status quo. Leaving us impotently wishing, after last call on opening night, that a review or a postcard in a coffee shop will suddenly cause those “non-theater-going” “regular” people of young/diverse/multiethnic backgrounds to discover and be transformed by our work.

We can continue to treat the design of the audience as a postscript to the production process.

But if we do we may continue to find, to our deep chagrin, that our ideal audience continues to finds our work  irrelevant to their lives…. if they find us at all.

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  • I very much agree with the spirit of your post.

    Theatre practitioners should spend more time identifying and creating meaningful relationships with our audiences.

    Really, there should be no strangers in any audience. If we’ve done our work, we should know exactly who our audience is and we should have created real relationships with most of the folks who come through our doors.

    And if we don’t know some of the people in our audience because they turned up on their own, then we should start getting to know them and creating relationships with them while they’re in our lobbies.

    The problem you rightly identify only exists I think because people who already have jobs in the theatre aren’t doing their jobs properly.

    If a theatre’s marketing person thinks his or her job begins and ends with ad buys or poster making, s/he does not understand her job properly.

    If an artistic director thinks his or her job is to pick a season that someone else sells, she doesn’t understand her job properly.

    If we really want to fix the situation, we should recognize that the artist director, the director of marketing, and the audience designer should all be the same person.

    Moreover, every person involved with the theatre and a particular show should know they also have a responsibility to identify and attract an audience.

    One final but important point: if a theatre finds itself doing theatre from show to show that is so radically different that they need to find a new and radically different audience, they should strive to become more focussed in their creative visions or strive to identify an audience that really wants to encounter something radically different each time they enter the theatre.

  • Trisha Mead

    I agree with your notion that everyone involved in the production should have some eye on potential audience…to a point.

    We don’t expect the director to understand the mechanics of great lighting design, just to know what effect she thinks she might need in a given moment and empower the designer to use their skill set to solve that problem.

    Equally, any member of a given theater company might (and probably will) have good leads about who the right audience for a show might be and where to find them. But the technical process of reaching them with the right communication at the right time is still probably best curated by one key person whose primary creative focus is on audience development. We ask our directors to wear too many hats as it is, in my view.

  • Let me make the same point in slightly different terms: customer relations management.

    The idea is simple: there should be a marketing plan and it should be reflected and reinforced every time a stakeholder interacts with any person affiliated with the company.

    You can’t sell a company as the “friendly company” if the people who take the calls are mean and rude.

    Similarly, a director can’t ignore the very audience the company is trying to attract.
    The director (and the actors and the techs) needn’t come up with the plan but he or she better understand it and be ready to act on it given the opportunity.

    Overall, I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of what you are saying: one person should have the responsibility of figuring out how to get an audience. On my view, it should be the person or persons at the very top of the pyramid (in flatter structures is should be the whole collective). Sure, they can delegate and lead but the vision must come from the top and permeate the entire company.

    We can’t design our audiences but we can attract them if we create a compelling story about what it is we do and reflect that story in everything we do.


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