A Thai restaurant opens on your block. Or a taqueria, or a sports bar, or a coffeehouse with nightly live music. At some point, if the signs are in a language you understand and the place has windows and the price is right, you’re likely to check it out. Now: a house of worship opens on your block. A church, or a temple, or an Islamic center. Are you ever going to go inside? To the surrounding neighborhood, does your theater company appear more like the restaurant or the house of worship?
I used to live a few doors down from an Islamic center, offering worship services and classes. They also hung a sign in their curtained window, offering copies for 10 cents each. I imagined walking through the room during a prayer service in order to make copies.
Saw an ad on a subway platform yesterday: “We Love Suits. We Love Tattoos.” The ad was for Urban Village Church. Their website carries the tagline: “Burned or Bored by Religion?”
Substitute theater for religion, and trepidation we all have from having been burned and bored in the past, and the parallels become clear. Both notions, of Church and of Theater, can be old-fashioned, being thousands of years old. Both suggest our parents’ and grandparents’ (and great-grandparents’) generations more than our own. A church and a theater company that truly want to be a 21st-century space, to be relevant, inclusive, fun, and of 2010, not 1910, face the same dilemmas, in both the execution and perception of what they offer. (I write this as someone who is not a churchgoer and who has never had to align with or rebel against a religious institution, and so study this with a certain amount of detachment.)
In my city, two churches have websites and ad campaigns that can be instructive models to their counterparts in the arts. One is the aforementioned Urban Village Church. The other is Willow Creek Chicago. (Notice what is missing from their name.) All I know about Williow Creek is what I learn from its website: that their services are an active, not passive, expereience; that they are housed in a theater (the Auditorium Theater, designed by Louis Sullivan), not a church; that they care about energy, aesthetics, and theatricality; and that they draw a full house. Both align themselves with the city of Chicago, more than a denomination.
Both websites offer testimonials from attendees. Both sites, in fact, focus almost entirely on the experience of those who take the chance to walk through the door — the audience — and their marketing campaigns do everything they can to increase the chances that a stranger will take a chance and show up.
Both theaters and houses of worship are not-for-profit institutions that offer, at particular times, a space for contemplation, socializing, community, enlightenment, sensory delight, and participation. Both address and overcome the preconceptions of what they offer. (Both have thinkers, bloggers, and twitterers separately but actively addressing similar issues.) If these venues begin hosting secular artistic events on weekend nights, will your company’s space and website compete with theirs?
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