Who It’s For, You or Someone Else

03.26.10 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, marketing, non-profit theatre, producers, storefront theatre, theatrical ecosystem, Uncategorized

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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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • OK, I'll bite. I happen to be a person of faith, and a lover of theater, so maybe I can lend something useful to the discussion. Forgive me if I go too long. I don't think the basic comparison you make is wrong. But I'm very critical of the attempts at relevance by evangelical churches.

    I grew up in these evangelical storefront churches (yes, there are storefront churches, just like there is storefront theater) that put an awful lot of effort into being stylistically accessible to young people. No hymns, plenty of free emotional expression, no dress code, etc. That seemed great, given that I already believed their theology.

    Cut to this millennium, when I've come to believe the theology of my youth was too conservative, too exclusive, and had rejected and brutally harmed a lot of people, especially LGBTQ people. It wasn't far off from Willow Creek, by the way. Lot's of, “love the sin, hate the sinner.” This means we'll welcome you with a smile, even if we have to paint it on, play some simulacra of pop/rock music, then we'll try to deliver you of whatever demons (usually figurative) make you gay or not love Jesus.

    I eventually rediscovered my faith in a “reconciling” congregation: one that believes all people are children of God, that God created and loves the incredible diversity of human identity, and that we must cherish and celebrate what God loves. This message turns out to be exceedingly relevant. Surprise! And we still have responsive readings and sometimes sing from hymnals.

    That is way too much background, sorry, to explain that the churches who constantly use the world “relevant” are usually the ones trying to overcome the irrelevance of their intolerant message of exclusivity by embracing what they perceive to be youth culture. The churches that actually are relevant are not nearly as worried about this, because their message makes them relevant.

    Theater should avoid the relevance trap. A few seem to be floundering in it. Instead, theater should tell stories that are relevant to the audiences we want to have.

  • After a Tweet from @ericzieg, I was reminded I don't know much about Urban Village. I checked the About us > Beliefs section of there website, and they do seem legitimately inclusive. Nothing on their site makes me think they take a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach. Several things make me think they do embrace a truly inclusive theology. So, to the extent that I carelessly denigrated Urban Village without knowledge, I do apologize.

    I still think that what I originally wrote applies to Willow Creek, and to a lot of churches that push the artifacts of youth culture.

  • Natalie

    This raises a couple of flags for me. My first big question is, in an effort to be relevant are these churches being authentic? Churches may craft a very sexy marketing campaign touting tattoos and indie rock worship music. But if underneath it all is the traditional doctrine and theology, then their not delivering on their fun, new brand promise.

    Case in point. Punk rock image, traditional evangelical theology http://www.marshillchurch.org/

    I look at this as bait-and-switch. The marketing says these “We're young and share your hip, young point of view.” But what is the content? Same old, same old.

    Applied to theater, this is much the same. The groovy marketing campaign may get them in the door. But unless your entire theater maintains, as central to their mission, a dedication to staying relevant, it's a broken brand promise. You can't put up posters with tattooed hipsters for the same old version of All My Sons. And attempts to be hip won't fool anyone. The young audiences you're trying to lure in can see inauthenticity coming a mile away.

  • If the word Church immediately implies either authentic traditional services and beliefs or else a sham attempt to be contemporary, part of the point of my piece is that most folks make that assumption with the word Theater as well.

    If both words connote something that their parents or grandparents drag them to, then that is part of the burden of producing theater, or church, in the 21st century. A poorly designed, uninformative website re-enforces that belief–and is depressing to see if the work that the company produces is bold, progressive, and well designed. Testimonials from your audience and photos of the space itself offer the opportunity to refute it.

  • I appreciate all these comments in more ways than one. Thanks to Google Alerts, we discovered the conversation and it's been very informative. I'm one of the pastors of Urban Village Church and much of what all of you said rings true. I particularly want to comment on Natalie's comment about authenticity. She's right. That's one word we hear over and over and we try hard in our context to be honest about who we are and what we believe so that someone isn't lured in by a catchy phrase and then walk out thinking, that's not how they advertise themselves. Of course, there are bound to be some who are disappointed by what we are and what we stand for, but we hope it's not because we pretended to be something we're not. We're a Christian church. We love Jesus. We also believe that homosexuality isn't a sin and that all are truly welcome. Sorry for sermonizing on your blog, but I did want you to know how much we appreciate the insights. And as a lover of the theater, please continue the important work you do.

  • As both a Lutheran seminarian and a theatre artist, I greatly appreciate this article. I've noticed that both main-line protestant churches and main-line regional theaters tend to be full of the same demographic, mostly wealthy, aging, and white.

    Several commentators on this article have expressed concern about both theatre and religion using flashy “relevant” appearances to deliver meaningless and excluding content. I share this concern. However, I feel that if the inherent structure of both theatre and worship change from a model where the silent masses are fed ideas by a few people on stage, to a model where there is no sharp separation between performer/audience and clergy/congregation, the content will change as well. If everyone is asked to participate, and everyone's voice is given an opportunity to be heard, the conversation will necessarily relate to the needs and experiences of those present.

    Not only do I feel this can rejuvenate theatre and religion, but I feel it is the type of community for which Christ calls, one where all people are not only welcome, but supported and encouraged to add their own unique contribution for the good of all.

  • Eric, based on the comments, I think the title of this blog entry is even more fitting than you might have imagined! But given the importance of a communal experience in theater, I am really pleased to hear from several people focused on communion of a slightly different type.

    I hope I'm not presuming too much to recommend the book Take This Bread by Sara Miles to everybody following this discussion, and anybody interested in living out a vision for truly inclusive community. The book is about doing this in church, and literally feeding people. But there are certainly some lessons in there that theaters could take seriously.