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Here, Fishy Fishy.

09.29.10 | 7 Comments


CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, marketing, storefront theatre, the process, theatrical ecosystem

At least twice a rehearsal, a potential audience member wanders in and asks what we’re doing. They ask what play this is, if they can watch us rehearse, when we’re performing, whether we need more performers, and if we ever hold open mic nights. These are people from the neighborhood who have never heard of our company. They don’t follow us on Twitter. They’re not our friend on Facebook. We’ve never sent them an e-mail blast or a season mailer; we just made ourselves visible.

Edgewater Artists in Motion space

Edgewater Artists in Motion space

We’re rehearsing at this venue for the first time: an empty storefront on temporary loan from the owner to a local artist as part of a neighborhood revitalization program run by the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. The space is used by a half-dozen other groups, including an environmental non-profit, a series of art classes for children, and CAPS (Chicago Alternate Policing Strategy). Colorful flags cover the drooping ceiling, and original artwork hung by the venue’s curator decorates the walls. The space is about the same size and shape as the storefront theater in which we’ll be performing. But there’s one important different: the windows aren’t covered.

Anyone walking by rehearsal sees not just the poster for our show, but also the actors working. Yes, they get to see our art being created. The neighborhood’s other three performance venues are nearly invisible to passers-by: one’s inside a larger building, and the other two have windows swathed in blackout curtains. Well obviously: stage lights don’t mix well with street lights. Still, at those theaters, no one walking by is going to have his eye caught by artists working live.

Rehearsing in this fishbowl has taken some adjusting. I certainly wasn’t prepared the first time someone walked in the door in the middle of a scene and asked loudly what we sold here. (“Uh… Theater?”) Let me break down the experience so far:

Joys

  • * In such a high foot traffic area (four doors down from an El stop), we get over a hundred people walking by each hour and seeing us work.
  • * Because the venue looks like a store, potential audience members feel comfortable walking in and asking questions. Also, these aren’t your typical theater patrons: not a single 65-year-old white woman has stopped by.
  • * According to the Chamber of Commerce, the conspicuous presence of an occupied arts venue brings down crime. In any case, the local beat cop seems to like us.
  • * We, the artists, get to talk to people who are interested in our work.

Challenges

  • * In such a high foot traffic area (remember the El?), we sometimes have to compete with outside noise. Glass doesn’t stop a lot of sound.
  • * There might be an interruption in the work when a visitor walks in. Usually the stage manager or ASM will greet the person and ask him to hang on until the next stopping point, when we have a minute to chat. But sometimes things don’t happen that neatly.
  • * The more open atmosphere isn’t particularly conducive to intimate moments: we’re postponing work on the sex scene until we’re in a more private rehearsal venue.

If you’re dreaming of getting more involved in the neighborhood where you make art, could you modify a part of this method to help? How would your rehearsal process change if you rehearsed in a fishbowl? How would your relationship with potential audience members change?

Margo Gray

Margo is the Artistic Director of Prologue Theatre Co. in Chicago, IL, and works around town as a freelance director.

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  • I wish DC had a similar thing going on. Thanks for sharing this case study.

    • If you’re interested in attempting this, you should talk to some neighborhood chambers of commerce. No business likes the store next to them to stand empty. If you ask, you might get your wish.

  • This is exactly how we started with Riverrun Theatre, in an honest-to-God storefront, nothing on the windows, and we had that very experience. Several folks who’d stopped in to ask what we were doing came back to see the shows. They didn’t know us from Adam or online or reputation, they just wanted to see what the show looked like when it was finished. And then they came back.

    In that space, we didn’t even cover the windows for performances. We built our own risers and effectively hid the actual performance from view, but our stage lighting lit up the street. That’s something that can have a literal halo effect on the businesses around your storefront.

    Great post and a great example. Anyone else out there have a similar venue or story?

  • Tony Adams

    I love it.

  • I love this too. Thanks Margo.

    Now have you been getting contacting info from people showing interest?

    D.

  • Wonderful idea! Vacant storefronts paradoxically don’t help neighborhoods fill them so any use is better than no use at all. This is scandalous talk in the real estate community, but it’s so true. It’s as if landlords have been taught it’s an all-or-nothing situation–get the market-rate rent or there’s no use renting. How about “renting” or donating to a non-profit for a year to see what happens to the ‘hood and therefore to the demand for rental space?

  • Keith.beck

    open door policy for rehearsal is something that should be cleared with the cast first – tried to do this a couple of times and had to deal with way too many diva moments from the actors.


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