We had our annual board retreat for Woolly Mammoth last Saturday. One of our members arranged for us to use a gigantic conference room in the offices of his law firm. One brilliant logistical idea I wanted to share – he arranged for free parking in the building garage but only if you arrived at least 15 minutes before the event was scheduled to start. Had a beneficial effect on punctuality.
The theme for the day was connectivity. Connectivity is the word Woolly is using to describe our efforts to systematically deepen engagement with our productions for everyone involved – artists, audience, staff, donors, board, residents of the condo building above our theater, passers by, etc. Our mission starts “to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community.” For about 30 years, we believed we could achieve that mission by producing the right work in the right way. Over the last couple of years, we’ve convinced ourselves that we have to do something more. We have to surround our productions with the right information and activity to prepare artists and audiences for that explosion and to shape the blast for best effect.
The tactics we’re exploring so far include identifying a particular entry point for each production then using that entry point to focus all communication and activity around the production.
The entry point is the idea about each production that seems most likely to energize both the artists and the audience. Speculation about what that entry point might be starts with the artistic director and the literary team choosing a production in the first place. They ask themselves what about this production is pushing it to the top of the list. In each of the few cases we’ve had since we started working this way, the theatre staff then works with the playwright to find out what he or she finds most exciting about the play or most wants the audience thinking about during and after a performance. More and more people are brought into the process to define, refine, and then test some candidate entry points until one is chosen.
For example, the selected entry point to our ongoing production of Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro is “Can we break the cycles that drive our fate?” That question grew out of a conversation with Luis in which he told us that the most important thing about the play to him was its role as a cautionary tale to people who feel they have no choices in life. OeR is the first production we’ve done since we defined this entry point process, but last spring we did a production of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris for which we chanced on a fabulous entry point – “Is your neighborhood Clybourne Park.” We’re not sure the entry point will always be a question. I look forward to the production for which the entry point turns out to be a sculpture, but they’ll probably be verbal most of the time.
Once an entry point is selected, all forms of communication about the production will take that entry point into consideration. That doesn’t mean the entry point is the marketing message for the production, but it means that any marketing messages will take it into account. Eventually, we will develop practices and tactics that incorporate every facet of artist and audience experience around the production and align them with the entry point. Yes, that means the entry point needs to be in the rehearsal room, perhaps to shape the production and definitely to remind the team to come tell us if the play turns out not to be about that after all.
So far, our efforts have mostly focused on using the entry point to guide 1) what particular audience segments we most want to have in the house, 2) how the lobby experience feels, and 3) what kind of pre, mid, and post show activity we want to hold for each particular production.
At this point, to many of you, this probably seems fairly fluffy; and so it seemed to most of our board members early on Saturday morning. Most of the board had heard little more about connectivity than what you’ve read above. We have found that connectivity only makes sense to most people once they’ve lived through a part of the process. That’s exactly what we had the board do in the course of the day.
Everyone had been given a script for an as yet unannounced play Woolly will do next season to read as homework for the day. We have one member who doesn’t read scripts (ruins the eventual performance experience for him), but everyone else had read it. We started with some background from the artistic director and connectivity director then a brief rousing talk by special guest Eric Booth.
Board members were then herded into four working groups to talk about the play and brainstorm ideas for activities we might want to host to surround the play. A few people initially complained that we seemed to be doing this in the wrong order. Isn’t the entry point supposed to drive activity selection? We have found with earlier exercises involving staff that getting people talking about activity, talking about things to do, tends to surface the facets of a play they find most interesting. Still with some serious skeptics, people moved into their groups and dug in. Each group filled a few sheets of paper with ideas. We then brought the whole group back together to share example ideas.
Following that exercise, we brought the playwright into the room. Two members of staff asked him a few questions about his background and about the play, then threw the floor open for questions from the board. The playwright told me later he was pleased by the substantive nature of questions people posed. We kept him talking for about an hour then, after a short break, went back to work groups to begin evolving ideas for the entry point. We thanked the playwright for his time and let him know he was welcome to get on with his day, but he elected to stay around.
In my group, people immediately had about 10 ideas for entry points. We hit a little lull then and turned back to the activity work we’d done earlier in the day. I suggested we go through the activities and use them to scare up ingredients we thought belonged in the entry point. We put about a half dozen items on that list and then flowed back into candidate creation. Finally, we got a time warning and spent our last minutes choosing the ones we liked best to share with the larger group.
Around the big table again, each group reported out its favorites and reflected on the process. People were nearly all excited and everyone got it. People who had reported themselves skeptical and resistant 6 short hours before were completely on board.
We wrapped up the day with a discussion about how board members could participate in connectivity routinely, anywhere on the spectrum from serving on a working group for each production (which would also include artists, staff members, community experts, and some volunteer audience members) down to just making sure to attend some of the activities around each production. We had scheduled the retreat to end around the same time as the Saturday matinee of OeR. Eight board members tacked another hour on to what had already been a 7 hour day to attend a post show community forum which was framed by speakers from social service organizations working with released convicts and at risk youth.
Several factors made this a great day for me and the rest of the board. It was a chance for all of us to participate in legitimately creative activity. We work together as board members and work with staff, but usually in problem solving rather than opportunity creating mode. Engaging with the material of a future play let board members show off in front of each other and admire each others’ intellects. Everybody also left the room more committed to the particular play we worked on, and with more faith in the play selection process that had brought it into the room. We do a lot of odd work at Woolly, some of which is heartbreakingly difficult to attract audience to. Getting our selves deep in to a script well before we produce it let the board experience the excitement of a project that could eventually grow up to be anything. It let us all share in what the director of OeR, Michael John Garces, has described to me as the joy of not knowing.
Woolly’s artistic director has said that one of the things he is learning as we’ve gone through these last few years of becoming more intentional about creating audience engagement is that before we can expect an audience to engage deeply with a work, the artists and staff of the company need to be deeply engaged. Our experience last Saturday let the members of the board join in that deep dive. I believe we’re already stronger for it, and that any other theatre company board would be well served going through a similar process.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.