Relax. There is no need to stress out about getting your theater to do audience engagement work. A quick scan of almost any theater across the country reveals that the overwhelming majority of us are doing this work. Therefore, your theater is probably already doing audience engagement.
Do you have actors do a post-show question and answer session? Congratulations! You are doing audience engagement.
Do you offer rush tickets? Congratulations! You are doing audience engagement.
Do you offer at least some partially subsidized tickets? Congratulations! You are doing audience engagement.
Do you talk to your audience in such a way that you build relationships with them? Congratulations! You are doing audience engagement.
The point of this field-wide dialogue about how we redefine who we talk to or how we talk to them is to strengthen our organizations. There are so many strategies that can be categorized as audience engagement, that we do not need to worry about whether or not our organizations are doing this work. Basically, we are trying to move beyond conversations limited to how we get people to see our shows or take our classes. That’s what is happening across the theater industry.
Audience engagement is really a phrase designed to frame our strategies and activities as something more than marketing efforts, more than stabs at fiscal solvency and sustainability, and that’s a good thing- would you buy a Chevy if the local car dealership’s central pitch was “we really want to stay open, so please buy a Malibu”? No, you would walk across the street to a Toyota dealership that is offering you the chance to buy eco-friendly cars or gives you free Coca-Cola while you wait for a test drive.
We want to move beyond having conversations with the same audiences in the same ways. We want to resist the commodification of our art form. We want to differentiate ourselves from the millions of other ways people can spend a couple of hours. We want our communities to view us as essential to their lives. These desires are why the theater field started to delve into questions of whom we speak to and how we speak to them.
Really ask yourself who should be in your audience. Do they own Lexuses or take school buses? Do they come in a wheelchair or walking with a cane? Do they respond to the shows you produce with polite silence or raucous joy? Do they come back again and again or is a one-time experience powerful enough to be meaningful? Do they really want to be changed by you? Can you change them?
Now ask yourself what you are currently doing to invite and inspire them. Are you including them in the process of developing new works? Are you giving them the chance to encounter your work in non-traditional venues? Are they really using your study guides or do you produce them because doing so looks good on grants? Would a membership program better meet their needs for flexibility than a subscription?
Audience engagement comes down to intentions and follow through. If your intentions are to simply sell a few more tickets, then you will probably think only about discounts and advertising. But if your intentions are to create loyal relationships with your audience members, then you will inevitably embark on a different kind of thinking. In that case, you will consider interactive displays in the lobby and ample feedback opportunities and rewards programs in partnership with other arts institutions and, and, and…
This work is all about alignment between the relationships you want to have and what it takes to have them. Your theater’s entire audience engagement plan may be no larger than having a focus group to revise the format of your post-show Q&A’s so your current audience really gets something special out of them. And that’s perfectly okay. Similar to any other personal or professional relationship, check-ins are essential for improvement. As long as you are able to define what success looks like, your strategies will fall into place, and your priorities will be clear. You might even enjoy the process. But first, relax, because you are already making work that people care about.